Shinn has this problem where occasionally she doesn’t seem to buy her own romances. Summers at Castle Auburn was like that. There’s not really anything there to indicate that the heroine and the hero are in love. The book worked because of the heroine’s relationships with other characters, which were much more compelling. The romance existed independently of the plot – everything would have played out pretty much the same way if the hero and heroine hadn’t known each other. There’s no real reason for the romance to be there, but because it doesn’t clog up the workings of the plot, it doesn’t hurt anything.
Jovah’s Angel, unfortunately, has a clog in its system.
The book is the second in Shinn’s Samaria series, which can be categorized as Sci-Fi Where There’s Magic That Is Actually Bad Science (as opposed to Magic That Is Actually Believable Science, like I can’t say the title of this series because it’s actually a spoiler ack). Genetically engineered angels rule the planet Samaria, a human colony that has forgotten the advanced technology that brought them there, and is just on the verge of an industrial revolution. The world is inhospitable due to extreme weather, so the angels were created to keep the weather in check, which they do by singing weather-related “prayers” to the god Jovah – who is obviously an AI.
But something has gone wrong, and the only angel whose voice Jovah still hears is shy, insecure Alleya. When the previous archangel, the brilliant and charismatic Delilah, loses the use of her wings in an accident, Alleya is forced to step into her shoes. She must work together with Caleb, the world’s most brilliant engineer and an atheist, to solve the problem, while searching for the husband Jovah has chosen for her. Meanwhile, Caleb’s best friend Noah, another engineer, has become obsessed with the idea of repairing the despairing Delilah’s wings.
Cut for spoilers.
Obviously Alleya and Caleb are going to fall in love. But there’s kind of no reason we should care? They’re both very bland, nice people, and they both live in societies with no obvious reasons to take issue with the match. There isn’t even any pressure on Alleya to be faithful to her destined husband. There’s no reason they can’t just get together and be done with it. But they keep up the “we live in different worlds” thing for most of the book.
The scenes between them are awkward and unconvinced of themselves. They have awkward dates where she says stuff like, “Well! This has been delightful!”, and their first kiss is told in retrospect several days after it happened. Yeah, that’s how you convince me of your passionate affair – describe it in the past perfect tense while on a business trip.
A book about Delilah’s destructive relationship with Noah would have been much more interesting, but it’s hard to imagine Shinn writing one. Dominant heroines seem to be outside of her comfort zone. (Castle Auburn had this problem, too, in that the fairy queen’s ugly, bitter romance/war with a man who hunted and enslaved fairies was much more interesting than the heroine’s, but it was very clear Shinn wasn’t up to giving it a whole book. She likes people to be nice most of the time.)
The most compelling parts of the book are the ones in which Alleya wrestles with her faith in the face of her growing understanding of what Jovah really is. This is a theme Shinn returns to a lot, and it obviously has a lot of power for her. But the answers Alleya comes to here are a little bit problematic: the requirements of the series make it necessary that her spiritual revelation involve lying to the rest of the world about the spaceships. I try to avoid spiritual revelations that autocratic.
There are the same sorts of race problems as there were in Archangel. The cheerful, simple-minded psuedo-Romani/Jews are all getting on a boat to travel to a new continent no one is sure exists, because their way of life is being destroyed, and everyone thinks they’re all going to die. It never occurs to Alleya and Delilah – who, you know, rule the world – that the problem might be solvable. Members of an ethnic minority being driven out of their homes is treated as the inevitable result of technological progress, not as a social issue.
There’s also a scene where Alleya engages in some really unpleasant Islamophobic musings, on the theme of how, seeing how badly the pseudo-Muslim society treats women and children, she understands perfectly why Jovah seems to have forsaken humanity.
Also, this seems to be something that I’m unusually sensitive about, but it’s very difficult for me to buy either Alleya or Delilah or as leaders of the world. Alleya is basically a shoujo heroine of the Clumsy genus: she’s less a leader than she is a mascot. We’re frequently told that Delilah is a brilliant diplomat, but what we see of her is a narcissistic person too wrapped up in her personal problems to see the world around her. I’m not sure why some Shinn political figures make me roll my eyes and some don’t. Jovieve from Wrapt in Crystal struck me as a fairly plausible leader, if not as competent of one as Shinn seemed to think she was, Gabriel from Archangel I bought as the charismatic jackass type*, and we saw little enough of the political leaders in Summers at Castle Auburn that you can ignore how shallow some of them act when they’re around. But Alleya and Delilah don’t work at all. It would be okay if this were more of a straight romance novel, but Shinn treats the politics in the books as important, and Alleya and Delilah can’t hold them up.
And the science is pretty silly. It’s distracting.
Things I liked: Alleya’s unabashed admiration for Delilah and Delilah’s alternating resentment of Alleya and protectiveness of her when she sees her in social situations she can’t handle. The fact that Alleya never has to be humbled for being a woman in a position of power, that she figures out was to use her ineptitude and shyness as a weapon against her political enemies, and that she saves the world with magical linguistic powers. That Caleb is not an obnoxious alpha male. (Okay, maybe that’s only a bonus if you’ve recently OD’d on Nalini Singh.)
If you like Shinn’s cute, non-alpha male romances and her emphasis on female relationships, you can probably read this safely, but it’s really, really not one of her stronger books.
* Again, I don’t think Shinn saw it that way. But what the hell are we supposed to make of a monarch who knows his city’s overrun with starving orphans, and knows that there are projects working on the problem that desperately need funding, but doesn’t feel any urgency to, you know, fund them until he realizes his girlfriend might like that?