Today is my stop on the Angel Mage blog tour and I’m excited to be sharing my review of Garth Nix’s new novel.
More than a century has passed since Liliath crept into the empty sarcophagus of Saint Marguerite, fleeing the Fall of Ystara. But she emerges from her magical sleep still beautiful, looking no more than nineteen, and once again renews her single-minded quest to be united with her lover, Palleniel, the archangel of Ystara.
A seemingly impossible quest, but Liliath is one of the greatest practitioners of angelic magic to have ever lived, summoning angels and forcing them to do her bidding.
Liliath knew that most of the inhabitants of Ystara died from the Ash Blood plague or were transformed into beastlings, and she herself led the survivors who fled into neighboring Sarance. Now she learns that angels shun the Ystaran’s descendants. If they are touched by angelic magic, their blood will turn to ash. They are known as Refusers, and can only live the most lowly lives.
But Liliath cares nothing for the descendants of her people, save how they can serve her. It is four young Sarancians who hold her interest: Simeon, a studious doctor-in-training; Henri, a dedicated fortune hunter; Agnez, an adventurous musketeer cadet; and Dorotea, an icon-maker and scholar of angelic magic. They are the key to her quest.
The four feel a strange kinship from the moment they meet, but do not know why, or suspect their importance. All become pawns in Liliath’s grand scheme to fulfill her destiny and be united with the love of her life. No matter the cost to everyone else.
Thanks to Gollancz for providing me with a free copy of the book in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book.
I thoroughly enjoyed Sabriel when I read it a few years back because the world building and action scenes were very immersive. So when I heard that Garth Nix had a new adult fantasy book coming out, it shot to the top of my TBR.
And for good reason.
This book is rich in magic, action, and angelic intervention. The world-building is brilliantly conceptualised and the characters are diverse and captivating.
One of my favourite elements of this novel was the inspiration that Nix draws from The Three Musketeers. The world of the novel is built around the Cardinal, Queen, and Musketeers’ garrison, with French influence in the naming of characters and places.
Aside from the mention of a ‘musketeer’ in the synopsis, I didn’t know that Angel Mage drew on The Three Musketeers until I opened the book and read the acknowledgements.
But once I started reading, I was thrilled so see the connections between the world of the Musketeers and this book. And they’re done so well.
A few familiar names from Dumas’s iconic novel make an appearance, which is a delightful addition for those who loved The Three Musketeers and its many adaptations. The original sword-clashing, action-packed, politically tense story is reborn with angels, demons, and magic aplenty.
The weapons, political set up, and humorous scenes all mirror Dumas’s novel, but the characters and angelic magic are all Nix’s own.
The magic system is different to any other fantasy I’ve read in a long while and I really enjoyed its idiosyncrasies.
Angels can be summoned using an ‘icon’, which is usually a small figure or token. Mages can summon angels, but they can only do so if they’ve formed a close and strong connection to them. But summoning an angel requires a cost, which is usually youth/life force. As a result, angelic magic users end up looking much older than they actually are (you’re 40 but you look 60, basically).
The stronger an angel, the more life force required to summon and use it. Liliath is the only person able to summon many powerful angels without paying any cost. Making her pretty heckin’ dangerous.
What really struck me about this novel is how female-driven it is. The cardinal is a woman, Rochefort is a woman, and the leader of the Queen’s Musketeers is a woman. See a pattern emerging?
Every character in a position of power is a woman. The Queen rules the Kingdom, and the social hierarchy below her is women-led. Men are by no means sidelined, but they don’t command the same levels of power as they do in many other adult fantasy novels. And I loved that.
Garth Nix does a brilliant job of flipping the traditional gender roles of the Musketeers on its head, with both men and women in the regiment. The one thing that doesn’t change is that we have a woman as the villain.
And Liliath is clever, calculating, and unflinching in her quest to reunite with Palleniel. She manipulates people for her own gains and is completely assured (to the point of arrogance) in her own power). Humans are tools to use for her work and she comes up against little resistance until she meets the four heroes of the story.
Simeon is a skilled doctor training at the city’s hospital until he stumbles upon a monster that attacks him and his mentor. He has a keen sense of justice and doesn’t like to see people punished unduly (including himself).
Dorotea is whimsical in nature and never seems troubled by what life throws at her. She can create icons by simply drawing them and can see the form of Angels, but keeps that quiet for as long as possible, since it’s no ordinary skill.
Henri is a clerk from a poor family, just trying to make a living and move up the career ladder (we feel you Henri). He’s doesn’t like confrontation and is prone to nerves in front of authority, but is determined to do the best he can in any task.
Agnez is perhaps my favourite character. Fiery and hot-headed, she shares Henri’s ambition to move up the ranks. Her jokes made for some of the more humorous dialogue in the story, and we can see glimmers of a young d’Artagnan in her personality.
Simeon, Dorotea, Henri, and Agnez are thrown together when they all end up at the Tower and quickly realise their share a connection. The four feel as if they’ve met before and bond quickly as they discover why. I loved their interactions and the way they became something of a found family as the novel progressed.
Pacing and plot
I’ve seen other reviews state that Part I of the novel is fairly slow paced. And I’d agree. But the pacing is purposeful. Nix intentionally draws us in slowly, offering pieces of world-building and new characters chapter by chapter, rather than hurling it all at us at once.
Scenes prioritising character development are naturally slower than action scenes, so it makes sense for Part I to unfold at a more sedate pace. I’m have a lot of patience for slower scenes, if the character development is done well, so I had no problems with Part I coming together gradually.
But I can see why some readers might find it too leisurely. So if you prefer an action-driven book, then Part II onwards is for you. The main characters ad world are established, leaving free reign for the plot to take over. And take over it really does.
This book is a great new addition to adult fantasy shelves. It’s feminist, funny, and full of action. The political and magical systems are complex enough to satisfy those who like their world-building dense and rich (think The Priory of the Orange Tree) and the action scenes keep us riveted. If you’re a fan of anything Musketeers-related, you definitely want to pick up Angel Mage.
Don’t forget to check out the rest of part one of the blog tour and part two, coming soon!
Garth Nix has been a full-time writer since 2001, but has also worked as a literary agent, marketing consultant, book editor, book publicist, book sales representative, bookseller, and as a part-time soldier in the Australian Army Reserve.
Garth’s books include the Old Kingdom fantasy series, comprising Sabriel, Lirael; Abhorsen; Clariel and Goldenhand; SF novels Shade’s Children and A Confusion of Princes; and a Regency romance with magic, Newt’s Emerald. His novels for children include The Ragwitch; the six books of The Seventh Tower sequence; The Keys to the Kingdom series and others.
More than five million copies of his books have been sold around the world, they have appeared on the bestseller lists of The New York Times, Publishers Weekly and USA Today and his work has been translated into 42 languages.