Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Book Review: Annihilation

Although this book has strong religious elements which makes it appropriate to suggest for Easter reading, it most assuredly has excellent writing first and foremost, telling a compelling story that engaged my interest the entire time. I read it in three days.

Without wanting to, for the hundred-and-eighth time, Mephistopheles relived the scene. Their Guard, unbreeched. The way the Cherub had screamed for God. Camael's energy drilling into Gabriel. The Cherub unable to move, unable even to cry out by the end as they disconnected one piece from the next from the next from the next. That flash of raw light as Lucifer finished.

Mephistopheles sat on the floor and closed his eyes.

I made that possible.

Remiel insane. Angels not singing. Raphael crippled.

I did that.

A great victory. Everyone said so. A crowd of revelers chanted so. Even the minions of Heaven seemed to think so. Victory.

Mephistopheles' eyes flew open.
Jane Lebak gives us a fantasy novel with an interesting premise. What would happen if Satan, in his unending battle to overcome Heaven, discovers how to kill an angel? This raises not only the question of whether God would allow such an action, but of how the Heavenly host would react, and what long-term ramifications would result.

Satan's angels kidnap Gabriel to test their newfound annihilation discovery. The Heavenly angels storm to the rescue but cannot break through Hell's defenses. It would seem that Gabriel has been destroyed. However, things are not what they seem, as one might expect. The story proceeds with strategizing, rescue efforts, battles, and, less typical of an action novel, personal encounters with God. Intertwined are the personal struggles of the angels to do the right thing. One Heavenly angel goes insane. Will she condemn herself to Hell? An angel from Hell is overcome with regret. Will he turn to God and repent?

This story operates on several levels beyond the action. We are reminded forcibly that Hell also is populated by an angelic host, albeit one that is creatively directed toward destruction fueled by their resentment against God's supremacy. Although visits to earth are sometimes included, most of the story takes place in Heaven and Hell, showing us the angels as they interact during this emergency. Naturally, this also includes the Heavenly host's interactions with the persons of the Trinity.

As with the human condition, God will not interfere directly but leaves the angels to their calling in resolving the situation. The Heavenly host can hear God's answer to their prayers clearly, yet this does not mean that His answer to prayer is any less cryptic than the answers we may feel we sometimes receive. A favorite interchange of the novel for me illustrating this point is when Gabriel is under attack.
A moment later, Raphael's urgent voice: God says "Remember your strength."

Gabriel shored up Israfel, slipped out of Satan's hold again, and then had to brace Israfel once more.

Quit being cryptic, he prayed. I've got a lot going on here.
This book is quite satisfying as a straight action novel, however a thoughtful reader will find much to ponder.

Lebak follows Catholic theology for how angelic classifications but then goes on to her own imaginings of the need for angels to be bonded with others in a match that is complementary to each one's nature. This opens the story to considerations of friendship, with all the benefits and abuses that can result therein. This becomes especially telling when one sees that the demonic angels necessarily also bond with each other. Satan cannot stand and it drives him to distraction as an inherent weakness of angelic nature. Even in Hell, he is set apart because he denies his nature in a way that the other angels do not or cannot. This plot point leads to the consideration of evil as the denial of one's true nature.

Heavenly angels are so close to God that they hear his voice clearly in their hearts. They see Jesus face to face and walk with him as he gives friendship, support, and guidance. The Holy Spirit is almost tangible for them. This leads us to consider our own relationships with the Trinity. On a personal note, I took some of these images into my own prayer life and it has been a very helpful reminder about God's nature.

The weakest point of the book is Lebak's handling of Mary, Mother of God, as a character. In a depiction as the perfect disciple, Mary is a quiet figure constantly in the background. Her suggestions are always followed up on by the angels without comment and those suggestions often are given with the comment "Jesus instructed." Mary shows her support for the Heavenly angels by baking and making hot beverages. The angels must incorporate real bodies to consume these treats which they protest but then do to humor her. A bit of this makes the point about discipleship but Lebak carries it on to the point that by the time Mary shows up somewhere with banana bread and hot chocolate it struck me as almost a running joke. It may not strike others this way, however, a little went a very long way.

I will not call this Christian fiction as it stands well as a fantasy novel. That said, anyone who does not subscribe in some form to basic concepts of God and Heaven, necessarily is going to find this heavy going because of the subject matter. Although Lebak is Catholic, those who are not Catholic will find that her writing, as one person asked me, "Is it not overwhelmingly Catholic but still sort of Catholic?" Lebak is informed by Catholic theology, as mentioned above with the angelic classifications, but it is not anything that should intrude on any Christian's enjoyment of this book. For example, although Peter very briefly appears twice in the book, I defy anyone not to thoroughly relish his last line.

Highly recommended.

For those who would like to sample the book, the first few chapters can be found online.

Cross posted at Happy Catholic.


Anonymous said...

I'm not sure I'd say it's heavy going for a non-Christian. I'm a Jewish reader and I totally loved it. As you said, it's great fantasy fare. The characters are solid, the story is relentless in its pull to the end. I couldn't put it down.

Julie D. said...

Good point, Ivy. I was thinking of specific people I know who would not like the incorporation of God and am now realizing that non-Christian is not the right descriptor. I will revise that. Thanks!