Monday, April 26, 2010

[Review] 'Angel of Death' by J. Robert King

Title: Angel of Death
Editor: J. Robert King
Pages: 286
Genre: Horror / Dark Fiction
Series/Standalone: Stand-alone with a sequel planned
Publisher: Angry Robot Books

The angel of death in Chicago oversees all people in the megalopolis, making sure their deaths fit their lives. Though most deaths naturally do, those that result from serial murder do not, so the angel spends much time trailing a serial killer in his patch.

On the trail of one such man, he encounters a cop and falls in love with her. When he is assigned to kill her, though, he has to make a choice between divinity and humanity.

An astounding new story from the critically-acclaimed J Robert King.


I am at a loss of words recently, when it comes to reviews, so writing this one has been an exceptionally challenging task. I suspected “Angel of Death” would be brilliant, because after all we are talking about Angry Robot Books, but “Angel of Death” rocketed pas preconceived expectations and made the reading experience hard to express with words.

As I said, I am at a loss of words. “Angel of Death” is the book you hold, no clutch, until your eyes smart, you can’t really focus on the words and you are not sure whether you are making any progress, because it’s way past your bedtime, but it’s too good to put the book down. It’s the fever that gets you slowly, the first pages spreading the infection. Then you begin to sweat as the suspense solidifies the breath in your lungs. You shiver as the good parts creep in, a bit too macabre, a bit too monstrous, a bit like watching something you morally shouldn’t be, but you are and, guess what, you love it, because it’s crass, forbidden and perverted. And because it is safe to. After all, this is fiction.

“Angel of Death” is that type of book. It’s not exactly horror it’s not exactly urban fantasy. It’s not concreted or defined, but it’s powerful. It has presence, much like “Slights” by Kaaron Warren. It possesses the same genre ambiguity, but delivers a chilling story with a narrator monster, which is far from us, the readers, but entrances us nevertheless.

Sure, I can talk book specifics about “Angel of Death”. The plot can be best described as an episode of Criminal Minds meets Hannibal Lector. The reader observes Samael, Angel of Death, assigned to the Chicago-Milwaukee area. He governs over accidental deaths as well as over the murders of the serial killers, working on his turf. Death here is pretty much a given. There are graphic details, but they read like grim poetry most of the time. Samael arranges the deaths, according to how the victims have lived their life. They are fitting and deserved. With a hidden meaning, only Samael understands.

Samael’s though process is fascinating to read, because it is alien, but also because it is as close to realistic as it can come. Looked from an angle, Samael is God’ serial killer and as the angel travels around Keith McFarland, the real world serial killer, the reader can see the parallel between the two characters.

What I further enjoyed in “Angel of Death” is the wide range between POV use. For Samael, King uses first person point of view. When the focus came on Keith, the POV switches to an ominous second person. Later when Detective Donna Leland becomes of importance, her chapters are written in third person point of view. This adds flavor and was not at all confusing for me, although it could very easily be.

Speaking of Donna Leland, she is the central to the story as much as Samael is. She turned the angel human, then the human into a monster. She is a small town cop, recently promoted to detective. She is alone, doesn’t feel pretty, but is overworked. She wants to do good, do the right thing and instantly becomes someone to relate to, because the instinct to help others is incredibly strong within her.

I give King high praise for the romantic plotline, which never entered the saccharine or the too-steamy-to-be-real territory. There are no candy kisses or spicy dialogue. No, you read about two people, who are in love. Two people, who shouldn’t be in love, because one is not human and for once, this theme of the forbidden inter-species love [because Donna & Samael’s relationship cannot be called romance] works.

Here I will stop. Of course, there is much, much more. Christian mythology. The fall from the divine to the demonic. Damnation. Salvation through murder. The quality of writing and storytelling, where you could only guess which is real and which is the delusion.

Grade: [A+] A must-read. Preferably late at night and with the right music font. Ingenious, daring and an uncomfortable journey through the psyche of a monster, which is also divine.

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