I used to like vampires. Really. Anne Rice tried to ruin them, but I only read one or two of her books, before Teh Crazy really set in. Vampire: The Masquerade was actually pretty cool, too, before it collapsed under the weight of its own tragic hipness. Vampires are resilient, immortal beings, undead survivors of the first order. But alas, even they were no match for Stephanie Meyer, and the vampire genre is now ruined for at least a generation. I can only console myself with an occasional reread of Salem's Lot to remind myself that they used to actually be scary bloodsucking monsters, not sparkly pale penises.
So I read with dread and trepidation that the YA market is now setting its sights on angels.
Before that happens, you could do worse than Angelology, by Danielle Trussoni. (Which is not a YA novel, btw.) You could also do better, but at least her angels are, you know, Biblical. Well, kind of.
See, despite being a godless heathen who believes in angels about as much as I believe in the Easter Bunny, I really dig Biblical mythology. Gimme that old time religion, with fire and brimstone and genocides and rains of blood and frogs and demons and, of course, angels. Not the sparkly Victorian cherubs*, but the scary motherfuckers that slaughtered all of Egypt's first-born and scared the shit out of Mary. She and the shepherds knew that when angels show up, it's usually not to sing carols, it's to lay down some smack of Biblical proportions, yo.
Now, the thing about angelic lore is that most of it didn't actually come from the Bible, it was invented by medieval theologians. But Trussoni goes to the source -- Genesis 6:4:
There were giants in the earth in those days; and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare children to them, the same became mighty men which were of old, men of renown.
From this, and the apocryphal Book of Enoch came the myths about the Grigori, a band of angels who were the first felonious babysitters caught diddling their charges. The children of the Grigori were the monstrous Nephilim, and at this point, you can verify for yourself that at least Trussoni did her homework.
I've seen Angelology compared to a Dan Brown novel. This is not an entirely fair comparison. Yes, it's a similar sort of story: conspiracy-thriller loosely involving the Catholic Church, with puzzles to figure out, ancient artifacts hidden in plain sight, and so on, but unlike Dan Brown, Trussoni is a good writer and has done her research. (Also, if you're worried about that kind of thing, the RCC is treated in a fairly benign fashion in this book; in fact, a group of very brave and pious nuns have a prominent role.)
That said, Angelology suffers from the "Literary Author Does Genre Fiction" Syndrome: it reeks of an author who thought of this awesome new idea for a book: "What if.... these ancient supernatural beings that everyone thinks are just a myth were actually real!? And an ordinary person stumbles upon them! And learns that there's this secret society that's been fighting a hidden war with them throughout history!" So, Trussoni plunges into this concept with great enthusiasm and no apparent awareness that some of her readers might have read, oh, anything published in the urban fantasy genre in the last ten years.
In some respects, her approach is fresh. The main protagonists are a nerdy art historian and a nun. Yes, there is romantic tension, but it's not Angsty!Hawt!Sexy! romantic tension. Trussoni writes some lovely prose, the kind you usually see in one of them high-falutin' literary-style novels, rather than in contemporary fantasy. She has a marvelous eye for detail (sometimes a little too much detail: there is a great deal of attention paid to cars, clothes, jewelry, furniture, art... escritoires and Hermès ties and Porsche 356s, etc.), and her New York and Paris settings are absolutely vivid and true to life.
However, she has no eye for dialog. Here is an excerpt in which an elderly nun is describing something that happened fifty years ago:
"From the choir loft, I could see everything very clearly. The creatures stepped from the shadows into the brilliant light of the nave. The stained-glass windows were sparkling with sunlight, as they usually are at midday, and patches of color scattered across the marble floor, creating a diaphanous glow on their pale skin as they walked. Mother Innocenta took a sharp breath upon seeing them."
"A diaphanous glow"? Really? Who talks like that, especially when describing a traumatic event that happened fifty years ago?
Answer: everyone, in this book. There is lots of exposition in which various characters go on for pages and pages talking about long-ago events, and they all talk just like that. The second part of the book, in fact, is an abrupt shift to a first-person narrative from one of the secondary characters, and she's not actually telling it to any of the other characters; it's just a long infodump for the benefit of the reader.
Also, the first three-fourths of the book is a lot of not much happening -- lovely expository detail and a few random acts of violence (plus the aforementioned digression to a pre-World War II flashback), but Trussoni takes her sweet time bringing on the angelic smackdown. And some of the action sequences had me seriously going, "Uhn? I don't think so." It will look great on the big screen (I believe the book has already been optioned), but one of my pet peeves in a story is when either the good guys or the bad guys just stand there holding their dicks (so to speak) while the other guys are Doing Stuff, giving them just enough time to Do Stuff before they react. Conversely, the number of times an old man or an elderly nun manages to do something with a "sudden burst of strength" that would be worthy of an action hero is also more cinematic than literary.
Overall verdict: If you actually like Dan Brown novels, this is much better. If you actually like Twilight, this is much, much, ever-so-fucking-much better. If you like stories about angels and secret conspiracies and bad-ass nuns and the like, then you will probably enjoy Angelology. But if you're looking for serious urban fantasy or a rollicking adventure, this book will probably make your eyes glaze over.
* Yes, I know the proper plural is "cherubim." Bite me, Latin is dead.
Also: if you are a serious angelology geek, or you want to write about angels and demons, you can't do better than Gustav Davidson's Dictionary of Angels as a reference.
And for you game geeks, an obligatory shout-out to In Nomine by Steve Jackson Games.