Disclaimer: This is a review of an Advanced Reader’s Copy of the book that I obtained from an ALA conference. The final version of the book will be published on August 28, 2012.
Verdict: Angelfall blends well-worn elements from a slew of recently popular books, such as: a badass teenage girl who becomes a heroine in order to protect her weak younger sister and psychologically damaged mother (Hunger Games); a trek through an apocalyptic urban hellscape (The Road, The Walking Dead series, and The Passage, to name just three); an antagonistic partnership with sexual tension between a human and an angel (Hush, Hush, Daughter of Smoke and Bone, Fallen and a bajillion others). The blending is successful, and even if the story is not wholly unique, it is a great read and is the first book in what is sure to be a successful trilogy. I wouldn’t be surprised if the movie rights get snapped up, either. Bonus points to the author for initially self-publishing with Amazon, gaining a following, and getting picked up by Marshall Cavendish publishers. You go, Susan Ee!
Perfect for: People who like any of the books listed above. You know who you are.
Summary: The story is set in Silicon Valley and San Francisco a few months after bands of avenging angels have destroyed cities around the world and continue to hunt down surviving humans, which they refer to as “monkeys”. No one know why this has happened, or how to defeat the angels, but they do know that life is grim, with food supplies dwindling, power outages, and with both angels and bands of human gangs preying on the weak. When Penryn’s wheelchair-bound little sister Paige is snatched by an angel, Penryn embarks on a quest to get her back. She cannot rely on her mother who is off her psych meds and acts erratically, so she must rely on herself. But when she helps rescue a de-winged angel named Raffe, she finds an unlikely partner to help guide her to the angels’ aerie where Paige might (or might not) be. The road to the aerie is full of danger for both the teenaged Penryn and the angel Raffe, but both must keep a tenuous truce in order to reach their mutual goal of finding the Aerie.
In the end-of-the-book interview, author Susan Ee says that her main objective in writing Angelfall was to write a fantastic adventure story – and she definitely accomplished her objective of having the reader turn the page. The chapters are quite short, and the storytelling is taut, so everything moves along quickly. But unlike some action writers (*cough cough* Dan Brown *cough cough*) Ee’s writing is good – smooth and effortless, and with enough character moments to make you really care what happens next.
My favorite thing about this book may have been that it doesn’t take itself that seriously. Yes, there is a lot at stake for our heroine Penryn, but the author somehow manages to keep the tone mostly light, except for some moments of true horror. Penryn and Raffe have a lot of hostile-to-snarky banter, which is often quite amusing. But author Ee knows how to keep the book from being too jokey. For example, there is a scene where Penryn is being held captive at a compound full of armed men. When the seemingly reasonably behaved ringleader ties her to the bed to ensure that she doesn’t escape during the night, she thinks to herself:
“I’m tempted to make a quip about requiring dinner and a movie before getting so kinky, but I don’t. The last thing I want to do is to start making sex jokes while I’m being held prisoner in a camp full of armed men in a world where there are no laws.”
In fact, as the ringleader leaves the room he says:
“You’ll be alright…The men have strict orders to be gentlemanly toward you.”
And Penryn thinks:
“I guess it doesn’t take a mind reader to know that I might be worried about that.”
That whole three-quote exchange above has just the right mix of humor and menace. James Bondesque quips during a dangerous moment can be fun, but I appreciate how well the book walked the line between fun and realistic.
The book is a great combination of action, adventure, fantasy, horror and a splash or romance. While the shape of the story is nothing new (underdog heroine goes on a difficult quest with and has to overcome a series of challenges), the book is careful to not travel too far into cliché or cartoony implausibility. OK, so, Penryn’s mom is described as super-paranoid, which led her to make Penryn take a whole grip of self-defense classes since she was a little girl. So when Penryn is suddenly surrounded by a bunch of street thugs, she begins to assess what she can do:
“The trick with fighting multiple assailants is to avoid fighting them all at the same time. Unlike in the movies, attackers don’t wait in line to kick your ass, they want to pounce all at once like a pack of wolves.”
It’s cool that the author gives us a valid reason to believe that petite little Penryn could plausibly fight off a bunch of tough, grown men. It makes this fantasy book seem grounded in reality. There is at least one other time in the book when Penryn talks about how what she’s doing isn’t like how it would be in the movies, and in general it is easy to believe all of Penryn’s motivations, actions, and abilities.
Another thing that sucks you into the story and has you believing everything that goes on is that the post-apocalyptic world that Ee depicts is really well thought out and totally plausible. There is the standard thing of the urban survivors scavenging for food in empty homes and businesses, as well as the spooky image of highways full of abandoned cars. But Ee throws in some other nice touches such as discarded iPhones on the ground and CPUs being mortared together to build a wall. Considering that the story is set in Silicon Valley, these touches are especially poignant and effective. The supernatural world-building holds together well, too, but that is partly because neither Penryn nor the reader really has a clue about the whole picture of why these angels destroyed everything and what their agenda is for the future. Guess we’ll find out in the sequels!
FYI, this one and only hack is pretty minor. I have to figure out how to make a half scissors-half heart icon because there really isn’t much to gripe about with this book. First thing is that the book is in first person present tense, and I am just so tired of reading books in this format. Yes, this choice brings a sense of immediacy and what-will-happen-next but it is also the easy way to accomplish this. And SO MANY YA adventure books are choosing this format. Curse you, Hunger Games!
I would also suggest that before publication a couple of things get cleaned up. One is that every once in awhile it feels like the manuscript was actually edited down too much – like, a key sentence is missing to make things make sense. It’s akin to a continuity error in a movie. I would say I felt this way less than five times, so really not a huge deal.
The other thing is that I wish I had more backstory on Penryn. What was she like before the angel invasion? We get glimpses here and there, but I wish I had a better picture. Maybe we will find out more in the subsequent books. Which I will want to read!