Archangel by Sharon Shinn
Ace, $6.50, PG, ISBN 0-441-00432-6
*****
Sharon Shinn's new fantasy, Archangel, is an exhilarating, beautiful story of a man destined to lead and the woman destined to be his love and partner. While marketed as sci-fi/fantasy, the main focus of this story is two people coming to terms with themselves and learning how to accept their love for each other, and in that respect it's as fine a romance as any reader could wish.

Plus, it's just plain a darn good read.

The planet Samaria is populated by two distinct peoples: humans and angels. The angels commune with the god, Jovah, and once a year, the Archangel and his mate, the angelica, lead the people in songs of glorious praise. If the Gloria is not sung, death and destruction will follow. As long as the people can come together in peace and lift their voices in harmony, the land will be spared.

Every twenty years, a new Archangel is chosen by Jovah. This year the new Archangel will be Gabriel, whose purity of soul is exceeded only by the purity of his voice. Jovah has decreed that Gabriel's mate will be a woman named Rachel, daughter of farmers. This is unusual; most angelicas are of more high-born blood. Gabriels' troubles are only beginning when he journeys to meet Rachel and finds her home destroyed. No other can take her place, and he has no idea where to find her.

Rachel, it turns out, was orphaned at a young age after an attack on her village. She was taken in and raised by a nomadic Edori clan, with whom she lived until the age of twenty. Then the clan was also attacked, and most of the clanspeople were either killed or sold into slavery. Rachel has been a slave for the last five years in the house of a wealthy merchant. It is to this house Gabriel comes, attending a wedding, and he and Rachel finally meet.

Every child of Samaria, at their dedication to Jovah, has a crystal embedded in their arm. This crystal flares to life in the presence of their true mate. As her arm begins to burn and Gabriel's flashes fire, Rachel cannot deny what the god has in store for her. The shackles are struck from her wrists and ankles. She will be wife to the Archangel, which to Rachel seems to be an exchange of one form of slavery for another.

But her mind and heart, she vows, will remain free.

Gabriel was a magnificent hero. Flawed, impatient, yet quick to show compassion, he fights his longing for this totally unsuitable angelica even as he returns to her again and again. Rachel crosses him at every turn, is stubborn beyond belief, won't even tell him if she can sing, let alone will sing the all-important mass at the Gloria. Her dream is one of revenge against the slaveholders, and this wars with Gabriel's devotion to the people and their well-being. Here are two people destined to be together, but first they must give up some of their long-held convictions and learn to temper their own arrogance.

I quickly forgot I was reading about feathered creatures. These weren't angels, they were just people with wings; slightly different in form, to be sure, but so very human. Ms. Shinn has a wonderful ear for dialogue, and her characters are crafted with a sure touch. Her style is easy, eminently readable, and flows beautifully. Every word serves a purpose, every scene drives the story forward. I was completely hooked by the end of the third page.

Archangel is a stunning achievement, and the fact that it's only Sharon Shinn's second novel makes me hope we have a lot more to come from this very talented author. Her next book, Jovah's Angel, will be out in trade size this May. I'll be waiting in line.

Treat yourself to something unique and let these angels lift you up.

--Cathy Sova


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