Jovah's Angel by Sharon Shinn
(Ace, $13.95, G, fantasy) ISBN 0-441-00404-0
*****

Thanks to Romance Reader Associate Editor Cathy Sova, I found a wondrous fantasy world with a pair of proud but perfectly suited lovers in Sharon Shinn's Archangel. Just a few months later the sequel has been published in trade-sized paperback. I found Jovah's Angel to be just as compelling and thought-provoking as its predecessor, with a gentler, but no less satisfying, set of lovers.

It is 150 years after the peaceful reign of the Archangel Gabriel and his angelica mate, Rachel, over the kingdom of Samaria, where mortals and angels co-exist peacefully. But times have changed and unrest is brewing. The god Jovah who watches over Samaria is not hearing -- or is not responding to -- the angels who sing intercessions to turn away bad weather. Terrible storms are plaguing their world, and some of the mortal merchants are questioning the need to listen to an angelic race that is almost powerless. Technology has rapidly advanced to the point of discovering the power of electricity, but the factories that are springing up are polluting the landscape and changing the economic balance.

Then disaster strikes. The beautiful, wild Archangel Delilah is injured while flying in a storm, her wing damaged beyond repair. A new Archangel must be appointed, and to the surprise of all, the oracles who communicate with Jovah point their fingers at Alleluia, a quiet, scholarly angel with an unremarkable voice and dubious lineage.

Alleluia is overwhelmed by her new tasks. While she does seem to be the last remaining angel who is still heard by Jovah and thus can control the weather, it is clear that her unassuming personality is not suited for the momentous task of soothing the ruffled feathers of the wealthy merchants and landowners. Soon they are threatening to revolt.

Alleluia finds a small refuge in the music rooms that contain recordings from the very first angelica, Hagar. These recordings are remnants of the first settlers of Samaria, who relinquished their advanced technology to colonize the new world in a simpler, more peaceful manner. Alleluia is devastated when the last recording breaks and her sanctuary is ruined. She seeks help and is told that the only person who can repair the recording machines is a gifted engineer named Caleb Augustus, whose skill is so great that he is on the verge of discovering the secret of solo flight.

Caleb and Alleluia are drawn to each other, but much stands in their way. Alleluia must find her true angelico mate, named by Jovah only as "the son of Jeremiah." Caleb couldn't possibly be the right man to stand beside her and sing at the annual Gloria that honors Jovah - he is an atheist who refuses to believe in the power of the god. Alleluia is also wary of the strange relationship between Caleb's best friend Noah and the deposed, bitter angel Delilah. As Caleb and Alleluia unite science and faith to discover why Jovah has apparently forsaken Samaria, they stumble upon some startling answers that challenge everything Alleluia has been raised to believe.

The Archangel Alleluia is a wonderful character who tries to honor her god even as she wonders how he could possibly have picked someone so totally unsuited for the task. The reader can sympathize as she tries to fill the challenging role to the best of her capacity. She does find her own way to keep the unruly merchants and landowners in line, but she never truly feels comfortable in this exalted position. Caleb is a strong leading man, at first passionate only about his inventions and then about Alleluia as well. The love story in Jovah's Angel is sweeter and less fiery than the one between Gabriel and Rachel in Archangel, but the reader has the bonus of a few love scenes between the two characters, which was lacking in the earlier book.

The deposed Archangel, Delilah, makes quite a strong impression as well. While we never see the action from her point of view, her behavior has a strong impact on the other major characters, and we come to care for this vain yet not unsympathetic character who has lost the only thing that gave her joy in life.

If there is one flaw in Jovah's Angel, it is the lack of external conflict between good and evil that drove the plot of Archangel so brilliantly. This is a more thoughtful read, with the biggest conflict within Alleluia's own mind. Indeed, the central focus of Jovah's Angel, to me, was the theological crisis faced by Alleluia. The truths she discovers are devastating to her, and she struggles to develop a new belief system. The book challenges readers to consider how we each view God and how that view comforts us. Pretty heavy thinking for a romance reader, but well worth it.

By the time I reached the end of Jovah's Angel, so many questions about Samaria had been answered that I fear there will not be a third book in the series. I hope I am wrong, because this world of angels and mortals is a fascinating one that I would happily visit again and again.

--Susan Scribner


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