Khesh City floats above the surface of the uninhabitable planet of Vellern. Topside, it’s extravagant, opulent, luxurious; the Undertow is dark, twisted and dangerous. Khesh City is a place where nothing is forbidden – but it’s also a democracy, of sorts, a democracy by assassination, policed by the Angels, the élite, state-sponsored killers who answer only to the Minister, their enigmatic master.
Taro lived with Malia, his Angel aunt, one of the privileged few, until a strange man bought his body for the night, then followed him home and murdered Malia in cold blood. Taro wants to find the killer who ruined his future, but he’s struggling just to survive in the brutal world of the Undertow. Then an encounter with the Minister sets him on a new course, spying for the City; his target is a reclusive Angel called Nual.
Elarn Reen is a famous musician, sent to Khesh City as the unwilling agent of mankind’s oldest enemy, the Sidhe. To save her own life, she must find and kill her ex-lover, a renegade Sidhe.
Though they come from different worlds, Taro and Elarn’s fates are linked, their lives apparently forfeit to other people’s schemes. As their paths converge, it becomes clear that the lives of everyone in Khesh City, from the majestic, deadly Angels to the barely-human denizens of the Undertow, are at risk. And Taro and Elarn, a common prostitute and an uncommon singer, are Khesh City’s only chance…
Jaine Fenn is one of those authors whose work is widely regarded as excellent science fiction and often brought up in discussion of female authors of SF… but also as someone who, over the course of the five books of the Hidden Empire series, appears to have been increasingly sidelined and vanished by Gollancz.
Principles of Angels is the first of the Hidden Empire novels, and introduces us to concepts and settings such as the Angels, the Concord, and Khesh City; it never quite infodumps, but is very information-heavy, with exposition to introduce Elarn Reen, a tourist, to the world in which the events of ther novel actually take place; that world is a complicated one, with a political system resting on murder rather similar to the way the Athenian democracy rested on the ostrakon process, guarded from the hostile atmosphere of Vellern by a strange unknown force, divided into the posh topside and the underclass of the Undertow. The formalised, covertly-ruled anarchism of Khesh City is not the utopian anarchism of much science fiction, but rather a dystopian, class-divided, starkly unequal, lawless and lethal society. Fenn’s posited world in Principles of Angels gives much of the grimdark fantasy out there a real run for its money in the “grittiness” scales.
The characters, on the other hand, stand as rays of hope in this darkness; Principles of Angels may present us with a world ruled by thuggery, but it also presents characters with hearts. Taro, the rent-boy, is driven by anger at the murder of his aunt-and-protector; but his capacity to take care of himself is strangely variable – at times incredibly strong, at times, convenient to the plot, much weaker. That’s without going into the very problematic approach Fenn takes to his sex work, which treats it as equivalent to rape, and indeed directly draws parallels between the two; Taro’s character allows Fenn to blur these lines in a way I found deeply disturbing. Similarly, Elarn is a mixture of incredibly canny and incredibly naive; indeed, it’s those two characteristics that inform all our major characters, in a weird approach that doesn’t endear so much as frustrate with its inconsistency.
The plot is similarly balanced between excellent and dull. Principles of Angels gets terribly bogged down in detail, in a whole lot of chasing its own tale trying to complicate the story; but at times it is as pacy as a thriller, racing along through the action scenes. This uneven pacing makes it a bit of a tough read, as one moves from high-adrenaline reading to a crashing halt with whiplash suddenness, only made worse by the different viewpoint characters in approximately alternating chapters not necessarily being even remotely similarly paced. While this is arguably a near literary trick, in practice Fenn makes it hard to get and stay in the world of the book, because the bumpy pacing and transparent attempts to set up later twists just become wearing.
In the end, Principles of Angels suffers from a number of the problems of a debut novel, including its issues with pacing; but despite that, the ideas show a talent that, with refinement and experience, might well be worth reading more of.