Thorin McGee's Reviews > To Reign in Hell

To Reign in Hell by Steven Brust
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Feb 08, 09

Read in January, 2009

This is like reading a train wreck. Immensely interesting, but you know by the names (Yahweh, Michael, Raphael and Satan, Lucifer, Leviathan, Belial, Lilith, Asmodai...) that it cannot end well.

Brust does a great job of unfolding a very personal story of misunderstandings, betrayals, lies and stubbornness that's a portrait of crumbling group dynamics. This is not a story of good and evil or the typical huge egos. It's immensely personal and takes pains to show each player in their own light. Some, like Abdiel, work in their own interests, but for understandable reasons (Abdiel is a coward). Others, like the loving Lilith or the crippled Belial and Leviathan (forever maimed into the shapes of a dragon and sea serpent, respectively, thanks to their last brush with cocoastrum), tug on your emotions. Satan reads like George Washington with his faithful friend Beelzebub, who is himself maimed into the shape of a golden retriever. Yahweh is the kindly builder who wants nothing more than the safety of the friends he loves, but can bear the death of thousands to save millions in the future.

You watch as the disagreement over The Plan balloons into the most cataclysmic rift at the hands of selfish manipulators. The whole time you hope the first angels will just sit down and talk and understand each other. But, again, you know those names... The universe does explode over one angel's lie. (Whose lie is very interesting.)

The setting lets Brust get away with a few things he couldn't otherwise. For example, treachery has never been invented. There's never been a murder. The few lies told have only been mischievous… So when Abdiel -- aghast that he may die himself and more than willing to have others take his place -- begins manipulating the situation, you accept that Yahweh and the other angels are naive of such wiles. Likewise, when characters do foolish things in rage, you understand that this is a rage unseen before in Heaven. Brust uses a gentle touch, seldom straining your suspension of disbelief, but the setting makes certain aspects of the plot possible. It also adds an element of children's naiveté, of innocence, that solidifies your sympathy for the characters.

The overall effect is a very good read. But the end's a train wreck in its own right: a sudden stop that doesn't get where it was going. The final battle is too abrupt, nothing is resolved (which is expected), and it's unclear what the heck happened to half the angels you've come to care about. There is an epilogue, but it's equally opaque, as if the book were setting up a sequel that never happened. I also feel like Brust's writing style is a little too steeped in modern American English, a little too conversational, which makes the writing a little breezy. That's not a bad thing for readability, but it undermines the atmosphere. While the characters come to life, their universe does not; it feels like this story could just as easily be set in a Wal-Mart. That makes this "classic" less so than books like The Lord of the Rings, or contemporaries such as American Gods or the Harry Potter series. (On the book cover, Tad Williams says Brust "just might be America's best fantasy writer." Perhaps the Brits just do fantasy better?)

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