Title: Gideon’s Angel
Author: Clifford Beal
Publisher/Copyright: Solaris, 2013
I received my copy of Gideon’s Angel through the Goodreads FirstReads program. This in no way influences my review, except to ensure that I was able to get ahold of this book and thus review it. I have to say, I really enjoyed this one. I want to describe it as “steampunk,” but my understanding is that steampunk is usually set in the 1800s (or at least that level of tech and society) whereas this work is firmly set in 1653. If there’s already a term for pseudo-historical fiction with a fantasy touch set in that timeframe, I apologize for not knowing what it is and using it accordingly.
Things are not going well for Richard Treadwell. The English Civil War is over, the King’s Cavaliers lost to the forces of Parliament and Oliver Cromwell, and Charles I has been executed. Treadwell has managed to escape the destruction of his cause, and has spent the past eight years in exile in France, performing a delicate balancing act between loyalty to his exiled king* and his employer, Cardinal Mazarin. When Mazarin informs him that someone is using the forces of Hell to tip the balance in their favor and asks him to spy on the exile court to find out if it is one of the king’s supporters, Treadwell decides that it’s time to get out of Paris. He accepts a mission for one of the king’s more militant supporters that will take him back to his beloved England–to lead a Royalist uprising, one last try to oust Cromwell and his Puritan cronies. Treadwell has other business to tend to as well, including a wife who by now probably considers herself a widow. Unfortunately for Treadwell’s simple worldview, it soon becomes clear that Cromwell’s power is the only thing preventing the more radical Puritan elements from running roughshod over the whole country. Worse still, a demon from the pits of Hell has appeared to a radical Puritan sect masquerading as an angel of light and ordering the death of Cromwell so that the Kingdom of God may be fulfilled. Now instead of assassinating Cromwell Treadwell will be forced to save him–if he can find a way to fight the forces of Hell, gain some allies in his quest, and avoid d’Artagnan, a young Musketeer dispatched by the Cardinal to bear him back to Paris….
I really enjoyed this book. It’s not exactly “high literature,” but I think I’ve very well established that I care far more about a work’s entertainment value than whatever it is critics look for. The world Beal creates here feels very real, slipping in background historical information without making you feel like you’ve been lectured. Some readers will probably wish for more background on the English Civil War, and that’s fine. If they care that much, there are numerous good books on the subject. If they don’t, there’s a Wikipedia article that should give you a good rundown on what happened. Beal manages to evoke seventeenth-century London in all its grimy glory, much as it would have actually been aside from the fact that all the magic we dismiss as superstition is actually going on behind the scenes. Moreover, this magic very much resembles what you would find depicted in the folklore of the era without obvious modern embellishment. I’m not really all that well versed in the history of the Freemasons, so I can’t accurately speak to how they were portrayed here except to say that I very much doubt their claim to date back to the builders of the pyramids. Then again, I doubt they have the tools to summon demons too, so maybe I shouldn’t be too critical. Secondary characters generally proved to be interestingly complex, especially Billy Chard, but I am seeing criticism of how the female characters in the book act. They aren’t weak characters by any means, but they are constrained by their roles in society. Treadwell’s wife has pragmatically joined her fate to that of the officer who took over Treadwell’s land when he was banished and is pregnant with his child. Is she weak for this? Or is she a strong female doing what she has to in order to protect what is left of her family? Treadwell’s Parisian mistress follows him to England rather than stay in Paris and face the scandal of their liasion alone. Weak, for needing Treadwell by her side? Or strong, for following him into whatever dangers he may be facing? Finally, Isabelle decides to follow her father and the rest of Treadwell’s band into battle against the forces of Darkness, deciding that it would be better to fall by his side than live on without him. Possibly a sign of weakness, but look at her situation realistically. She and her father were driven from Spain for their Jewish heritage, her mother dying along the way. Jews do not fare well in the Christian world of the seventeenth century, not even in England. The lot of a young woman alone in the world is already hard enough in this time without adding the burden of religious and ethnic persecution. She would have no respectable means of supporting herself, and could conceivably find herself forced into prostitution–on her own if she was lucky, as no more than a slave if she was not. Is preferring death in battle to such a fate a sign of weakness or of strength? She certainly has no trouble speaking her mind, and in fact berates Treadwell severely for endangering her father when they first meet. I suppose I can understand where some people would find these characters and their portrayal to be weak and sexist, but I respectfully disagree. I submit that instead they are strong characters reacting realistically to a world where women are not treated equally–in fact, I would have more of a problem with them if they demonstrated anachronistic modern sensibilities.** The ending was a little deus ex machina, but on the whole I didn’t mind. I would say that I want to read a sequel, but I don’t think the author could come up with anything to top this in terms of personal impact on the characters–Treadwell’s internal conflict between hating Cromwell and having to save him is very well done, and I fear Beal would prove unable to find something equally interesting as a follow up. We never really got to find out what happened to Treadwell back during the Thirty Years War that introduced him to the world of angels and demons, so I could see maybe writing that up….I’d buy it, anyway.
R-rated language, occasionally harsh but I would argue not gratuitous. Moderately explicit sexual content, as you would expect from a work in this vein.*** A fair amount of violence, from both man and demon. Not usually too gory in its description. There is also a good deal of occult content, as the villains are summoning a demon they believe to be an angel. This demon’s lesser minions dog Treadwell and his friends, and there are multiple encounters with them. One is implied to be a golem, others appear as strange amalgamations of beast(s) and man. For me, this is adequately balanced by the recognition that, as powerful as the forces of Darkness are, God is far more powerful than they. Bottom line: if you’re mature enough to handle the other content, I don’t believe the occult elements should prove to be an issue.
*Charles I was executed, while his son Charles II went into exile. Just in case you were concerned with the historical accuracy of the book. So far as I can tell, this is pretty accurate. You know, aside from the demons and fictional characters roaming London…..
**Please understand, I’m neither defending nor endorsing the inequality of the seventeenth century. Neither is Clifford Beal, for that matter. I’m simply pointing out that it was how it was, and this was the world the characters would have come from. I’m all for equality, but to whitewash history and pretend it was different from it was….that way lies dangerous waters.
***This evokes more than anything a supernatural-tinged Alexandre Dumas novel for me….and you know how bawdry his musketeers could be when they wanted to be.