Book Review: The Darkangel by Meredith Ann Pierce

Much to my surprise, this book was published in 1982, predating the current trend for fallen angels and vampires. I got it from the flea market for $1 because I thought the back cover copy sounded like a laugh. In the end, I was somewhat surprised by what I read.

The Darkangel by Meredith Ann Pierce

Pros: Intriguing back story, setting, and world-building.
Cons: Extremely dense heroine, confusing terminology, melodramatic prose.

Rating: 4 out of 10 stars
Grade: C
(Two ratings because sometimes I have mixed feelings, and how I felt emotionally about a book might vary from how I felt intellectually.)

Book Blurb: Aeriel is kidnapped by the darkangel, a black-winged vampyre of astounding beauty and youth, and taken to his castle keep. There, she must serve his thirteen wives, wraiths whose souls he has stolen away. Aeriel knows she must kill the darkangel before he takes his fourteenth bride and comes into full power, but she is captivated by his magnificent beauty and intrigued by the spark of goodness she sees inside him. Will Aeriel risk damning all of humanity to save the darkangel's soul, or can she end his reign of beautiful terror before he finds his final bride?


Alz's Take: Imagine a fairytale padded out (not developed but padded out) to 238 pages and set on a post-colonial terraformed moon. That's what this book is. As a 3-page fairytale minus the science fiction back story, it would've been fine, but as it stands, I only kept reading The Darkangel because the world history was interesting.

The background of the world is that long ago colonists (creatively called "the Unknown-Nameless Ones") came from Oceanus, terraformed its moon, and populated it with genetically engineered/hybrid plants and animals. Then some kind of disaster happened that cut them off from their homeworld and they sealed themselves into their cities away from the rest of the moon—but left genetically-engineered mostly-immortal magical animals behind as guardians for the various lands, as well as leaving behind prophecies and riddles.

(There's even a wise ass-kicking talking guardian lion lyon in this book. His name is Aslan Pendarlon.)

The problem is that all this world history appears halfway through the book, and while some of it does figure into the current story, the main plot has to do with the darkangel's not-so-mysterious past and Aeriel deciding whether or not to kill him, which could've been interesting but isn't. Things that work in a short fairytale don't really work in a novel, and the characters in this book have all the dimensionality of fairytale characters—which is to say that they don't have any. Aeriel is a pure empathetic maiden with emphasis on the pathetic and the darkangel's told-not-shown personality can be summed up like so: 99% evil + 1% good = 100% broody.

Aeriel swoons 4.5 times in the book (seriously, I counted, and there was a "half-swoon" in there) and even though she says initially that she doesn't love the darkangel just because he's beautiful (she just admires him for it), the reason she later cites for wanting to save his life is because she's fallen in love with him because he's beautiful. Say again?

The darkangel had potential, but falls short of fulfilling it either in terms of villainy or tragedy. We are repeatedly told that he is cruel and evil and majestic but has a "spark of goodness" in him, but we never see him do anything but mope through the empty castle, fly around, and maim some bats and lizards—which last he stops doing when Aeriel cries big dewy tears at him to stop and tells him stories day after day a la Scheherazade instead.

The author takes great pains to make it not-this-worldly with references to Solstar (the sun), Oceanus (the giant blue planet hanging in the sky), and terms like earthshine, earthlight, nightshade, and day-month, as well as things like hornflowers and marshgrass and greathorses. While I enjoy immersion into a world and learning by context, there is such a thing as over doing it, especially when the jumble of vocabulary serves no real point. Do you really need three interchangeable terms to describe Aeriel's love interest: darkangel, icarus, and vampyre? Do you really need to refer to him by all three terms on the same page over and over again?

Another problem is the term "day-month." Time plays an important role—will Aeriel be able to do etc. before the day of etc.?—but the length of days is not the same as we of Earthly ken are used to. Point of fact is that I read the entire book and still have no idea how long a "day-month" or "nightshade" is except that the book mentioned once that night lasted a fortnight. It's pretty confusing when the darkangel tells Aeriel he'll deal with her at dawn and then it seems like weeks go by.

The magical fairytaleness seems at odds with the initial atmosphere of the story, wherein slave-girl Aeriel's friend/mistress is stolen away right off the mountaintop by the darkangel and Aeriel sets out to seek vengeance because she'll be sent to the auction block any day now (which, thanks to the bizarre day-month thing, is an indeterminate amount of time). Naturally the darkangel sees Aeriel and whisks her away to serve him at his remote abandoned castle, where Aeriel's duty will be to weave clothes for his poor frail wraith-wives—

Then it suddenly gets all twee and magical, because there's a "duarough" (read: tiny troll since he turns to stone in the sunlight) living under the castle who used to serve the old king, and who is all too eager to help Aeriel with anything and everything. This sickeningly friendly creature feeds Aeriel fish and berries and other things magically grown underground by a magical river of life (not kidding, it's a magical glowing river of life), and he gives her a solid gold spindle that can spin emotions like hate or pity or charity or love into different kinds of thread, that she may weave cloth to clothe the helpless wraith-wives.

Very fairytale, no? Weird magical fairytale stuff like this happens again and again, and it's just so casually mentioned and accepted out of the non-magical blue that it feels as out of place as clothes at a nudist convention.

Another problem was how dense Aeriel is. "Clues" to the darkangel's real identity are punching her in the head left and right and yet she fails to make the incredibly obvious connections. (To be fair, maybe all that clue-punching caused some brain damage.) There's also a riddle-prophecy with a fairly obvious hint in it that she totally misses, and even when Pendarlon not-so-delicately hints at her to repeat the prophecy, she still doesn't get it so the lyon tells her outright what to do, and Aeriel still questions whether or not she's doing the right thing. Then, to crown this masterpiece of thickheadedness, later when she finally accomplishes said task, she thinks to herself that maybe the Pendarlon was right and she did do the right thing after all. Yes, Aeriel. Yes, you did.

And then in the end, Aeriel thinks she's Philip Marlowe or Sam Spade and has an A-HAH! moment where she Makes the Connections and Reveals the Entire Story. Only I'd already figured that out 150 pages ago right after the enormous barrage of clues was fired point-blank in my face, so I wasn't impressed.

The ending was also another one of those Very Fairytale moments that drew me out of the story because it was so very—well, it's hard to explain without spoilers, but it's something just too metaphorical-turned-literal fairytale-magical for me to continue precariously suspending my belief.

Alz's Conclusion: The Darkangel has a basic fairytale premise with overly melodramatic execution at odds with its complex back story and setting. I'm willing to read the sequel but only because I'm interested in the terraformed moon and the history of its current inhabitants. The main characters and their quest-type defeat-the-great-evil storyline offer no particular draw.


Angela said...

This was a very well thought out review. I admit the blurb about the story really pulled me in, but then, after reading your thorough assesment of it--I feel I can pass on this. Thank you.

Unknown said...

Oooo, I love the cover. I love the blurb and I've been interested in this book so it was an easy sale for me but I do love your reviews! Always so carefully shared!

Lydia Kang said...

I loved your review! It was too funny (4.5 swoons? Really?) and her thickheadedness is unexpectedly amusing.

Melissa said...

This has to be one of the best-written, most thought out reviews I've ever read!

XiXi said...

Thanks for the hilarious review! Lol, 4.5 swoons. Looking forward to more of your book reviews. :)

WritingNut said...

This was a great review - one of the best I've read! :)

ali cross said...

Hmm. Well, at least it only cost you a dollar, eh? I love the cover and the title, though. :)

Alz said...

Angela – Thanks! I read the back copy and thought it sounded interesting, and it defied my expectations in good ways and bad ways.

Jen – I'm pretty critical of books but I do think that there's definitely something to Darkangel. It didn't resonate with me, but I'm pretty sure that it'll ring plenty of other people's bells. :)

Lydia – YES. 4.5 swoons! I kept tally on my bookmark as I read.

Melissa – Thanks! I try to specify the good and the bad, especially when I have mixed feelings about a book like this one.

Icy Roses – Thanks! You're welcome! :)

WritingNut – Thanks!

Ali – I think it was worth a dollar. If I'd read it in the library first and knew what it was like, I still might have been willing to pay a dollar for it—or even two. Maybe. ;)

Anonymous said...

I just stumbled upon this after googling "what is a day-month?" I love this review. I enjoyed the series, but probably only because I viewed it as a fairy tale and not so much a "novel." I actually own the original ones that came out in the 80's.

After thinking about it, I'm almost positive that a day-month is one day. Perhaps it's a vague measurement for either "one to a few days." I hate the terminology. It drove me crazy.

But at least it's a vampire that sucks blood and not vag--...*cough*

Anonymous said...

A day-month is 29.5 days, of course.