Old School Wednesdays is a weekly Book Smuggler feature. We came up with the idea towards the end of 2012, when both Ana and Thea were feeling exhausted from the never-ending inundation of New and Shiny (and often over-hyped) books. What better way to snap out of a reading fugue than to take a mini-vacation into the past?
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In March 2013, we asked YOU for your favorite old school suggestions – and the response was so overwhelmingly awesome, we decided to compile a goodreads shelf, an ongoing database, AND a monthly readalong/book club.
This month’s OSW Readalong pick is Angel with the Sword by C.J. Cherryh!
For every readalong book, we’ll structure this a little bit differently than our usual Joint Review faire – first, we’ll give our (brief!) opinions regarding the book, then we’ll tackle some discussion questions. Finally, we’ll ask YOU to join in.
Author: C.J. Cherryh
Genre: Fantasy, Romance, Science Fiction, Speculative Fiction
Publication date: September 1985
Paperback: 304 pages
In Merovingen, a watery canal-laced city, much like Earth’s Venice, society is segregated along class lines between the lower and upper cities. Against her better judgment, Altair Jones, 17, rescues an unconscious man from a canal near her poleboat. She is fascinated by Mondragon’s good looks and elegant ways and begins to fall in love with him. Even though she knows there is no future for a water rat like herself with such a man, she decides to watch over him and rescue him from his enemies; enemies who turn out to be the most powerful people in the upper city…
Stand alone or series: Book 1 in the Merovingen Nights series
How did we get this book: Bought
Format (e- or p-): Print
REVIEW & DISCUSSION
Ana’s take: This is the first book I’ve read by C.J. Cherryh and I will just cut to the chase and say it: Angel with the Sword was a super fun read and I enjoyed myself immensely whilst reading it. Its plot was like a rollercoaster ride with non-stop action and a female protagonist who was amazeballs. I fell in love with her from the very start and rooted for her as did everything in her power to save the hero, Mondragon. It’s funny how Angel with the Sword reads like an old school sword adventure which is weird because this is supposedly set in the 33rd century (more on that below).
It was only after reading it that I stopped to think about certain aspects of the book that were not as developed as they could have been – although these did not effectively lessen my enjoyment. This is definitely so far the best book in our OSW Readalong.
I agree with Ana in that this is the best book we’ve read so far in our OSW Readalong – I thoroughly enjoyed Angel with the Sword for its wonderful heroine, slick action scenes and solid worldbuilding. I’ve only had the pleasure of reading C.J. Cherryh’s straight-up science fiction in the past (Cyteen was my introduction to her work), which I’ve loved. This science fiction-rooted adventure fantasy novel suits my tastes just fine, too.
1. Let’s talk about worldbuilding: this is the first book in the Merovingen Nights series and is a fantasy novel with science fiction overtones. What are your thoughts on the world of Merovin and the city of Merovingen in particular? Did you enjoy the SF background and the blend of genres?
Ana: Weeeeell. I like these questions because they help me organising my thoughts. So ostensibly this is a Science Fiction novel. It’s set on a planet called Merovin in the 33rd Century. The thing is, apart from minor references to all of that, the Science Fictional aspects are barely touched in the novel itself and if it weren’t for the extensive info-dumpy appendix at the end of the novel, I am not even sure I would have realised the extent of the worldbuilding.
Because a long history of disputes with an alien species, the Sharrh, the planet is isolated and backwards, its technology a throwback to swords and knives and the odd revolver and people getting in rowing boats, you get the picture. The imagery of the novel is definitely something that reminds of a historical Venice with its canals, inclusive of its class divisions between the ultra poor and the ultra rich. In that sense, the story is very self-contained in the way that it only briefly touches this SF background. So I am not even sure that in the context of this one novel we can call it SF? I have seen this described as Science Fantasy which might make more sense.
Another aspect of the worldbuilding that I felt was extremely underdeveloped but still intriguing is the religious-political background of this world. This is a side of the plot that is intrinsically connected to the actual storyline of the novel and the sole reason WHY Altair and Mondragon are running around trying to escape the clutches of…just about everybody. The insidious aspects of the religious movements are only but alluded to in the novel and by the end of it, I still didn’t know EXACTLY why and how the important information Mondagron had would have any impact in the world. In a way, it felt like this whole book was a starting point for something more.
I do like the idea of it all though. BUT that said, I still like the book. Period. Just the way it is.
Thea: Hmm. I’m going to disagree with Ana slightly – I think this is a novel rooted in science fiction (which is essential to the world, the plot, and the main conflict of the story), but it’s of the class of post-war/post-apocalyptic/post-technology sci fi in which society reassembles following calamity: in this case, the Sharrh-Human war led to humanity abandoning the colonies on the world of Merovin. Of course, not every human left, and those Ancestors that stubbornly remained behind decided to breed and rebuild, despite their lack of suplies, advanced technology and the like. Fast-forward twenty-odd generations, and you have the world of Altair Jones’ time – a diseased city where the rich live up above, and the poor scramble along the canals below among the toxic, fetid swamps of Merovingen.
The structure of the world is familiar and, yes, obviously evocative of Venice. However, the remnants of old power structures, physical structures, and technologies I think make this a far more fascinating world than a simple historical fantasy analog of middle ages Italy. Altair’s boat (like most other boats large and small), for example, has an engine that relies on diesel fuel to run; the image of towering bridges and slowly sinking, technologically hodgepodge buildings towering over the brackish canals is another striking, awesome image. (Heck, I think this book has more in common with Paolo Bacigalupi’s Ship Breaker than anything else.) The terror of the Shaarists and the Revenantists (referred to at one point as terrorist groups), the divide between secular factions (gangs which feel very much like mafia families), and the power differences between these varying factions is fascinating. Needless to say, I enjoyed the world very much.
A word on the Appendix – to Ana’s point, it is info-dumpy but it is meant to be an additional reference to read outside of the novel experience. And personally? I’m a sucker for extended maps, reference tools, glossaries, and more information about the formation of Merovin and the different groups that run the city of Merovingen. I thought it was an awesome touch (at 50 pages long, it’s an extensive appendix).
2. On the character front, how does Altair Jones stack up as a heroine? How about Mondragon as a hero? What other characters did you like (or not like) in Angel with the Sword?
Ana: Altair was awesome. I loved the way her thought-processes took up so much of the narrative – from her internal conversations with her mother to her absolute resolve to do anything in her power to rescue Mondagron despite knowing the odds were so against her efforts. I loved that she was fierce and how she falls just about outside the stereotypical portrayal of the Spunky Naïve Heroine because she is just so shrewd, harsh and independent.
Mondragon on the other hand is so thin as to almost be a non-existent entity. He remains unremarkable and mysterious till the very ending and I have no concrete feelings toward him or any other character.
Thea: ALTAIR JONES FOREVER. More than anything else, Jones made the book (at least for me). She’s seventeen years old and is accustomed to rough living and fending for herself, having grown up running the canals after her mother passed away. She’s tough and smart and a damn good boater – at the same time, she has these moments of vulnerability (the first time she’s rejected by the first man she chooses to take as a lover, for example) that allow us to understand just how young she really is. Jones is the heart and soul of this book, the driving force that doggedly pursues Mondragon because… well that’s the real question, isn’t it?
3. What did you think of the relationship between Altair and Mondragon (well-developed, under-developed)? Did you buy into their relationship and their motivations?
Ana: So. I am slightly conflicted about it. Did I buy into their relationship and their motivations? Yes and no. Because I feel I loved and understood Altair so well, I think I can understand her motivations for falling in love with Mondagron so abruptly and so completely – all stemming from loneliness and an understandable infatuation of a young girl in her early teens. So I kind of understand the impulse and the nature of the insta-connection. But to be honest, I am not so sure about what exactly makes her interest remain so constant and alive throughout the novel because I didn’t seen enough of a character development on Mondagron’s side – apart from some flashes of interest he might have displayed for her safety which you know, least he could do. So to me, it felt like a very much one-sided “relationship” up until the very ending. Because her interest in Mondagron is the very reason why we have any book at all, I feel that their “relationship” is mostly fodder for the author to develop Altair as a character. And it kind of works in keeping my interest because she IS so awesome and I never knew what she would do next.
Thea: If you asked me what I think of the romantic relationship between Jones and Mondragon, I would tell you that it’s not a romance that I particularly care for. This is because Mondragon is, as Ana says, a thin character with no substance of his own. His character is defined by his beauty, and one possible interpretation of Angel with the Sword is to simply say that Jones is a girl that falls head over heels for the first pretty face she sees and that is that.
While there is definitely that bite of first infatuation, I don’t think that’s what drives Jones in this book. After all, she makes the decision to save Mondragon even before she knows what he looks like – she saves him because it’s the right thing to do, and she can’t leave him to drown.
In my opinion, Mondragon more than anything else is a symbol and catalyst for Jones’ actions. He represents Jones’ ideals and morals, and I kind of love how it is Jones forever getting that idiot man out of trouble at every turn because that is who Altair Jones is.
4. What do you think of the class differences as established in the novel? This book is set in the future but reads very much like it’s in the past in terms of economic and social development. Similarly, this world isn’t particularly advanced in terms of gender issues – apart from Altair, no other woman seems to have any real power or agency in the novel. Discuss.
Ana: It is very interesting to me when a supposedly futuristic world turns out to be so regressive and reactionary. This might be the 33rd Century but things read like a throwback to a world where there is still class division, extreme poverty and corruption. Although it might be somewhat understandable that this happens in the context of the novel – after all, Merovin is a world left to fend for itself apart from any contact with other human worlds – it is still striking to me that is a “vision” of the future. It’s a similar thing when it comes to the female characters – this is the 33rd century and we follow Altair around as she interacts with basically all the social levels of their city from the bottom up and every single powerful (or in a position of power) character they encounter is male. The few female characters we come across end up being very close to mother figures and apart from Altair we don’t really see any gender equality here.
Thea: I don’t know – I buy the class differences, the power strata, and the economic and social regression. This is a world that has been ripped apart from most of its technology for twenty generations, and its cities continue to crumble and die. The extreme poverty, corruption, and division makes sense to me.
On the side of female characters, I’m not so sure I agree that this is a world in which women have no power. We do meet a few high up powerful characters that are male, but from the Appendix I know that there are female characters that rank high on the power scale too (one of them has a religious faction named out of her). Furthermore, Jones is certainly a character with agency, and her mother – of whose past we learn at every step of the book – is another character that lived on her own terms and held her own power. At different parts of the book, Jones meets a character named Mintaka who is an older woman – a “grandmother” – who has her own boat (in a city where boats are lifeblood) and runs her ship as much as she can, on her own. Other female characters we see are canalers, like Jones herself, although they might be married or have children.
5. What is your favorite thing from this book? What weren’t you enthusiastic about? And, most importantly, will you continue with the series?
Ana: Despite my misgivings and criticisms, I stand by my opening statement: I thought this was a fun novel to read, a cool throwback to old school Fantasy with a side of romance and ultimately, despite its flaws, I totally recommend it. Favourite thing was definitely its main character. I wasn’t enthusiastic about Mondragon because I don’t feel I even got to know him. Now the question: will I continue with the series? After reading it, I came to know that the other books in the series are all anthologies with stories written by other authors in this same world. I am not sure I feel like I want to continue on these terms BUT I would love to read other stuff from this author. Any recommendations where to go next?
Thea: I thoroughly enjoyed this book and would happily continue with the series – although I do agree with Ana in that I’m not over the moon for Mondragon; that said, Jones is a big enough draw to get me back into Merovingen, in a heartbeat. The only other thing I haven’t touched on and need to mention is the nonstop action aspect of the book. While this is a FAST read and a fun read, I felt like the book could have benefited from taking a break from being on the run from every single power faction in the city – it’s hard to keep everyone straight, and it’s a little hard to believe that Jones and especially Mondragon got out of so many scrapes relatively unscathed.
That said, I truly love the world, and I’m eager to see how other authors contribute to Merovingen Nights. In other words: I’m in.
Ana: 7 – Very Good
Thea: 7 – Very Good
July Readalong: Archer’s Goon by Diana Wynne Jones (July 31)
Now over to you! Please feel free to engage with the questions (and our answers), come up with your own talking points, and/or leave links to your reviews!