Because I’ve decided to indulge myself—and because I’m working on not getting distracted by the newest shiny thing to come along OOO SHINY... I’m sorry, what were we talking about?—this week, I want to talk about one more of Susan R. Matthews’ Jurisdiction universe novels, Angel of Destruction (2001).
I’d hoped to be able to discuss Matthews’ work in publication order, but since at the time of writing I’m still waiting for the second-hand copies of her non-Jurisdiction books, Avalanche Soldier (1999) and Colony Fleet (2000), to arrive, I’m just going to roll with what I’ve got today.
But first, a cross between a PSA and a statement of intent. Couple weeks ago (you might remember), I decided that Sleeps With Monsters was going to appreciate some relatively-recent-but-relatively-obscure woman-authored space opera. And I’ve even firmed up a line-up of sorts, so you guys can brush up in advance if you like: when I’m finished with Matthews’ books, R.M. Meluch is next on the list. For Meluch, I’m not going to hit every book, but Queen’s Squadron, Jerusalem Fire, and Sovereign are good titles to bet on, in addition to her more recent Tour of the Merrimack books. And after that, Laura E. Reeve’s Major Ariane Kedros novels, all three of them. Possibly at once.
With an occasional interlude or two, that should keep us busy for next few weeks. By which time, I imagine, all of us will be ready for a change of pace....
So, Angel of Destruction. Together with The Devil and Deep Space (2002), the next novel in the Jurisdiction sequence, it marks a significant change within Matthews’ Jurisdiction universe. Previously, we’ve seen our protagonist, Andrej Koscuisko, act against the Bench only in—relatively—small ways, and only when in emotional extremis. Angel of Destruction and The Devil and Deep Space show characters acting against their unforgiving government in ways which are far more broadly subversive—and which have everything to do with prioritising humaneness and justice over the rigid, inflexible, and inhumane rule of law and its application.
Angel of Destruction, while connected to the Koscuisko books, stands on its own and presents us with a new protagonist in the form of Bench specialist Garol Vogel, who had a bit-part to play in Prisoner of Conscience and a small but significant one in Hour of Judgement. Angel of Destruction, as far as I can tell from in-text clues, takes place a short time before Judgement, and probably explains why Garol Vogel is not in the best of humours during the events therein recounted.
Vogel, we learn, in the novel’s very first pages, is responsible for negotiating the surrender of a fleet of commerce raiders—the Langsarik fleet, who fled to fight back when their home was annexed by the Bench. In exchange for fulfilling certain conditions, the Langsariks will be permitted to live, and even perhaps eventually assimilate back into their home system. Vogel respects the Langsariks and particularly admires their leader, Fleet Captain Walton Agenis. He’s determined to do the best for them that he possibly can, and the settlement at Port Charid, under the oversight of the Dolgorukij Combine, is the least terrible of their options.
But a year later, the region near Port Charid is disturbed by a series of raids. Raids which leave little evidence, but all fingers point to the Langsariks. Walton Agenis swears to Vogel that her people can’t have done it. He wants to believe her.
Matters are complicated by the presence of Cousin Stanoczk, a servant of the Malcontent—the peculiar religious order that seems to serve the Dolgorukij Combine both as its collecting-ground for cultural misfits and as its intelligence service—who takes an interest in a raid’s single potential witness, and the fact that in the aftermath of the Domitt Prison incident, the authorities are looking for a Quick Resolution to their public relations problem.
A quick resolution means blaming the Langsariks, if Vogel can’t gather exonerating evidence in time. And as anyone who’s been paying attention can guess... that means lots of dead Langsariks.
The structure of Angel of Destruction is part mystery, part thriller. The reader knows early on who’s responsible for the raids—the “Angel” of the title refers to a very old and very secret terrorist organisation with Dolgorukij society, one long thought wiped out—but the suspense comes from Vogel’s need to put the pieces together and uncover the real culprits in time to save the Langsariks.
Or to figure out what to do—how to choose between his duty and his sense of justice—if it turns out he can’t find the right evidence in time for it to do any good.
There are a couple of things I really like here, apart from the fact that—shockingly!—all the murder and torture in this book is carried out by People Who Are Not Our Protagonists. Matthews is very good at writing character: she has a gift for evoking empathy. Here she’s finally working with characters from a broad(er) palette of cultures, set at varying degrees of moral and/or physical hazard. It’s also becoming clear that Matthews has a deft and subtle touch with political implications, when she gives herself room. (Has it been heretofore established that realistic and interesting politics in books are some of my favourite things? Then be thus advised.)
And, yes, I really like Walton Agenis. Walton Agenis is interesting.
Angel of Destruction is where we learn that life under Jurisdiction might be frequently terrible, but it’s not necessarily unutterably horrible. It’s a little bit more complicated that An Exchange of Hostages and Prisoner of Conscience implied—not much, perhaps, but a little.
Family loyalty, ethics against duty, secret conspiracies, politics, honour, characterisation: Angel of Destruction hits so many of my narrative kinks it’s not even funny.
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