I’ve never been particularly interested in alternate history, though I grant that there’s a lot to be said of the impetus animating most such stories, which is to say... what if?
For instance: what if I’d enjoyed actual history at high school? I wonder how very different my life might have been, had my teacher only been a better storyteller. Lamentably, he was more interested in hard facts than fanciful narratives, so whilst he droned on about names and dates, asserting the dominance of numbers over wonders, my attention, inevitably, went elsewhere. Instead, I stared into space, imagining other sorts of stories entirely.
But what if things had been different? Would I have the passion for fantasy that has, in some small way, made me who I am today? If there’s anything to that scenario—and I think there is—I may just have something to thank my history teacher for after all... because otherwise, I probably wouldn’t have read Gideon’s Angel, and I’m wholeheartedly glad I did. Simply put, I had more fun with Clifford Beal’s book than I’ve had with any other in some months.
In the aftermath of a long Civil War—a time of political upheaval, indeed outright evil—ye olde England is a deprived and oftentimes depraved place. Nevertheless, Richard Treadwell, a disgraced Cavalier, is less than pleased to be banished to France, where he has little other choice than to accept employment as an agent for a crafty Cardinal called Mazarin.
Eight years later, Treadwell is relatively well established in King Louis’ country. He’s met Marguerite, the light of his life, and made a few new acquaintances as well. But our man is ever aware of his increasing age, and even now home is hardly where the heart is, so after watching his dear friend Andreas Falkenhayn rot to death in a filthy French bed, Treadwell resolves to return to England, come hell or high water.
His homecoming, however, is not the happiest:
“The weather held fair the whole of my journey, but the sights that met my eyes were bittersweet ones. The lean-to sheds of tapped-out tin mines sat abandoned to fortune: no fires burned, no kilns smoked. And never had I seen so many sturdy beggars in Plympton town. They were a bold lot, following me with wary and covetous eyes. The war had laid the whole place low.”
In truth, the rogue has returned to England simply to die decently, but complications arise immediately after his arrival. Having said goodbye to the family he had abandoned, Treadwell murders a man by accident, becomes embroiled in deep-seated political and religious intrigue, and uncovers, in short order, a treasonous scheme against Old Ironsides himself, Oliver Cromwell: the very man he had planned to assassinate, or martyr himself trying.
When a rabid black beast summoned from some dark place begins to dog him from town to town, Treadwell’s plot goes to pot once and for all. He realises, then, that for England to survive—for human good to prevail over otherworldly evil—he’ll have to protect, of all people, the Lord Protector.
This reversal marks a telling turning point in Gideon’s Angel: one which demonstrates the two genres the author cleverly brings together over the course of his fantastic, bombastic debut. Beforehand, it has been a fairly straight historical novel, made engaging by moments of character-based drama and increasingly desperate derring-do; afterwards, however, it’s dark fantasy through and through, and the aforementioned hellhound is just the first such illustration of the awful horror of Treadwell is destined to come up against.
Fortunately for the fiction, which rattles along so relentlessly that a period of reflection would have interrupted the incredible sense of momentum Beal builds, our narrator has some small experience of the arcane arts. He has “seen things with [his] own eyes in many dark places. Things that would turn your bowels to water in an instant and set your bones to ice.” Treadwell simply takes these hideous sights in his stride. That’s just the sort of anti-hero he is—intractable, yet adaptable. With, as established, a little bit of a death wish.
To wit, though Treadwell is a powerful guiding force for Gideon’s Angel to follow, he’s harder to invest in as a protagonist—another potential pitfall the author appears aware of, judging by Treadwell’s man Billy Chard. He begins a common criminal, but by the end of the affair he’s a markedly more relatable character than his master. Billy Chard may be a mere sidekick, but he’s funny, frank, and affected by the things he sees—as, I warrant, are we. Here, then, is the reader’s route through the non-stop narrative which is Beal’s greatest feat.
By smartly sidestepping this issue, and pre-emptively addressing a number of other mistakes in the making—the dialogue is not overbearingly archaic, whilst women are relatively well represented, mostly by Marguerite—Clifford Beal comes out of Gideon’s Angel unscathed in a way few new authors do. Clearly, he’s an immensely capable creator, and indubitably, this is an assured debut, with a fascinating cast, an authentic setting in terms of place and time too, and a story that practically oozes exuberance.
I dare say I’d have enjoyed Gideon’s Angel if it had been a wholly historical novel—a surprising realisation for me—or equally, dark fantasy fiction from the first, but the sheer panache with which Clifford Beal brings together the past and the supernatural results in a headlong alt-history hybrid more potent than either aspect of the entire would be without the other.
Gideon’s Angel might seem slight, and in certain respects, I admit it is—on the other hand, it’s intensely pleasurable, and so perfectly, purposefully paced that you’ll hardly have time to mind, should you be so inclined.
Gideon’s Angel is out from Solaris Books on February 26.
Niall Alexander is an erstwhile English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and Tor.com, where he contributes a weekly column concerned with news and new releases in the UK called the British Genre Fiction Focus, and co-curates the Short Fiction Spotlight. On rare occasion he’s been seen to tweet about books, too.