A Flight of Angels by Holly Black, Rebecca Guay, Louise Hawes, Alisa Kwitney, Todd Mitchell, and Bill Willingham
Remember when angels were supposed to be the next big thing in young adult paranormal romance, on par with vampires? Instead, the trend has largely kept itself contained to Cassandra Clare’s The Mortal Instruments and Becca Fitzpatrick’s Hush, Hush series. Angels aren’t much of a presence in the former, although their descendants are; and Hush, Hush is a shining example of rape culture. On top of that, vampires and werewolves come pre-loaded, as it were, with teenage sexual angst—first blood, uncontrollable body hair, and strange urges. Angels, on the other hand, have grander concepts tied up with them, especially the fallen variety—knowledge, agency, and power.
This is what A Flight of Angels explores. A group of fantastical creatures gather around a fallen angel and hold a tribunal to decide whether or not they should let him live. To that end, they share all the stories they know about angels, hence this brief anthology. The best short stories—by which I mean the ones that stick closest with you—have something of the allegory to them; their themes lie a little closer to the surface, to be more potent and effective. For instance, author Ursula Vernon’s The Chronicles of Narnia fic “Elegant and Fine” is largely about the loss of agency Susan experiences having been returned to a child’s body after being an adult. (Long-form fic is also quite capable of this, but I tend to read shorter fic, because shotgunning a fifty thousand word fic before bed is no longer something I can pull off.)
And so go the five stories collected in A Flight of Angels. A small goblin proposes that this is, in fact, Raziel, the angel who gave the gift of knowledge to Adam and Eve. A disgraced faerie knight thinks it’s an angel who was killed for defying orders. A hag tells a story about a woman who spent her life fending off the advances of the angel of death to warn her comrades against saving the angel. A woodland faerie counters with a story of an angel devoted to a mortal woman. And a fox tells a story claiming that the faerie folk are angels who simply didn’t fall far enough, which is just enough to send a young faun into a rage over his own wasted potential.
It’s the first two stories, “Original Sin” by Louise Hawes and “Shining Host” by Holly Black, that most explicitly tackle knowledge and agency. “Original Sin” focuses on the fact that angels are not their own masters. Raziel even posits that humans are the perfect balance between angels and animals, and that his interest in bestowing upon them divine knowledge is seeing which way they’ll run, since they’re the only unpredictable things in the universe. The renegade angel in “Shining Host” is unpredictable as well, a mediocre soul who lashes out after he’s removed from overseeing deaths caused by terminal illnesses. And, of course, he must be terminated for disobeying even a misguided order, even though he has very good reasons for what he did.
To a lesser extent, “The Guardian” does this as well—an angel obeys his mortal lover’s command to stay away from her, even thought disobeying would save her life—as does “Chaya Surah and the Angel of Death,” wherein the Angel of Death adheres strictly to the deal he struck with the titular Chaya Surah. What these authors find fascinating about angels is their subservient status. This is reflected in the faerie knight in the frame story, who takes control of the tribunal and thinks of himself as above the others, but remains a servant to both his queen (who he has disappointed) and his lusts (with which he disappointed her). They’re beautiful and powerful, but they are restricted.
Which is, of course, why Lucifer fell. Bill Willingham’s story “The Story Within the Story Within” closes out the collection with a bang, proposing an equally divine origin for the mythical creatures who have come to gawk at the fallen angel. The “shocking” ending advertised in the publishing blurb isn’t particularly shocking. A young faun, recently enslaved by a hag, attacks the angel, blaming him for all the ills he and his people have suffered. If he didn’t fall, the logic goes, then they would all still be angels, living in perfect harmony. It’s the first time in his life he’s expressed any kind of agency, and he’s immediately horrified, begging for the angel to save him instead.
And that’s where it ends. It’s a thoughtful take on angels that serves as an illustration exercise for illustrator Rebecca Guay, who uses a different style for every story. I almost would have preferred one coherent style, but I think that’s because I’m unused to anthology comics and would have appreciated more of a through line. (Yes, even more of a through line than the frame story.)
Bottom line: A beautifully illustrated and thoughtful take on the mythos of angels. If you’d like.
I rented this book from the public library.