Angel at Apogee, SN Lewitt (1987)
Review by Ian Sales
As an object, Angel at Apogee the paperback says several interesting things. The author is given as SN Lewitt, thus disguising her gender. (In fact, from her seventh novel, 1995′s Interface Masque, Lewitt began using her full name, Shariann Lewitt.) The cover-art features an advanced jet fighter and the tagline “The Hottest Pilot of Them All…”. It all seems designed to suggest this is a military science fiction novel, written by a male author and aimed squarely at male readers.
The back cover blurb, however, reveals that the title character is female, and suggests that the plot of the novel is not the testosterone-infused future combat tale implied by the front cover. Further, there is a quote from Andre Norton.
Angel at Apogee is actually a heartland sf story about a young woman who, in an effort to protect her own interests, discovers the truth about herself, her world and her people. Gaelian YnTourne may be a space-fighter pilot (a cadet, in fact, as the novel opens), but she is also heir to one of the most powerful families on the world of Dinoreos. She is also something of an outsider. She was born and spent the first seven years of her life on the primitive planet of Cahaute while her parents were on a survey mission there. Her relatives, however, are not entirely convinced she is fully of their blood – her mother died on Cahaute, and they suspect her real mother may have been a native.
The Dinoreosans are a nasty lot. They have several grades of aristocrat, in order of precendence Ot-tan, Li-tan and Sonna-tan. Everyone else is a commoner and beneath notice. The YnTourne are Ot-tan. They also have a seat on the Board of the Protectorate. Dinoreos is a corporate oligarchy, and the consortium that is the Protectorate controls the entire planet and a second world, Adredri. All Adredri are considered no better than commoners. Cahaute is the only other planet known to Dinoreosans, and it is inhabited only by small tribes plainly modelled on Native Americans. It is the Protectorate’s plans to exploit Cahaute which drives the plot of Angel at Apogee.
While Gaelian is set to inherit the YnTourne seat on the Board, her grandmother, the current holder, doesn’t want her to. She’d much rather Gaelian’s cousin, Dobrin, did so. So, while Gaelian is determined to fight for her inheritance, she’d much rather be a pilot – and she’s the very best at the Academy. The only person close to her is Golran, but he’s a commoner (one of the rare ones allowed entry to the Academy). Any kind of relationship with him is deeply frowned upon. Gaelian is already affianced to Teazerin YnSetti, who is clearly a nasty piece of work, arrogant and sadistic.
Gaelian overcomes her first hurdle – her family position – quite quickly and relatively (no pun intended) easily. She never wanted that seat on the Board anyway, Dobrin can have it. And he’s a good sort really. But then Gaelian’s piloting career comes a cropper when she is waylaid and kidnapped by the Adredri, who, it transpires, secretly have technology the equal of Dinoreos. And on Cahaute, a Dinoreosan base camp, commanded by Teazerin, is having trouble with restless natives.
In Gaelian, Angel at Apogee has an engaging heroine; and she later proves to be more than she appears to be – it is her Cahaute blood – and so is firmly within sf’s custom of featuring protagonists with super-human or near-messianic abilities. In Gaelian’s case, these abilities are linked directly to the secret history of Dinoreos, Adredri and Cahaute.
The setting of the story also has its appeal. It seems a curiously confined space – it’s not made clear if the three worlds are part of the same planetary system, though in effect they might as well be. The cultures of the three are drawn well – one of the highlights is Gaelian’s witnessing of an annual religious festival on Adredri. However, the depiction of the aristocracy on Dinoreos is somewhat troubling. Initially, it seems the four sectors of Dinoreosan society have racial roots, with the Ot-tan historical conquerors of the others. Later, it is revealed that Dinoreos was settled by a single race. But there is still a nasty streak of bigotry in the attitude of the Ot-tan to the other Dinoreosans, the Adredri and the Cahautans. This is amply demonstrated in an Academy “honor court” incident witnessed by Gaelian early in the novel.
Important to the story, and to the culture of Dinoreos, is the game of nerris. This is played in a court with a wall each of black, red, blue and yellow. A specific strategy is associated with the team defending each colour. The game is played with a stick, which has a blunt end and pointed end. The stick is also barbed. Drawing blood is considered a part of the game. The stick too is often used as a metaphor in Dinoreosan society. Unfortunately, it’s not entirely clear exactly how nerris operates, and its use as metaphor – especially playing “as blue” or making a “yellow play” – in interactions between the characters does little but confuse matters.
Angel at Apogee is a good, solid sf debut. It’s a fun read from start to finish, with a likeable protagonist, an interesting setting, and a resolution that satisfies. Following it, Lewitt wrote a military sf duology similar in broad form to Angel at Apogee, before moving onto sf novels less obviously positioned as military sf. Her last novel was Rebel Sutra in 2000 (see here).