Angel with the Sword, CJ Cherryh (1985)
Review by Ian Sales
In a career so far spanning five decades, Carolyn Janice Cherry has managed to maintain both an enviable productivity with little or no loss of quality, and a future history comprising to date twenty-seven novels, seven anthologies, and a number of short stories. Angel with the Sword, however, is actually peripheral to the main history of Cherryh’s Alliance-Union universe.
Altair Jones is a “canaler” in the city of Merovingen on the world of Merovin. She is seventeen, an orphan, and very much the mistress of her own fate. Like all the canalers, she is dirt-poor, living a hand-to-mouth existence as she picks up work ferrying cargo around the canals of the city. When she witnesses a man being thrown from a bridge, she rescues him before he drowns and finds herself embroiled in a political struggle among the religions, political parties and plutocrats of Merovin.
There’s not much in Angel with the Sword itself which makes the story science fiction. Merovingen, a city which has been flooded so often and to such an extent that it has now become like Venice could just as easily be, well, Venice. And the politico-religious factions which drive the plot of the novel, while unique to it and connected to the Alliance and Union of Cherryh’s future history, aren’t actually necessary in that form for the story to work. But Cherryh chose to write Angel with the Sword as sf, and it’s proven a popular book in her oeuvre – perhaps as much for its setting as for its protagonist. I’ll freely admit it’s my favourite of her novels, and rereading it for review only reminded me how much charm it possesses.
There’s enough in the plot of Angel with the Sword to make sense of it, but Cherryh adds thirty-four pages of appendices and maps. These place the events in Merovingen in a planetary context, and the world of Merovin itself in a galactic context, as well as detailing flora, fauna, customs, dress, etc. Some six hundred years prior to the events of the story, Merovin was settled illegally by colonists from Union. All went well for a couple of decades, then the world’s former inhabitants, the sharrh, turned up and demanded the removal of the human colonists. Most left, but some ran to the hills – for reasons which probably owe more to a romanticised US pioneer spirit than any convincing in-universe rationale. The sharrh destroyed every human city on the planet and then left. The stay-behinds resettled the ruins, gradually rediscovered civilisation, and now operate the sort of low-tech libertarian paradise beloved by certain US sf authors, in which a fabulously wealthy upper class control everything and live the life of Riley on the backs of a much larger powerless and poor populace.
The man who falls from the bridge, Mondragon, is a member of the upper class from another city, and he used to be a member of a powerful politico-religious organisation. But he left them. And now he knows too many secrets. Factions in Merovingen, as well as his home city of Nev Hettek, are after him. Jones falls in love with him, and goes against all her instincts in helping him. When he is then kidnapped by one faction, she leads the canalers on a rescue mission.
There are problems with Angel with the Sword. There’s the society on Merovin, for a start. Six hundred years after the survivalists came down from the hills, you’d expect something a little more civilised than pure unregulated capitalism. It’s not as if the world suffers any kind of scarcity – the only thing that appears to be in short supply among the canalers is, well, money. In Merovingen, the strata of society are as much physical as they are social – the canalers live among the pilings of the buildings, down on the water. The rich live on the upper stories – and when Jones visits one such, a member of one of the city’s most powerful families, she is astonished at the luxury on display. The story also makes the repeated point that the various public institutions are corrupt and controlled by the richest and most powerful families.
And then there’s Altair Jones herself. She’s seventeen, tough, independent, resourceful… and a virgin when the story opens. It’s not stated how old Mondragon is, but he’s no teenager. Within a day of the rescue, they’ve had sex – and yet neither of their motives for doing so are really plausible. It’s almost as if it’s an expected consequence of the rescue. There’s also a disturbing lack of gender equality in the novel, despite it being supposedly set in the thirty-third century. According to one of the appendices, clothing on Merovin has “no particular gender distinction”, and it’s true that Jones wears trousers and sweater throughout the book… but it’s still very much a male-controlled society, and Jones is the only female character in the story with agency.
And yet, despite this romanticised Wild-West-in-Venice setting, Angel with the Sword continues to appeal. Jones is an engaging heroine, despite being exceptional within the world of the story. Merovingen is a fascinating place, despite being horribly unegalitarian and far from civilised. Angel with the Sword is a fun sf read, despite only being science fiction because Cherryh says in an appendix that it’s set in the thirty-third century. There’s much to dislike about the world Cherryh has created in this twenty-seven-year-old novel – though that doesn’t mean such worlds are not created in twenty-first century sf novels (and some of them even get shortlisted for major genre awards). In some respects, Angel with the Sword feels like a product of a decade earlier than its 1985 publication year, but it remains readable because of the quality of Cherryh’s prose, because it is tautly and relentlessly plotted and because it embodies the remorseless appeal of a romance novel.
And those anthologies mentioned at the beginning of this review? Angel with the Sword inspired a seven-book series, Merovingen Nights, containing stories by Cherryh herself, Lynn Abbey, Mercedes Lackey, Janet Morris, Robert Lynn Asprin, and others, all set in the titular city.