Alex Brown Reviews Tread of Angels by Rebecca Roanhorse
Tread of Angels, Rebecca Roanhorse (Saga Press 978-1-66800-663-4, $22.99. 208pp, tp) November 2022.
With Tread of Angels, Rebecca Roanhorse blends tropes from Westerns and noir with Biblical mythology. In the western town of Goetia are the bones of a dead divine being. What is mined from those bones is used to power just about everything, from automobiles to strange mechanical objects. The town is mostly populated by two kinds of people: the Elect, the descendants of angels who control the politics, the businesses, and the power; and the Fallen, the descendants of the demons who were once fallen angels. But there’s also another class of people: the children born of the Elect and the Fallen, people like Celeste and her sister Mariel. They are lucky to be able to pass as human, while those who can’t, whose Fallen ancestry is too visible, are consigned to the lowest tier of society.
When Mariel is accused of the murder of a Virtue, an order of Elect to maintain and mete out justice (or perhaps I should say ‘‘justice,’’ for what the Fallen get is far worse than what the Elect get), Celeste decides to do whatever it takes to gain her freedom. The cards are stacked against the sisters, but Celeste has what the Elect do not: a willingness to do the worst thing imaginable to get the justice she believes she deserves.
November 2022 seems to be the month for Christian mythology-inspired fantasy mystery novellas. C.L. Polk delivered a firecracker of a novella, Even Though I Knew the End, that ran the hardboiled detective subgenre through the fantasy romance meat grinder, and now Rebecca Roanhorse’s Tread of Angels, which takes noir and adds a layer of Weird Western. A lot of people don’t see much of a difference between noir and hardboiled detective novels, but these two novellas make a good case for each. The simple answer is that hardboiled detectives know the difference between right and wrong (even if where they draw their line is different from where the law or the rest of society does) while noir either makes no distinction or doesn’t care. In an interview with Sewanee Review, Edgar Award-winning author Megan Abbot has a really good definition of the two subgenres:
The common argument is that hardboiled novels are an extension of the wild west and pioneer narratives of the nineteenth century. The wilderness becomes the city, and the hero is usually a somewhat fallen character, a detective or a cop. At the end, everything is a mess, people have died, but the hero has done the right thing or close to it, and order has, to a certain extent, been restored…Noir is different. In noir, everyone is fallen, and right and wrong are not clearly defined and maybe not even attainable. In that sense, noir speaks to us powerfully right now, when certain structures of authority don’t make sense any longer, and we wonder: Why should we abide by them?
Tread of Angels is also an interesting take on the ‘‘tragic mulatto’’ trope, as she mentions in the acknowledgements. For those unfamiliar with it, this trope was created by Lydia Maria Child, an abolitionist and activist for the rights of women and Indigenous people, in the 1840s. The ‘‘tragic mulatto’’ passes as white until they are discovered to have Black ancestry (typically with a white slaveholder father and a Black enslaved mother) and are then expelled from white society and must suffer through a degraded life in Black society, usually resulting in their untimely death or being forced into slavery. These characters hate their Blackness and often punish themselves through alcohol, sex, and suicide. Celeste is raised by their Elect father and Mariel by their Fallen mother. This division causes much tension in the sisters’ relationship, not to mention Celeste’s mother-henning of her younger sister. She wants to better her, to give her the skills to pass as Elect, but Mariel is much more comfortable in her complicated family history than her sister is.
Oftentimes when someone says they wish a novella were longer it’s either because they wanted to spend more time in a world they loved or they’re used to full-length novels and couldn’t adjust their expectations. This is one of those rare occasions where I wished it had been longer to give the noir plot more space to breathe. Everything happens very quickly, and not just because Celeste has less than two days to solve the case. A good noir sucks the reader in like they’ve fallen into a swamp, slowly at first then all at once. Celeste visits various locales in town and chats up several side characters, but the reader isn’t given enough time to see how those interactions affect Celeste or her case. The twists at the end are heavily telegraphed, to the point where I remain rather incredulous that Celeste didn’t figure them out sooner.
That said, I loved the ending. It wraps up exactly like a good noir story should. I also loved the worldbuilding. If you’ve read Roanhorse before, you know how good she is at coming up with a killer hook and going all in on the details that make her settings and systems pop. This novella had more worldbuilding in it than I expected from a 200 page novella, with hints at even more than ended up on the cutting room floor. It’s a tantalizing glimpse at an extremely creative mind.
When done right, noir can be a transformative experience. Tread of Angels is probably more noir than many fantasy readers are used to. However, if it’s a narrative style you already like, then you’ll have a good time with it. Those of you who are unfamiliar with noir, get ready for morally ambiguous characters making poor choices and an ending that will land like a punch to the face.
Alex Brown is a queer Black librarian and writer. They have written two books on the history of Napa County, California’s marginalized communities. They write about adult and young adult science fiction, fantasy, and horror as well as BIPOC history and librarianship. Diversity, equity, inclusion, and access set the foundation of all their work. Alex lives in Southern California with their pet rats and ever-increasing piles of books.
This review and more like it in the January 2023 issue of Locus.
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