Rebecca Roanhorse has created a stark fantasy world in the weird west of her powerful novella, Tread of Angels. From its brilliant opening, as a dark and violent wind blowing off a mountain called Abaddon storms into the grim town of Goetia and slams down Perdition Street into the Eden, its main den of gambling and prostitution, we can feel the raw power that the characters of the story have to contend with. They are divided sharply into the Elect and the Fallen and will face horrible choices, or perhaps no choice at all about their futures.
Tread of Angels opens a world of demons and angels as well as people. Its machines and engines run on a fuel called divinity, which comes from the Tabor mine on Mount Abaddon. Despite its ubiquitous use to power everything, too much exposure can drive the Elect mad. Strangely, only the Fallen can detect the mining lodes of divinity and resist its power to twist the mind, so they are paid well by the Elect for their services. But socially the Elect have nothing to do with the Fallen lower class and scorn to be seen with them.
We meet Celeste Semyaza dealing cards at a faro table amid Elect and Fallen gamblers, costumed for the “holy” day commemorating Lucifer’s last stand against the angels. Celeste, who is from mixed parentage but chooses to identify with the Fallen side of her family, has an uncomfortable feeling at the back of her neck telling her that something is wrong. And that something moves quickly from intuition to certainty when she realizes her sister, Mariel, isn’t on stage singing as she should be.
Celeste tries to shut down her table and has to fight her way out of the room as angry gamblers demand to keep the game going to make up their losses. But she needs to locate her sister, and before long finds out that she’s been arrested by the Virtues, Elect citizens dressed in white coats and white porcelain face masks for this role, for the crime of murder. Mariel has been found in a bloodied bed by the side of an Elect man, dead from bleeding out after castration.
To the Virtues, this is an open and shut case: an Elect man who was also a Virtue killed by a Fallen prostitute. Among those taking Mariel away is a terrifying member of the Order of Azrael who has tears of blood painted on his white mask and who wields a flaming sword that can reduce a person to ash. In the eyes of the Elect, the Fallen were the “embodiment of disobedience to God’s will” and the enemies of a God-fearing society. Celeste, who can summon up her talents from the Elect side of her heritage when she has to, is sure her sister is innocent and sets out to find the truth.
What follows is her urgent search for the answer, a search that forces her to confront her own illusions about the past and what she thinks she knows about those around her. The story unfolds as she turns to one vividly drawn character after another.
There is Hypatia, owner of the Eden, six feet tall and built like a mountain, who finds out where Mariel has been taken and helps Celeste search for clues at the murder scene. Hypatia urges her to get help from the one friend who could do something, Celeste’s former lover who happens to be a terrifying demon.
Abraxas, demon lord and former general in Lucifer’s army, had chosen to stay in Goetia and assumed the form of a beautiful young man. He had fallen in love with Celeste as soon as he turned his crimson eyes toward her, and he was still the only man she had ever loved. But the cost of the demon’s love had been too great, and now she dreads asking him for any help. She guardedly accepts a pendant on a gold chain that will protect her from the Virtue interrogation techniques and sets off to see the leader of the Order of Chamuel who have custody of Mariel.
Ibrahim is that leader and prides himself and his order for strictly following the laws of justice, even when the accused is one of the Fallen. He tells Celeste that she can defend Mariel as an advocate in court after he hears her spirited arguments on her sister’s innocence.
But this is not a simple story of Fallen good people vs. the hypocritical evil of the Elect. Each character we meet exists in a swirl of powerful forces that can be unleashed by angels and demons, and all have to give up their illusions in order to survive. Celeste gets help at critical moments from Abraxas and tries to free her sister by pointing the finger at an innocent woman. The murder mystery and courtroom drama play out in spectacular fashion, and Celeste is left at the end to face her own truth, however much she has fought it in the past.
Rebecca Roanhorse adds great depth to a story that could feel like a morality play in lesser hands. She packs this novella with fascinating detail that is just enough to keep you moving swiftly through the action and yet stays in your mind because of its elemental force. I’m glad the novella as a form has been making such a comeback, since the intricacies of plotting long novels often feel forced to me. Rebecca Roanhorse shows herself in Tread of Angels to be a master of the form.
I want to thank Simon and Schuster, Gallery Books and Net Galley for an advance review copy as the basis for this review, which reflects solely my own opinions.