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4.1 out of 5 stars
4.1 out of 5 stars

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on 29 June 2008
This book has me slightly puzzled, because now I've managed to escape from its clutches and stop checking for... no, to tell you what it made me scared of would be a spoiler... anyway, now I've got "out" of it, it's hard to analyse what made it so gripping.

We have an ancient man-made (er, sentient-made) space city, all luxury on top and slums in the sewers/recycling mechanism. Nothing new there, standard cliche of either SF or fantasy. Tribe culture in the underworld - check. Gritty references to food and water from recycling - check. Of our two heros, one is a youngster in the underworld who has recently lost his protector, the other is a wealthy newcomer to the entire world who can therefore receive explanations that also explain things to the reader. Check, check. (Though I notice that many of these things are cliches I'm more used to meeting in fantasy than in SF). There are other cliches later on, too, mainly about alien powers and what the climax consists of, but I'll refrain from spoilers.

The Angels of the title are state-sponsored assassins. Now, that's new. This is a democracy by assassination: for a politician, failing is a very bad idea. You may "win" the vote to be Removed. We get a look at the concept from the viewpoint of victim, of assassin, and of audience. It's well-thought out, it's different, and the consequences have been thought through.

What else is different? Well, that young hero is a male prostitute - by choice. For once, this subject gets treated in a refreshingly non-hysterical fashion.

I think what gripped me, though, was the characterisation. Both heroes, and many of the other characters, are sympathetic people. They're not idiots, but they do have human flaws. The action keeps moving at a good pace, enough to stop me putting the book down without getting breathless. Because they feel real, the threats seem real, and because much of the background is undemanding, familiar, stuff, you don't get distracted by it.
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New author Jaine Fenn really doesn't pull punches in her dark look at the future of mankind in this tale where Dark City meets Bladerunner and one of the cheapest commodities is life.

Well written with an almost classical class of characters the reader is treated to a story within a story as the characters each struggle to find their own way in this dangerous world only to end up discovering that through cooperation do they stand any chance of success as the tale builds up to a climatic finish that no one will see coming. This really is Science Fiction at its best with risks that only a new author will take allowing the reader to see a world in vivid colour against the backdrop of a power struggle for societies elite using the denizens of the undercity as pawns in a masterful game of political court chess where even a pawn can become King. If you're looking for something different to many books out there, this one truly does stand on its own two feet and will more than entertain.
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on 14 September 2010
Principles of Angels combines a convoluted plot, with unexpected twists, multi-dimensional characters,and a complex, and unique, setting. Vellern is a rock terra-formed and divided into three cities after the planet below was made uninhabitable by its inhabitants. Topside, there are rules: the Compact, agreed by the politicians in the three cities. Angles enforce the Compact by killing those the Minister orders killed; primarily politicians. The Undertow is a maze of streets and dwellings carved out of spill over from Topside. Power rules in the Undertow. Fenn very cleverly introduces the setting using two perspectives: first, Taro, an inhabitant of the planet, and, in Chapter Two, Ellarn Rean, an outsider.

Taro's aunt, an Angel, has been killed. As a result, Taro no longer has a place topside and has fled to the Undertow. Taro blames himself for his aunt's death. While his aunt adopted him after the death of his Angel mother, her care seems to have been rather grudging. When he was fourteen, she told him to get a trade. He became a prostitute. One of his tricks followed him home and killed Malia. Taro swears to avenge her death.

No longer under the protection of being part of an Angel lineage, Taro hides in the Undertow. To survive, Taro regretfully decides to join the troop of prostitutes controlled by a powerful Underside gang leader, a good example of the brutality and sadism of the Undertow.

Chapter Two opens with Elarn Rean on her way to Vellern. She is a famous singer from a theocratic planet dominated by a religion resembling Christianity. She's become a non-believer, abandoning the religion of her home planet. Despite this, she continues her musical speciality, singing religious songs. She is coming to Vellern to present a series of concerts. She views Vellern and its three cities contemptuously, as a tourist destination, where anything, sex, drugs, is available. She comes because she has no choice. She has been ordered to go to Vellern by the mysterious Sidhe, an alien species that most humans think is extinct.

Taro and Elarn are both pawns, manipulated by those in power. Their lives are ruined as a matter of business - nothing personal, just business, a way of controlling Nual, an Angel, a remote, reclusive and beautiful Angel; the most successful killer in the Angel group. As the novel proceeds, we see that Taro is actually far less damaged than Elam - decent, kind although never treated kindly himself, more intelligent and competent than he appears. Elain, while damaged, is stronger and more decent than those manipulating her suspect. The three major characters are masked and as they slowly abandon their masks they penetrate the masks of Vellern itself.

There is a succession of other characters, sadistic and kind, Topside and Underside, that add to the plot's twists and turns. A few are as they seem; most are not.

This is one of the best SF novels I've read in years. Fenn has created a fictional world that shapes its characters, with a plot stemming out of character and setting. .
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on 15 September 2011
I saw a review of a later book in the same 'Hidden Empires' series, and thought this was worth trying. Each book is an independent story, but they are all set in the same world/universe and later there is some overlap of characters. The genre is science fiction, but with a fantasy feel about it, at least for this book.

I have to admit to a certain ambivalence about this book. The setting - a decadent city with a violently seedy underworld, and a protagonist just barely surviving on th...moreI saw a review of a later book in the same 'Hidden Empires' series, and thought this was worth trying. Each book is an independent story, but they are all set in the same world/universe and later there is some overlap of characters. The genre is science fiction, but with a fantasy feel about it, at least for this book.

I have to admit to a certain ambivalence about this book. The setting - a decadent city with a violently seedy underworld, and a protagonist just barely surviving on the margins of society - is one that I normally avoid. I've put aside several highly rated books that zoomed in too quickly on torture or grim malevolence or piles of dismembered corpses. Life's too short to read such depressing stuff. But oddly, this one kept me turning the pages, almost despite myself, and I'm not quite sure why. Maybe because, despite the background, it's not really that grim. And another thing - why is it that, no matter how original the setting, somehow the society falls into traditional patterns? It would be refreshing for once to read about characters who get laid or stoned in safe, hygenic government-run facilities, while having to sneak around in dangerous back alleys dealing with crooks just to get themselves a wee dram. Anyway, on to the book.

The opening drew me in at once. Taro, one of the two main protagonists, is on the run, fearing for his life, in the (literal) underworld of the floating city he inhabits, since his aunt, an Angel, was killed two days before. Now the young man living off society's dregs is a dull cliche, and there's the usual heavy splattering of impenetrable jargon to wade through, but the half-Angel lineage is intriguing. Taro is a likeable character, a prostitute by choice, and charmingly well-meaning but naive, almost innocent, in many ways. Despite his best intentions, he gets himself into trouble at every turn.

The other main character, Elarn, is very different. She's also naive, and obviously forced into a horrible situation against her will, which should make her sympathetic. Instead, she's whiny and tearful and helpless and falls instantly in lurve and.... well, generally manages to be really, really irritating. If she were sixteen, this might be just about tolerable, but she appears to be much older than that (although her actual age is not mentioned, or else I missed it).

Some aspects of the book's world struck me as rather hard to believe. The attempted mugging of Elarn seemed quite implausible in a city which seems to depend for its livelihood on tourism - surely there would be some basic kind of security for arriving visitors, rather than a life-threatening encounter the instant she set foot in the city? And I found it hard to get a feel for the nuances of this society. Despite the dramatic opening with its underdog impression, within a few pages Taro is talking matter-of-factly with the Minister (presumably the equivalent of the Mayor). Later, he moves seamlessly among his gangland underworld, the high-ranking and respected Angels, and the city above, despite being effectively an outlaw. We are told repeatedly that his protected status lapsed when his aunt died, yet he moves insouciantly around the city, both above and below, without much difficulty, and seems constantly to land on his feet, whatever scrapes he gets into. But on the whole, the plot is easy to understand and free of unexplained coincidences.

The writing style is rather flat. Encounters which appear to be life-threatening actually have no tension at all. Only occasionally does the author manage to generate a crackle of real fear. But eventually, more than half way through, the story kicks into a higher gear, the stakes are ramped way up and things get nicely exciting. There's a little too much straight exposition here, and the point of view hops frenetically from one character to another, which I found distracting and a little difficult to follow, but nevertheless everything builds page-turningly to the dramatic finale. Some of the twists were predictable, and some were underwhelming, and there's an outbreak of over-wrought hyperbole near the end (although I understand the effect the author was attempting), but still the ride was fun.

For a debut, this was a competent effort, very readable and thoroughly enjoyable. I shall certainly be reading more in the series. Four stars.
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VINE VOICEon 25 May 2009
Khesh City is a place of two halves, in a society with a history. It's one of the three government centres in an uneasy alliance of human societies that exist some time after the ending of the dominance of humainty by the alien Sidhe (hint; it's pronounced 'Shee', as in 'Banshee'). Only the Sidhe aren't as defeated as everyone would like to think, and when a singer arrives in Khesh City with more than performances on her mind, the City's semi-despotic ruler conscripts one of the underworld's rent-boys to aid one of his own Angel assassins in uncovering a plot that could doom them all.

This book is definitely one for grown-ups, including as it does a prostitute main character, and numerous passages you wouldn't want your child or granny to read. But in my view that's made for a bold debut. This book could have been written in a sanitised form, and wouldn't have had half as much integrity. I like a sci-fi story that treats its reader like an adult, and refuses to have its hands tied by the desire to please everyone - it's an easy trap for a genre book to fall into, and I admire Fenn for having boldly begun her career with her integrity intact. Word on the grapevine is that Fenn has secured a three book deal, and the hardback edition of the sequel to this book is about to hit the stores as I type.
The only reservation I have with this book is that it's quite obviously the first in a series. Self-contained though the story may be to an extent, it loses some of its impact for me by being an obvious 'first book' in a (presumed) trilogy. Having said that, I do intend to buy the next book, so obviously I'm able to get past that.
My hope also is that Fenn matures as writer as ther series moves on - this book, for all it's boldness, is a 'first book' in another way too. The storyline plods on occasion, and does take a while to warm up. The reader has to stick with it for some time before working out the setting (who the Angels are, who the Sidhe are, and how everyone has ended up in Khesh City in the first place). It's good, but could possibly have done with a bit more detail. Read it, and judge for yourself.
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on 18 July 2008
Confidence and assurance are vital for the debut SF novelist. Standards these days are high: the new writer who wishes to be taken seriously has to juggle atmosphere, individuality, plot and characters and make them more than the sum of their parts. She has to do this on a first outing, and eschew a safety net.
Jaine Fenn's confidence is well-founded.
Principles of Angels presents its setting through the eyes of outsiders: a stranger, and a prostitute. One doesn't understand the city; the other knows limited aspects far too well, and spends the whole story reeling between traumas. Describing a strange society through these lenses is hard, but Fenn manages to keep the reader on-track, seemingly effortlessly.
The plot grows naturally from the setting's details, and its revelation is skilfully managed; the characters' perspectives are one of Fenn's major tools in this trick, and allow her to keep the reader under control. Control? Yes. A reader has an advantage over the characters in a mystery story: he knows that there is a story, and will look for it. If the reader is indulged in this way, the characters have to fail to notice many of the implications of their knowledge and experience, and so they have to act like Hollywood idiots. It's an infuriating habit of lazy writers, and Fenn goes to a lot of well-concealed work to avoid it.
The result is a very deft and nicely layered mystery, on multiple levels, that resolves itself fully through heroism, and manages to leave survivors to populate sequels. Read it, and expect Fenn to get even better soon.
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on 6 May 2012
I met Jaine Fenn at Bristolcon, where she was the sole female science fiction writer speaking on the various panels. I had a chance to chat to her during the evening and made a mental note to get hold of her writing. I'm very glad I did, as her debut novel on my Kindle made a long train journey zip by in a blur of excitement and action.

So... this floating city with the privileged living a vastly better life than the underclass who - literally - struggle for survival under their feet - is it convincing and does it rise above the inevitable clichéd feel of that description? Yes - in my opinion it certainly does. And I've been startled to read some really unpleasant, sneering reviews about this book. What places it outside the norm for this genre is that Principles of Angels is completely character-driven. Perhaps the omission of a limited omniscient info-dump is perplexing some of those reviewing the book. Well, it's fine with me - I happen to think one of the reasons why Fantasy is currently trampling Science Fiction underfoot, is that the majority of best-selling Fantasy authors write punchy, character-led stories which readers find accessible and engrossing. And a large number of Science Fiction writers don't...

Fenn drops her readers right into the middle of the action in Taro's viewpoint as he battles for his life - his character sings off the pages from the start and continues to sparkle right through the book. He survives as a prostitute and while Fenn doesn't flinch from showing us the seamy underbelly of such a trade, at no time does she slide into gratuitous detail. Overall, I felt the world-building was strong and convincing - we see slices of Khesh City from both above and below and I particularly liked Taro's disorientation when he reaches Topside. The other detail in this book that I appreciated was the dialogue - complete with appropriate slang. Stupidity or absentmindedness (lethal when negotiating hanging walkways with holes or climbing nets) is known as being gappy; in comparison anything commendable is bolted.

The other main protagonist is off-world visitor, Elarn, who is on an unexpected singing tour. Her character is far more opaque - though it rapidly becomes clear that her tour is a cover for another mission. Khesh City is further fleshed out as we get to experience it through Elarn's viewpoint as a newcomer with access to all the privilige and luxury the City has to offer. However, her plans quickly go awry when she encounters charismatic politician Salik Vidoran.

The pace sweeps onward from the first page and gets ever faster as we reach the climactic ending, which more or less ties everything up while leaving a couple of major issues dangling for the subsequent books in the series. Which means I've more opportunities to visit Fenn's rich, engrossing world. Yay!
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Khesh City floats above the uninhabitable surface of the planet Vellern. It is a city of contrasts, with the rich and powerful living on the luxurious surface and the poor and downtrodden forced to live in the Undertow. The city is a democracy by assassination, where unpopular politicians can be removed by official killers known as Angels. When an Angel is brutally murdered, it falls to her nephew, Taro, to learn the reasons why.

Principles of Angels, the debut novel by Jaine Fenn and the first in her loosely-linked Hidden Empire sequence, is a far-future SF novel centred on two contrasting protagonists: Taro, a male prostitute trying to avenge his murdered aunt, and Elarn, a high-class singer who has been blackmailed into travelling to the city to commit a heinous crime. Taro lives in an underworld of crime and exploitation, but is idealistic, which leads him into becoming an agent for the Minister, the city's enigmatic ruler. Elarn is a more civilised character, out to do the right thing but trapped in a situation not of her own making, one which could have severe repercussions for the entire human race. Other major characters include the Minister himself, the Angel Nual and detective/info-broker Meraint. Fenn does an effective job of distinguishing and motivating these individuals, although the focus is firmly on the two main characters (who alternate POV chapters for much of the novel).

A thousand years before the events of the novel, mankind was ruled by an alien species, the Sidhe. Humanity broke free of their control and apparently destroyed them but, as the title of the series indicates, this may not be the case. Fenn does a good job of filling us in on this backstory by seeding the information into the text naturally, not relying on info-dumps. In doing so, she creates an intriguing universe which the reader definitely wants to see more of.

The plot unfolds at a good pace, helped by the book's relatively concise length (the novel is just over 300 pages long in paperback) which keeps events moving nicely. The writing is reasonable, though given the weird and unusual nature of the setting possibly a little too straightforward. Ultimately, events unfold in interesting enough a manner to make the sequels - Consorts of Heaven, Guardians of Paradise, Bringer of Light and Queen of Nowhere - appealing.

Principles of Angels (***½) is a decent debut novel, with well-drawn characters, a memorable setting and an interesting premise. The book suffers a little from too tight a focus on the two principals, which results in some of the more interesting side-cast being neglected, and also from a writing style that feels like it should have been bolder rather than settling for decent. It is still an entertaining book which effectively sets up a fascinating universe. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.
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VINE VOICEon 26 September 2009
I would have to say I really enjoyed this book, Ms Fenn writes with a flair and passion that made me want to turn page after page quickly. She has a light hand when it comes to describing her characters, giving them both depth and grit without overburdening them with heavy prose. The universe/history she has created is an intriguing one that I am looking forwards to exploring more in future novels, and the city/world that this book is set on is well thought out expressed.

My only real qualms with this book are that it was predictable, the climactic ending felt rushed and at times confusing (I had to reread the maze sequence a couple of times to fully understand what was going on) and really suffered from the predictability of the novel. However I still enjoyed novel and think that Ms Fenn is an exciting new author, well worth watching out for as she refines her obvious talent in forth coming novels.
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on 20 August 2008
Principles of Angels is a sci-fi novel set in a domed city on a planet where society is split between top-siders and down-siders. Angels and the Minister keep the balance of things intact through legal assassinations of political figures. One day, however, a down-sider boy brings home a man who kills his Angel adoptive mother. The event throws his life off-kilter as he begins searching to exert revenge on the murderer. Meanwhile, a singer of ancient religious songs disembarks from an off-world transport. Her mission is to kill an ex-lover or be killed herself. Their stories converge in a race to save the city and those they care about. It's a good, fast-paced thriller sci-fi with well-penned characters and relationships. It's impossible not to feel for Taro or pity Elarn, however alien their struggle might be to us.
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