Top critical review
It's got a fun plot, some pretty entertaining characters
on 7 October 2015
I will begin by saying I was certainly entertained by this book, and haven't ruled out following up on the series when it continues--for this isn't a standalone, as I thought when I first bought it. It's got a fun plot, some pretty entertaining characters, some good descriptions. And I am all for fantasy reinterpretations of my favourite period of history. Who doesn't like the Hundred Years' War? With magic thrown in, the premise is (in my opinion) pretty solid. And (speaking here as an academic historian) I was quite interested to see the politics of this period redone through a supernatural lens. This book is a story of society and politics, and there's some creativity with how the different factions of angels, demons, and devils attach themselves to the different earthly powers in play. Moreover, exploring the ramifications of having real-world, physical consequences of certain religious practices--build nicer churches to persuade the angels to literally show up and fight for your side--is quite evocative (in an appropriately over-the-top kind of way).
But... this book is not subtle. It has a message (class conflict, egalitarianism vs. aristocracy) and it will beat you over the head with it. Characters' thoughts flow along these lines in very precise, formal terms, as if A) this is all that ever gets thought of and B) everyone could discuss social theory at the drop of a hat. This hurts the world-building and atmosphere of the story much more than I would like. It simply feels artificial and, above all, modern. The society portrayed here is different than ours, and it is based on ideas superficially related to those of the time period it's trying to portray; but it is simply being viewed through our own standards and that prevents real immersion. I'm just not 100% convinced that it's anything more than a collection of stereotypes made into a world. Furthermore, it takes as fact certain legends associated later with these people and events (that the queen of Navarre was lame, that Edward III imprisoned his mother Isabella, and so on). This is not nitpicking about 'historical accuracy': I don't necessarily care about that in itself because a story is a story--but I'm left with a nagging suspicion that these were more the result of very casual research rather than deliberate choice, precisely because of the generic nature of the world building.
Strangely, this didn't stop me from caring about a few (though by no means all) of the characters. The cast is mostly well-chosen: that, and the supernatural aspects of the world, make this book fun as a light read. But I don't fully believe in it: it goes through some motions without being completely realized as a 'living', organic setting or narrative. I think you have to be pretty invested in the theme of social structure it's trying to explore--and I wasn't--to make the story work as it's meant to. Otherwise, if it comes your way, you can get a day or two of fun out of it.