Angel on the Ropes is a book that is derailed by its very admirable intentions. It has some gorgeous writing – the descriptions of trapeze work and circus life are breathtaking. It has a solid romance and interesting world building. It is, however, moralistic in the extreme.
Eventually the circus stuff and the trapeze stuff and the romance take a very distant backseat to the sermonizing, and that's a shame, because the messages really are good ones and if they had been worked in more organically I'd have few complaints about the book.
Angel is basically two different books. At first, it's a solid sci-fi romance between Amadine, a trapeze artist, and Nikos, a man who purchases Amadine's circus so that it can stay in business. The story takes place on a colonized planet (not Earth). Some people on the planet have a mutation that causes them to have spots on parts of their bodies. They are known as “leopards” and are persecuted by the Plaguellants, who believe that they are impure and that they caused a plague. Amadine is a leopard who is able to conceal her condition by using make-up.
The book is at its strongest when Amadine is talking about, or thinking about, or on, the trapeze. Here's a sample of the writing – isn't it gorgeous? If I were only grading on the basis of the circus content this would be an unreservedly A+ book:
They curled around each other, twice pulsing in and out like a jellyfish to give the audience a moment to process that they were floating in mid-air, no longer supported by the trapeze. Then they became the trapeze: the long bone of a leg to curl around, a flexed foot the perpendicular plane that would catch or give like the ropes. Every fleeting gesture had consequence…Warm and loose-limbed, she felt beautiful, so beautiful.
Amadine and Nikos' romance is packed with Big Misunderstandings, a trope that normally drives me to distraction but here is understandable because of the sheer number of secrets that Amadine is trying to keep:
1. Very few people know that she's a leopard. Her life might depend on keeping this secret.
2. The circus doesn't know that she works for a secret society that gets leopards to safety (similar to the Underground Railroad). This means that when she is late for rehearsals or even her own show the circus is understandably furious and she can't offer an explanation.
3. The secret society, Amadine's family, and her church don't know that the circus is in dire financial peril. This means that whenever she has to skip a family or secret society obligation to attend a circus fundraiser, they think she is being frivolous.
4. Nikos doesn't know any of this but he knows that there is an awful lot she isn't saying about her life.
So, basically, someone is mad at Amadine all the time, no matter what she's doing, and she's a little tense.
Nikos is a good match for her – he's basically a nice, solid guy. He's creative, so he's drawn to her creativity and he understands that she's an artist. He has financial and social standing that, let's face it, Amadine desperately needs if she is going to keep herself, the circus, and other leopards safe. He's also a good communicator. Early on, he realizes that she has secrets galore, and he ends up saying, something to the effect of “let's be honest with each other as much as possible, and otherwise at least give each other the benefit of the doubt”. I loved that about him, and I enjoyed watching them work out their relationship based on this one underlying rule.
A word of warning – there are several scenes of unexpected, shocking, bloody violence including the sudden, violent deaths of children. At one point I was so sure that things were going to work out a certain way that when they didn't, when things turned deadly instead, I had to read the passage three times just to grasp what had happened. In case you're immune to dead kids, there's also acts of violence against women and elderly people and pretty much anyone who happens to be standing around. Don't say I didn't warn you.
So here we are, watching Nikos and Amadine try to exchange three consecutive sentences without having some kind of confusion or bloodshed taking place, when the book, which was already pretty blatant about its various messages, completely loses its grip on the story and the characters and just starts screaming, “DIVERSITY IS GOOD! PACIFISM! CONSESUS! COME OUT OF THE CLOSET!” Now, I'm actually really into all those messages (I'm fuzzy on pacifism) but jeez it gets really heavy-handed. Here's how you can tell – two main characters completely change their personalities in the service of the message. And then everyone sits around a conference table and they discuss these topics until they, and we, are bored. Then everyone does a team building exercise on a trapeze and the main villain, who up to this point has been advocating shooting infants in the head, goes, “WHEEEE!” and there is peace across the land.
If you don't want to hear a lot of lecturing about the benefits of gay rights (I assume that's the metaphor that the author is going for, but the importance of other forms of diversity would also apply), health care reform, consensus, and team building, then run while you still can, because that is all you get in the last third of the book. By this time Nikos has shown himself to be not only fantastic in bed but just generally a super-amazing awesome boyfriend and his role is pretty much to stand around, so the romance stuff basically done with by the time people hit the conference room.
Let me reiterate that I don't have a problem with a book having a message. One of the great things about sci-fi in particular is that by addressing controversial topics in metaphor, sci-fi is often ready and able to talk about social issues before mainstream writers are. Nor do I have a problem personally with these particular messages. As TV Tropes would say, the book is anvilicious, but some anvils need to be dropped. I just think that the book would be more effective if it were able to incorporate its messages into the story more smoothly. There are certainly times when we should all scream to the heavens, “Yay diversity!” I've done it myself, picket sign in hand, many times. But when a fictional book sacrifices the story to the message, the message loses its power, and that's a shame because those messages need to be heard.