Category Archives: angels

Books about angels.

Review 65: Mercury Falls


Mercury Falls by Robert Kroese

You all know I love apocalypses, if that is indeed the correct pluralization. There’s just something about the end of the world that really gets me going, and if it can be done with some sense of humor and insight, that’s even better.

Mercury Falls has the distinction of being the first full-length book I’ve read on my Kindle, and let me say that it was a good christening. While I’m not writing a Kindle review, I have to admit that the device works very well. It’s easy to read, easy to make notes and mark interesting passages, and it fits in my bag a lot better than a 352 page paperback would. So, score one for the Kindle.

This being the ADD Age of Twitter, I don’t exactly remember how I first ran across Robert Kroese. He may have been re-tweeted by someone, or popped up on a Facebook update, or implanted into my mind while I slept (thank you, Dreamr.com!) I don’t know. What I do know is that the man is relentless in promoting his work. He keeps up an excellent level of interactivity with his Twitter and Facebook followers and finds ways to increase the word-of-mouth marketing that he needs, since this book was self-published and can use all the marketing help it can get. Under his incessant barrage, I bought the book for the Kindle, and it turned out to be fortuitous. Divinely inspired, perhaps, as though it were part of a larger plan. Hmmm….

One of the central themes of the End of the World, whether it’s the Biblical Apocalypse or any other, is that it has to happen. There’s just no way around it – sooner or later the forces of Good and the forces of Evil will duke it out on the Earth to see who’s the baddest bunch around. When asked why they would bother, the usual answer is that it’s part of God’s Plan, and that’s all we need to know. So we imagine that while we miserable humans must be kept in the dark, there must be someone who knows what’s going on. A prophet, perhaps the angels who are doing the fighting – God, definitely, right?

Not really, Kroese suggests.

He presents the reader with a celestial bureaucracy that makes the U.S. Government look like a small-town McDonald’s on a slow day. There are levels within levels, rank upon rank of angelic bureaucrats and agents and paper-pushers, all working towards what they believe the Divine Plan involves. The problem is that no one is entirely sure what that plan actually is. But like all good bureaucrats everywhere, they don’t care. There are rules, there are regulations, and they must be followed. What happens, however, when the Plan breaks down? Well, that’s when things get messy.

The human woman Christine Temetri, a reporter on the apocalypse beat at a nationally-read newspaper, The Banner, is about to find out just how awry things can go when the Divine Plan gets all cocked up. On an assignment to cover the latest skirmish between Israel and Syria, Christine is entrusted with a Very Important MacGuffin Briefcase, which brings her to the enigmatic cult leader Galileo Mercury.

Only he’s not a cult leader, really. He’s an angel. A fallen one, yes, but an angel nonetheless, and he’s the only angel who plans to sit out the end of the world. He’s happy to do card tricks and play ping-pong, at least until Christine shows up and drags him back into the fray. Together, they have to not only figure out how to stop the apocalypse, but how to make sure they stop the right apocalypse, and see to it that it’s done with as little damage as possible. They don’t really succeed on that last part, but they certainly make a valiant effort.

The entertainment in this book is not so much in the plot, which is in the political thriller mode with twists and turns and reveals a-plenty, to say nothing of shootings, explosions and pillars of fire. There are two major things that make the book entertaining.

First is the cosmology that Kroese has built up. The idea of a Heavenly Bureaucracy is not a new one, but he takes it rather a step further. In one scene, a couple of angels are taking pity on humanity because we pitiful humans are running around, making decisions without knowing for sure whether they’re right or wrong. The angels believe they are superior in that they have a Plan to follow – but they freely admit that they aren’t entirely sure if the Plan they’re following is the right one. “We assume that we’re part of a system that ultimately makes sense to [the Archangel] Michael, or God, or someone. All the little details may not make sense to us, but we go along with it anyway.” In other words, the angels are just like us, except that they can fly, do miracles, and are immortal. The bastards. In a later section, the characters are given a look at how the whole celestial bureaucracy is set up, and discover that even the angels don’t know for sure who’s actually in charge of anything. They just do what the Plan tells them to do and hope for the best.

So what we have here is a bureaucratic cosmology. It works, but no one is entirely sure how it works. And as Christine discovers, the benefit to not knowing the actual plan is that you are then free to do what you think is right. While the book is obviously centered around the Judeo-Christian framework, it’s not a religious book. It doesn’t address whether there is or is not a God, or whether religion is a fundamental necessity to humanity or a primitive hang-up, or neither, or both. What it’s about is the idea of choice, a topic covered pretty explicitly in chapter thirteen. The boiled-down version is that we may or may not have free will, and we can never really know, so it’s best to just pretend that we do. What this means, then, is maintaining a healthy dose of skepticism about what you are told is the right or necessary thing to do.

This does lead to some editorializing at times, which is pretty obvious when you hit it. As soon as you get to a section where two characters are engaged in a Socratic dialogue with each other, you definitely get the feeling that it’s Kroese putting his two cents in. This would be annoying if I disagreed with him, or if it was written with less wit. As it stands, I read it with the kind of patience I reserve for my really funny friends when they hit a topic they actually care about – I’ll listen along, because I know it’ll be good, but at the same time I’ll feel a little uncomfortable that they’ve decided to be serious for once.

Which brings me to the second reason I enjoyed the book – it’s damned funny. It reminded me in various places of Douglas Adams’ Dirk Gently books, as well as the fine work of Christopher Moore. There was plenty of narrative commentary, which was sarcastic and biting, and the characters often matched wits with each other at lightning speed. There were many parts that I re-read because I was sure I had missed something in the exchange, and it turned out I was right – and what I had missed was worth going back for. I put my Kindle’s highlighting function to good use, let me just say that. While I have trained myself to hold in my guffaws, in accordance with social norms here in Japan, there were a few points where I just couldn’t help but draw the stares of my fellow train passengers.

On a tangent: there was a moment in the book that made me think of the infamous LJ RaceFail of ’09, something I had hoped to not have to think of again for a while. When Christine meets Mercury for the first time, we’re introduced to two people. One is a short, dumpy man of Chinese ancestry, and the other is a tall, handsome white guy, and they’re playing ping-pong. When Christine asks for Galileo Mercury, the tall, handsome white guy leads her to believe that his opponent is the one she wants. He then reveals, of course, that he’s just messing with her. “Is there some law,” he says, “that a Chinese dude can’t be named Galileo?” And then, “But you have to admit, it would be pretty funny if Galileo Mercury was a Chinese dude.” He then sends the Chinese dude out to get some sodas.

This made me ask myself, “Well… why not? Why couldn’t Galileo Mercury have been a dumpy Chinese guy?” It’s not really apropos of anything – the presumed ethnicity of the character (who is an angel, after all) is utterly irrelevant to the rest of the story – but I would have been very impressed if Kroese had made his celestial action hero a less obvious action hero. Just a thought. Tangent over.

So, a fine first novel from a clever new author. You really can’t ask for much more than that, in my opinion, and I look forward to seeing more of Kroese’s work in the future. As he improves his craft, he may become a force to be reckoned with in the fantasy/comedy genre, so keep your eyes on him.

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“My philosophy is that if you can make one person laugh, you’re already doing better than John Calvin.”
– Mercury, Mercury Falls
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Robert Kroese’s homepage
Mercury Falls on Amazon.com
Mattress Police – Robert Kroese’s blog

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Filed under angels, apocalypse, fantasy, humor, Robert Kroese

Review 64: Lamb


Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal by Christopher Moore

If you’ve been following my reviews over the last few years, I don’t see any reason why I should have to put a caution into this, but here it is: if you’re not interested in speculative fiction, open to the reinterpretation of the life of Jesus, speculation on the gaps in the gospels and the possibility of pan-religious values having been vital to the formation of Christianity, then you should probably not read this book. Nor should you really be using the internet – there’s just too much nasty “Free Thinking” out there. Take your hands off the keyboard and back away slowly.

Okay, that’ll weed out the wusses. Although, as I think about it, perhaps those are exactly the people who should be reading this book. I’m sorry for all the nasty stuff I said – come on back!

Each time I read this, I love it more. For one thing it’s Moore’s best work, without question. Not only is it blindingly funny, which is a hallmark of Moore’s style, but it’s also thoughtful, philosophical, and is supported by obvious research. Because he’s dealing with real places and real people, Moore has made sure that his depiction of first-century Israel is as accurate as he can make it. It’s all there in the details about the lives of the characters, the struggles they go through and the understandings they come to. Without hours of research as its foundation, the book would have failed almost instantly. Moore didn’t have to do it, but it is a great sign of his character as an author that he did.

This is also by far my favorite interpretation of the life of Jesus. It is the Gospel According to Biff, the best friend of Joshua bar Joseph, the man who would one day be called Jesus Christ. Of course, when Biff met him, the young Son of God was occupying himself by resurrecting lizards after his brother smashed their heads in. But they grew to be fast friends, and everywhere that young Joshua went, so went his buddy Biff.

The best way to describe Biff would be Jesus’ Sidekick. He’s a troublemaker, sarcastic, and far too prone to succumb to temptations of the flesh. But he’s clever and resourceful, and mindful of his friend’s mission on this earth. He’s young Joshua’s best friend in every way, so when Josh goes searching for the three Magi who attended his birth, Biff knows he has to go with him. The way to finding Joshua’s destiny will be long and hard, and Biff knows that his friend needs him.

The main part of the book has to do with Biff and Josh’s search for the Magi, to learn from them how Josh can be the Messiah. On their way they face demons, death and certain temptation, but also wisdom and experience from the wisest men in Asia. From Balthazar in the rugged mountains of Afghanistan, Joshua learns of the Tao, contemplating its Three Jewels – compassion, moderation, and humility. He learns about suffering and mercy and kindness and the effects they bring.

Biff, on the other hand, learns about the ways in which eight Chinese concubines can make life a wonderful place, night after night. He learns how to make potions and explosives, how to cast metal and read Chinese. He learns vital skills that the Messiah cannot – or must not – know.

From there they go to China, to a monastery high in the cold mountains to study with Gaspar, a monk of the Zen school. From Gaspar, Josh learns stillness and mindful breath, compassion for all things and, oddly enough, how to turn invisible. He discovers the divine spark that exists in all things, a holiness that no one can claim or take from you. He also learns what it’s like to be the only one of his kind, and foreshadows the tragic end that can bring.

Biff, of course, is learning kung fu and how to break bricks with his head.

Finally, they go to India to seek out Melchior, an ascetic yogi and the last of the wise men. Joshua here learns about sacrifice and blood, and the horrors that are perpetrated in the name of religion. He discovers the injustice of denying the Kingdom of God to anyone, Jew or Gentile, and the futility of trying to teach yoga to an elephant.

Biff, for his part, manages to put together a truly spectacular version of the Kama Sutra.

Don’t get me wrong – while Biff is certainly more earthly than his friend, he is also devoted to both Joshua and his mission. He is Josh’s anchor to the real world, always reminding him of his mission and making sure he doesn’t take himself too seriously. Biff, in this rendition of Jesus’ story, is a necessary element in the ultimate teachings of Christ.

As he admits in his afterward, Moore has tackled a very tough subject here, one that he knows is likely to rile people up. Jesus is one of those characters that is very set in peoples’ minds – he is the tall, beatific figure with a gentle voice and blue eyes who glides around in robes followed by insightful and worshipful men.

He certainly never ate Chinese food on his birthday, nor did he get hopped up on coffee or learn kung-fu. He’s never had a sarcastic best friend who was willing to risk damnation to describe what sex was like to the young Messiah, who was pretty sure that he wasn’t allowed to Know women. We haven’s seen Jesus get frustrated and yell at his disciples because they didn’t get the message he was trying to send, or be torn between what he has to do and what he wants to do. The Jesus in this book is an excellent meld of the human and the divine. He has the miracles and the powers, but his mind is human. He knows that he’s the son of god, but he feels like just a regular guy who’s been tapped to save humanity from itself. It’s a very difficult situation to be in, and Moore does a really good job of getting us to understand that.

More importantly, the life of Jesus hasn’t been this funny before. This is the kind of book that will piss off your family or co-workers, because you’ll want to read out passages from the book every five minutes, but you won’t get it out right because you’ll be laughing too hard. The way the book is set up, Biff has been resurrected by the angel Raziel in order to write a new gospel. Unfortunately, he’s been resurrected in the modern age, about two thousand years too late to help his friend avoid the awful, horrible sacrifice that he knows he has to undergo. So he writes in the modern American vernacular, assuring us that while the words may not be a direct translation of first-century Hebrew, Latin, Aramaic, Chinese or any of the other languages they encounter, the tone is accurate. And the tone is comedy, all the way through.

Of course, the comedy kind of drops off as the book races towards its unpleasant end, which is where my troubles with Moore as a writer usually lie. He tends to write endings that are abrupt and unfulfilling, as though he just wants to finish writing the book so he can, perhaps, get on with the next one. Even though we know how this story ends, it still feels rushed. Biff’s attempts to save his friend from horrible death make sense, but I would like to have seen them drawn out a bit more. I have a feeling that Moore could have added another hundred pages without breaking a sweat – and I wish he had.

The best thing, though, is that Moore treats his characters with the utmost respect. Nothing that Jesus does in the book is out of character for him, insofar as we know his character. And Biff is more than just a goofy friend of the Messiah – he is the reminder and the anchor of Jesus’ humanity. I’m not a Christian – I don’t claim any religion, in fact – but this version of Jesus would be one that I might be willing to give some time to.

It’s a brilliant book, in my top ten….

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“Josh, faking demonic possession is like a mustard seed.”
“How is it like a mustard seed?”
“You don’t know, do you? Doesn’t seem at all like a mustard seed, does it? Now you see how we all feel when you liken things unto a mustard seed? Huh?”
– Biff and Josh, Lamb
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Christopher Moore on Wikipedia
Lamb on Wikipedia
Lamb on Amazon.com
Christopher Moore’s homepage

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Filed under angels, Christianity, Christopher Moore, coming of age, demons, friendship, good and evil, humor, Jesus, quest, religion, travel

Review 01: Good Omens


Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman

For lovers of modern fantasy, there are two names that are on most people’s must-read lists: Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman.

At first glance, there doesn’t seem to be much in common with this pair. Terry Pratchett writes the world-renowned Discworld series, a fantasy epic set on a flat world, which is supported by four elephants, who in turn are standing on a great turtle which swims through the emptiness of space. What started as a parody of the “sword and sandals” genre of fantasy, Discworld has become a mirror for our world, taking familiar ideas and giving them a sharp twist.

Neil Gaiman, on the other hand, gained fame with his groundbreaking comic book – sorry, graphic novel – series, Sandman. Over seventy-five issues, packed with mythological retellings, Shakespearian inspiration, love, Death, family, heartbreak and redemption, Sandman is still considered to be one of the most literary comics of the modern age.

Despite these superficial differences, however, their shared love of a good story makes them perfect for each other. Like chocolate and peanut butter, steak and eggs, hydrogen and oxygen, when you put two great things together, you get something that’s even better.

This book is about the End of the World. It begins with a birth, that of the Adversary, Destroyer of Kings, Angel of the Bottomless Pit, Great Beast that is called Dragon, Prince of This World, Father of Lies, Spawn of Satan and Lord of Darkness.

Also known as Adam Young.

With his birth, the inexorable wheels of Revelation begin to turn, the Horsemen start their long ride, and two immortals – a demon named Crowley and an angel named Aziraphael – find themselves in the unenviable position of having to make sure everything works out the way their respective sides want. Rivers of blood, skies of fire and the scything clean of all life in the world, that kind of thing.

Crowley and Aziraphael, for their parts, really don’t want the world to end. They’ve been walking it since it began about 6,000 years ago, and found that they quite like it, for all its flaws and problems. And despite their innate loyalty to their masters, they’ll do their best to try and stop its end.

It’s an outstanding book, one of my top five of all time. Not only is it roaringly funny, with outstanding characters and witty dialogue, but it has the kind of razor-sharp insight into human nature that can only come from Gaiman and Pratchett. Ostensibly good people act like utter bastards, and people we know to be bad by their very natures end up doing the right thing. There’s no clear-cut line between good and evil here, which is perhaps a lot more realistic than most end-of-the-world stories go. Also, very few end-of-the-world stories are quite as funny as this one.

Humor can be used for many purposes, but the most noble use of humor is to illuminate truths that we routinely ignore. When you read this book, you think about God and the Devil and everything in between – namely, us. What is the purpose of humanity in this benighted world, and what is our responsibility towards it? These are all questions that the characters have to deal with, and, of course, so do we.

While neither Gaiman nor Pratchett would claim to have an answer to that, they have a great ability to point us towards the question.

As I said, this is one of my top five of all time. I think I own three copies by now – one that’s been read to death, a hardcover edition with that weird M-25 illustration on the front, and a softcover signed by both Neil and Terry. This is my Precious, and I hope it’s buried with me someday.

So, as you may have guessed, I can’t recommend this book enough.

And now, a quote from the book:

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“It may help to understand human affairs to be clear that most of the great triumphs and tragedies of history are caused, not by people being fundamentally good or fundamentally bad, but by people being fundamentally people. ”
– Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, Good Omens
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Neil Gaiman’s homepage
Terry Pratchett’s page at HarperCollins
Terry Pratchett at Wikipedia
Neil Gaiman at Wikipedia
Good Omens at WikiQuote
Good Omens at Amazon.com

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Filed under angels, antichrist, apocalypse, Christianity, demons, fantasy, humor, Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett