Prof Tralane Huntingore is the magical Sircene matriarch of a faded aristocratic house in the tiered city of Glimshard. Near bankruptcy and removed from court-life, she's exploited by the power-hungry Minister Alide, who threatens her two fiercely independent daughters, the studious Isabeau and younger socialite Minnabar. Zharazin Mazhd is an agent for the imperial Infomancy and former student of the sorceress-advisor to the empress, Parlumi Night. He witnesses Tralane's return from a risky solo flight to collect charged power crystals for the defence minister and starts tailing Isabeau, drawing him into their troubles.
The city is ruled by the young empress Yaphantine Shamuit Torada, who supports an archaeological excavation in the remote jungle. This has angered the native supernatural Karoo, necessitating a supporting military expedition. The grizzled pragmatic General Fadurant Borze is prepared to investigate the difficulties at the dig-site, which Minister Alide may have been concealing. However, his immediate concerns are about one outcast Karoo, Tzaban, who has come to the city along with other regular mercenaries. All these actors’ stories are brought together in a struggle to uncover the truth of the ancient buried artefact and threatens the survival of their imperial city home.
This book recreates a wonderfully imagined strange fantasy science fiction setting where only a privileged few can analyse and revive magical devices, even though they’ve lost any scientific understanding of the underlying technology. The richness comes not just from the sense of deep history and mysterious technology, but from the complex social context of conflicting academic, aristocratic, military, imperial, barbarian and inhuman interests. This is set up from within the characters’ narrow points of view and specific motivations, which include some graphic and potentially distracting erotic encounters. All that meant it took me a while to get into the book. However, there was a tipping point about halfway through when I became absolutely gripped by the plot and committed to the characters. As the action accelerated toward the conclusion, there was a growing sense of how things could play out. It was then very pleasing to reach the anticipated conclusion, in which Tralane and her daughters come out as real heroines.
The book feels like it’s both a classic new-wave science fiction and a modern high-energy colourful adventure story from another world. It’s unique, but perhaps comparable to: Ursula Le Guin or Joan Slonczewski for its breakdown of gender stereotypes; China Mieville’s Bas-Lag novels for its magical strangeness; Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun for its mysterious deep history; or Charles Stross’ Eschaton books for its sexily written fun adventure. Someone who’s enjoyed any of these should get a great buzz out of Glorious Angels.