Angel City is the second novel in a trilogy begun so memorably by The Watchers in 2011 (review). I strongly urge you to read The Watchers first before reading this review.
This is a world in which angels walk the earth side by side with demons. Some humans, such as those we met in The Watchers, have the gift – or curse – to witness their struggle for supremacy, to mark the light of creation in the eyes of angels. Most people, though, live in ignorance and barely know the world they live in.
Jay Harper is now fully conscious of his angelic nature. Having been reborn countless times over millions of years, he is now awake again. He is troubled by the memories of the almost dead body that he inhabits, but he knows well his duty. He is working for Inspector Gobet and his task is to follow the trail of Astruc, a demon in human form, into the catacombs of Paris and into the heart of Cathar country. Meanwhile, in Washington State, Officer Jannsen is charged by Inspector Gobet with the protection of Katherine (Kat) Taylor and her young son Max. Having escaped the battle between good and evil that tore at the foundations of Notre-Dame at the close of The Watchers, Kat is no longer able to remember what happened. She has fractured memories of the bell ringer and of another man who saved her, but otherwise she knows almost nothing. Others, though, are watching Kat, wanting her son, whose father she cannot remember, and it takes all the forces of good to keep the mother and child safe.
The Watchers is, without doubt, one of the finest debut novels that I have read, and its sequel two years on is a wonderful thing. Now that we are more aware of the context and background to the shadowy figures of the first novel, there is room here to give greater depth to the mystery. We know much more about the light in the eyes of Harper and others like him, we know now that the glimpses of past conflict – on the front during World War I, in the besieged 13th-century Cathar castle in France – are part of a struggle that has gone on interminably. The battle between Astruc and Harper is all the more dangerous and intense. The fact that angels can die if their human form is killed makes the fight all the more real.
But these angels are not quite as you expect. Harper is a policeman working for an Inspector. He thinks like a detective, he speaks like one, and the pace of the prose reminds us that this is an urgent investigation. Likewise, there is nothing holy or mystical about Kat. Once a hooker, she is now re-establishing herself as a mother and discovering new feelings for someone else, the young policewoman charged with her care.
This mix of urgency, pragmatism and suspicion mixes with another layer – Harper’s care above all else to bring comfort to a departing soul, the grief and terror of those turned upon by demons, the sanctity of motherly love, the loneliness of the young without parents, the endlessness of death. Jon Steele’s prose in The Watchers had a profound impact on me, from the prologue (the most memorable I have ever read) onwards. In Angel City, though, this is taken to new levels of poignancy. Angel City is characterised by such powerful prose. There are moments, especially between Kat and her son Max which are stunningly naturalistic and so moving. Steele is to be congratulated above all else for his creations of Kat, Max and their caring angel.
Jon Steele is an extraordinary writer. I can’t think of another like him. It’s possible that his background as a war journalist has given him an extra insight into the innate powers of men and women to damage and care for one another. His prose veers between immediacy and poetry. It is bloody and beautiful. It’s hard to imagine caring for characters more than those we are presented with here.
Perhaps most remarkable of all is the marrying of fantasy and reality. I’m no fan of fantasy fiction, on the contrary, but I think I love Jon Steele’s novels so much because he brings the fantastical into our lives as a powerful ‘explanation’ of some of the horrific acts that man commits against himself, which we see day in and day out on the news. Extraordinary, enriched with humanity, and not easy to explain!
A third novel is to come and the conclusion of Angel City ensures that this cannot come fast enough.