The Ninth Circle by Alex Bell // Gollancz, 2009 // Borrowed from the library // Read November-December 2011, reviewed December 2012
A man comes to on the floor of a shabby apartment in the middle of Budapest. His head is glued to the floorboards with his own blood. There's a fortune in cash on the kitchen table. And he has no idea where, or who, he is. He can do extraordinary things—speak any number of languages fluently, go three days without food or sleep, and fight with extraordinary prowess. But without a name, without a past, he's isolated from the rest of the world; a stranger to everyone, including himself—until a chance encounter with a young scholar leads to his first friendship, and his first hint that someone out there knows more about him than he does. Someone is sending him clues about his past. Photographs hidden in books and crates of wine. Cryptic clues pointing towards a murdered woman. And clear warnings against Stephomi, his only friend. But that's not all; Gabriel Antaeus is seeing strange, impossible things: a burning man is stalking his dreams and haunting his mirrors, his dreams are filled with violence from the past, and his pregnant young neighbor is surrounded by an extraordinary golden aura. Something dark and violent in Gabriel's past is trying to resurface. And as he pieces the clues together, everything points towards an astounding war between angels and demons—a battle not just for the future of the world, but for the minds and souls of everyone in it.
Oh, I was not
keen on this one. The blurb made it sound really interesting, at least the first half - mysterious people plus angels plus demons sounds like the sort of thing I would gobble down in a heartbeat! And yet this... This felt like a slog. I kept picking it up resentfully,
muttering about how I didn't want
to read it, I'm not enjoying
it - the only reason I did
finish it was because it had been on my to-read list for years.
(I am still really disappointed that the story isn't as good as the blurb. So
Part of my problem was that I couldn't really stand the narrator. While paranoid/unstable narrators can be interesting in their own right, and I have no objections to characters taking time for very justified freak-outs, but Gabriel was just... I couldn't like him. Part of it was that he was extremely self-righteous - nothing is his fault, and everything he says or does is right (if he's wrong, then he'll either find another justification or be dramatic about it.). The rest of it is that he almost comes across as an unreliable narrator - I'm willing to believe that what Gabriel reports is factually
right, but not the conclusions he draws - and that's not actually a trope I like. On top of that, his relationship with Casey comes across as really creepy
, even in his own narration.
The rest of my dislike for this book comes from the fact that it is so
hamhanded. It is trying to make about good and evil not being so different, but it feels like the book is trying to beat me over the head with it. (See also: Devils are charming and friendly! Angels will terrorise and intimidate you! ... My notes for this do have "CHAOTIC GOOD DROW ARE A THING!" written on them in big letters, I'm sorry.) Worse than that, Gabriel and his mysteries actually bored
me. There were Dramatic Reveals all over the last third of the book and I just didn't care.
I was much more interested in Casey and her story, and that didn't get enough screentime. For something as important as Casey's pregnancy, I really felt like there should have been more time spent with her. Her story was actually more interesting than Gabriel's turned out to be - a teenager alone in a foreign country, trying to look after herself and her brother while dealing with her mysterious pregnancy - and quite frankly, I would probably read a book about her. I guess what I want is for Casey to be focused on as a person, rather than as an object in a cosmic struggle or of Gabriel's obsession, with a satisfactory
conclusion to her story!
I have to admit though, the writing does have its good points, despite some serious plot holes. It managed to portray Gabriel as an unsettling, genuinely creepy guy even as he's trying to convince himself that he's acting rationally/justified in acting irrationally. The way it handles the final chapter while staying in the limits of the diary format it uses actually worked really well, in my opinion! Just a bit too-little-too-late.
The back labels this as a "Theological thriller", which makes me laugh. There's a lot of debate about "Could you kill baby Hitler?" and the like, and so much discussion
of theology, but... I would have said it was more moral than theological, despite the presence of angels and demons, if that makes sense? Certainly I wouldn't have said that it was a thriller, theological or otherwise. (Suspicion: they made up this genre so that they wouldn't get lumped in with the fantasy novels, even though that's really
the best fit for it.)
Suffice to say, I didn't enjoy this book. It did have some good moments, but the amount of work it took to get to them didn't make it worth it for me.