Reviewed by Tim Lieder
Generally, a writer spends seven years writing, submitting and collecting rejection slips before he makes a sale. Most writers aren't going to land in the big firms. How do the other 99.76% of writers sell their manuscripts?
If they aren’t terribly ambitious or bright, they pay a vanity press like Authors Den or iUniverse. Then they have nice gifts for their friends and relatives in lieu of socks. More serious writers submit their work to small presses. Since the small presses have less overhead, they are more open to risks.
Lavie Tidhar’s novella An Occupation of Angels shows all the signs of a book by a writer desperate for publication. In an ideal world, he would have put this novella in a drawer for years and returned to it with fresh eyes to winnow the dross and expand the rest into a kickass novel. Instead he found a publisher in Pendragon Press and rushed this abortion into print.
What’s wrong with it? Everything. My chief consternation is the ruination of a great idea. Did anyone see the last Star Trek movie? That’s the one with Picard’s clone as a rebellious Romulan slave? I don’t know about you, but the fact that the movie dangled an intriguing premise in front of the audience and then snatched it away to concentrate on a lame chase pissed me off. Lavie Tidhar pulls the same trick by presenting a world dominated by occupational angels, and ignores the angels.
Oh sure, the angels are always there – dying and hovering over cities – but most of the plot concerns the heroine Killarney jumping from country-to-country in a James Bond rip-off story. Everywhere she goes, she leaves a pile of bodies. Someone is supposedly out to kill her or stop her, but after the third incident of ‘I was talking to him and then he slumped down dead with a bullet in his head’ you start wondering if her old friends from the CIA are just fucking with her for fun. The Cold War is still on, but the British secret service does all the leg work. America, true to the Ian Fleming tradition, remains in the background. Almost every chapter begins or ends with another fight sequence. The narrator tells you that ‘the organism takes over’ when she’s fighting enough times that you wish Lavie Tidhar would forget the phrase entirely. Characters torture her twice and it’s the same electric shock treatment with the same description of currents running through her body. Sometimes Lavie Tidhar transitions between chapters. Most of the time he just starts a chapter with a fight that has nothing to do with the previous paragraph. In the last third of the book ODESSA shows up complete with Dr Mengele (whose name is consistently misspelled as Mengale) for no discernable reason except that maybe even Lavie Tidhar was also bored with his Cold War plot.
As for the angels, I think I might have liked the book a little more had I not read Liz Williams’ introduction about religion in fiction. Oh yeah, they sure are THE OTHER and may Foucault burn in everlasting hellfire for encouraging up-the-ass graduate papers to use that phrase as shorthand for ‘odd’ or ‘peculiar’ or ‘strange characters that we don’t entirely understand and may or may not write our own prejudices upon.’ However, the introduction promises that the book will have some deep religious undertones. Instead the angels serve as an excuse for Lavie Tidhar to tell a Cold War story 16 years after the Soviet Union’s collapse. The narrator kills Raphael. Someone kills Metratron. The other angels die, mostly off camera. Why are the angels here? Have they changed anything? What are they doing? Do they have a plan? Does anyone want to speculate on this? Nope. Had the angels been government officials, he could have told the same story without any discernable difference. The story is about as fresh as the last 10 James Bond movies.
However, Lavie Tidhar does use a workable prose. Very rarely does he engage in run-on sentences or awful clumsy phrases. You notice them, but they don’t overwhelm the book. Occasionally a sentence begins with a lower-case letter, but that’s the editor’s fault. Sadly, his stylistic confidence cannot overcome an 86-page story about a sexless secret agent who runs around the world dodging bullets until she unravels the EVIL PLOT and makes the world safe for Democracy – with angels thrown in as a vain attempt to fool the reader into believing that this book is original and not an imitation of a boring 1955 spy novel.
In conclusion, only buy this book if you are Lavie Tidhar’s bestest friend in the whole world. Else, wait 10 years for his 2016 novel. By that time he should have enough control of his prose and his storytelling ability to give us characters with depth and/or fantastic elements that actually drive the story instead of hanging out in the background.
An occupation of Angels by Lavie Tidhar. Tpb, 90pp, £4.99. Published by Pendragon Press, PO Box 12, Maesteg, Mid Glamorgan, South Wales, CF34 0FG, United Kingdom. Website: www.pendragonpress.co.uk
This review originally appeared on Whispers of Wickedness, and is reproduced here with permission.