Tuesday 26 June 2012

DARK ANGELS by Katherine Langrish. Reviewed by Ellen Renner

One day, some years after Adam and Eve had been cast out of Paradise, the Lord God came to visit them in the cool of the evening.
By now, Adam and Eve had lots of children, too many to look after properly. Some of them hadn't been washed, and Eve was ashamed of them. 'Hide,' she told the dirty ones. 'You aren't fit to be seen by God. Keep out of His sight.'
'Are these all the children you have?' asked God, looking at the scuffling parade of clean children lined up before Him.
'Yes,' said Eve.
'Then what you have hidden from Me shall be hidden from everyone,' said God.
The dirty children became invisible to human eyes, and from then on they were outcasts, forced to hide in hills, caves and rocks.
This was the beginning of the elves.

prologue: Dark Angels

A good prologue hints at delights to come and beguiles the reader to turn the page. I'm a fan of Katherine Langrish's Troll Fell books, so I wasn't surprised to find that Dark Angels is a compelling tale of myth and magic set in a vividly drawn historical period.

It's the story of Nest, a noble-born girl who longs to learn 'About star and planets - about saints and miracles - about beasts and birds and far off lands ...' As she plaintively explains: 'I wanted to do something great ...' But Nest was betrothed at five. Now thirteen years old and of marriageable age, Nest is duty-bound to obey her father - Lord Hugo's - wishes and wed a man she doesn't know. What little freedom she possesses will soon be at an end.

Dark Angels is also the story of Wolf, the youngest son of an impoverished nobleman, given to the local Abbey at the age of six to save his father the expense of rearing him. Now thirteen and yearning for adventure, Wolf runs away from the monks and their claustrophobic, rule-bound lives and tumbles headlong into danger. He rescues a feral child from a lonely hillside and hands her over to a Norman Lord who thinks the girl is an elf. Haunted by dreams and driven near-mad with sorrow, Hugo of the Red Mound cannot accept that his beloved wife died in childbirth. Nest's father believes the elves have stolen his love:

'I've heard that once every seven years, Elfland pays a fee to Hell. They must draw lots for one of themselves to go there - down to the everlasting fires - unless -' He stopped suddenly, shutting his teeth.
'Unless what?' Wolf whispered.
'Unless they can steal a mortal to pay the price instead. Do you understand me?' He shook Wolf's arm. 'It will be seven years at this year's end, seven years since I lost my lady.'

And who - or what - is Elfgift, the tiny wild girl Wolf finds on the high ridge know as the Devil's Edge? Is she human, abandoned as an infant because of the birthmark that covers half her face? Has she managed somehow to survive in the wild, living on frogs and beetles, fallen fledglings and blackberries? Or is she, as Hugo believes, an elf and the key to bringing his wife back from the red and green halls of Elfland? Elfgift cannot tell them: she is without language.

Wolf and Nest undertake the near impossible task of teaching the child to speak. Hugo wants Elfgift to tell him the secret way into the underground land of the Elves, where he believes his long-lost love is imprisoned still. But much stands in their way: not only Elfgift's own reluctance, but the many in Hugo's court who fear the child and the bad luck she will surely bring. Worst of all is Brother Thomas, Wolf's old master at the Abbey; a vicious, puritanical monk who delights in bullying the weak and defenceless.

And then, on All Hallows Eve, a stranger arrives: the trickster, the jester, the travelling jongleur called Halewyn.

Out of the dark and drizzle, a long, swinging head emerged, huge ears twitching. Hooves clattered and squelched. 'A mule!' someone yelled. Sitting sideways on its back was a man with horns ... Then [Wolf] realised the man didn't have horns. He had ears, as huge and pointed as his mule's. And he was flinging gilded balls into the air: they whirled and dropped into his hands and rose again.

Halewyn, with his shock of straw-coloured hair and donkey-eared cap, his odd eyes which seem to sometimes flare red with an internal fire, is welcomed by Lord Hugo. Halewyn sings of lost loves and hopeless separation; fuelling Hugo's obsession. At first Wolf also welcomes the juggler. Halewyn seems friendly and jovial and humour is in short supply at La Motte Rouge.

But Halewyn is far more than he first appears. Dogs growl at him, Elfgift fears him and the visitor pulls roses from the air in the dead of winter. Roses which burn the unwary, as though warmed into growth by the fires of hell.

Is the jongleur the Christian Devil, crawled from the Edge that looms of the land roundabout, where the hounds of hell are said to stream across the midnight sky, '...dashing beside a black wagon drawn by goats with fiery eyes, crammed full of screaming souls bound for the pits of hell'? Do his origins go further back: is he the King of Elfland? Is he the lord of the underworld, the Greek god, Hades? Is he Herne the Hunter, storming across the skies with his pack of ice-white hounds?

Can Wolf and Nest save Elfgift from those who seek to use her and those who wish her dead? Can they stop Hugo from retracing Orpheus' tragic journey to the underworld? Will Halewyn help or hinder? Will Nest be forced to marry the odious Lord Rodney? Will Wolf be returned to a life-long imprisonment as a monk of the Abbey?

Writers have always dipped into the stewpot of myth and folklore and fished out what they needed to feed their tales. But Dark Angels is one of the most ambitious minglings I've come across. It borrows from the Greek (Orpheus/Persephone and Hades), the Norse (a house hob), and most of all from the Celtic myths. Herne the Hunter merges with Tam Lyn. Fairies and demons meld and shape shift and, as a finishing touch, Langrish adds a good old fashioned dollop of Christianity. Dark Angels is partly the story of the battle between the old gods and the new.

Published in the U.S.A. as The Shadow Hunt, where it was been chosen for the United States Board on Books for Young People's Outstanding International Books 2011, and nominated for the American Library Association's Best Fiction for Young Adults 2011. It received a starred review from Kirkus Reviews.

A beautifully written tale of love and hate, Dark Angels explores the good and evil that battle within us all. It's the story of two young people who seek to do what is right both for themselves and those they love - as they grow to love the strange changeling, Elfgift. Highly recommended for readers aged nine to ninety-nine.



Susan Price said...

I've read this, and it is wonderful. It was the gentle but still eerie ghost of the 'White Lady' who lingered in my mind: but I loved the house-hob too, who was so vividly imagined, he seemed as everyday as the pots and pans. It seemed quite natural that Nest should sit by the fire talking to him.

Juliet said...

Reading your review reminds me how much I enjoyed this book and makes me want to read it again!

Penny Dolan said...

A stunning review that brings out so much more than the Dark Angels cover image suggests. On my list now.

Ann Turnbull said...

It's a marvellous book - and a great review, Ellen.

Jackie Marchant said...

Sounds like just the sort of book I like! It's going on my wish list.

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