Anne Rice’s newest novel Angel Time continues the one-time Goth queen’s fervent return to Christianity. Angel Time is the story of Toby O’Dare, aka Lucky the Fox, a hit man with a Jesuit education, a dark past, and mad lute-playing skills. At the behest of a wise seraph named Malchiah, O’Dare travels back in time to thirteenth-century England, where, disguised as a monk, he embarks on a mission to save the Jewish population of Norwich. As you might expect with this sort of thing, our killer’s soul is also at stake–redemption, salvation, all that good stuff.
In a longish author’s note, Rice discusses some of the historical basis for her story, noting in particular the story of William of Norwich. From a purely narrative perspective, the plot seems pretty intriguing. We’re suckers for anything medieval, after all. Unfortunately, Angel Time is more Dan Brown than Umberto Eco. While there’s something to be said for the ability to write a real page-turner, Angel Time too-often falls back on leaden exposition and tired phrasing. Rice’s early Lestat novels might have been über-emo drama fests, but they were also wickedly sensual and sometimes alarming in their sexual ambiguity. And Lestat was just all kinds of fun, of course. Toby O’Dare, despite his silly name, is no fun. It’s really Rice’s utter humorlessness about her subject matter which is probably most off-putting of all. Her plot about a time-traveling hit man with an angel on his shoulder is engrossing stuff–so why does it take so long to start? We don’t get to medieval times until over half-way through the book. Perhaps because Angel Time initiates a new series Rice calls Songs of the Seraphim she feels the need to overload the front half with exposition about angels, God, the nature of Heaven, etc. Rice’s didactic tone is at times overbearing here. The metaphysical is best left at least a little mysterious. Similarly, while it’s great to know a hero’s motivations and history, Toby O’Dare’s back-story is so overdetermined as to preclude any real moral dilemma. Sure, he’s sinned, he’s worked as a contract killer–but if a seraph looks into your heart and knows you’re, like, good and stuff, is there any doubt that redemption is not forthcoming?
Perhaps Rice’s next novel in her Seraphim series will leave readers a little more room to breathe–and think. If Rice has left vampires for angels and hell for heaven, is it also necessary that she leave strangeness, wonder, and ambiguity for the stolid certainties of didactic allegory? Maybe we’re being too harsh. There’s undoubtedly an audience out there for Angel Time, and it’s probably fair to say that her work here will challenge audiences more than most books marketed to contemporary Christian audiences. But many of us prefer our literature to pose the challenging questions in ways that make us think. It spoils much of the fun to get all the answers up front.