by Cliff McNish
Carolrhoda Books/Lerner (February 2008)
My rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Freya had been fast asleep in her open-windowed bedroom when the curtains slowly swirled and there he was, like the perfection of a dream–a glorious angel in the dead of night. He was huge. He seemed too big for her room, or any room for that matter. Despite which, awakening, she hadn’t been alarmed, not afraid at all. On the contrary, it was as if some part of her had been waiting her whole life for him to deftly lift aside that thin bedroom curtain.
—Angel by Cliff McNish, p. 8.
Freya saw an angel when she was a little girl–an angel who spoke to her, telling her she had greatness, or could have greatness–and she’s never forgotten it. She started looking for that angel everywhere, obsessing about him. Of course no one else believed her, and eventually she was given psychiatric care. Freya comes back home–and she sees the angel again. He has something important for her to do.
Meanwhile, Freya’s older brother is keeping a secret from her, and dealing with bullies. Then Freya meets someone who believes in angels–Stephenie, a girl who’s an outcast at her school. Stephenie thinks she met Freya for a reason–to become her friend, to help her believe in angels again. But Freya is too afraid of becoming ‘crazy’ again, and she’s trying too hard to fit in and be accepted by a group of stuck-up girls to become Stephenie’s friend. And then things spiral out of control.
Angel starts out with a lot of promise. I was gripped by the incredible writing in the first third of the book–the wonderful connections that kept popping up between characters, the way everything all fit together, the emotion running through the writing, and, I admit, what seemed like hope. In the beginning of reading Angel, I had that thrill that a truly great book gives me, the excitement of reading beautiful writing and a gripping story.
Half way through the book, I wasn’t enjoying it as much, and by the end of the book, I felt dissatisfied and let down–Freya, the main character, was not very likable, she rarely ever acted to help other people in her personal life, there was little hope (which I, personally, like in a book) while there was a lot of darkness, and what hope their was seemed forced, just pasted in to make it hopeful. The most likable character was her brother, who had a real sense of justice, was brave, stood up for someone else despite his fear. I kept wondering–why isn’t the book about him?
McNish opened the book by immediately plunging us into fantasy–a great move, letting the reader know exactly what kind of book this was. Character interactions were good and believable, bringing some roundedness to them. And the mix between today’s harsh realities, Freya being considered mentally ill, and angels being real worked well. Most readers will also likely identify with Freya trying so hard to fit in and be accepted.
But Freya was so self-absorbed, selfish, and lacking any spine that I didn’t like her at all–and that’s not a great thing when it’s the main character. She had the right instincts and even some compassion, but she never acted on them, except toward the end of the book where it felt forced and unreal. There was so much pain and bleakness in the book, and so little real hope that I found the book depressing–not what I’m looking for in a fantasy. I found it even harder to accept because the beginning writing was so beautiful. The ending also felt unbelievable to me and very contrived.
Stephenie, a girl who believes in angels, was connected to Freya well in alternating scenes. However, her extreme cluelessness felt unbelievable and, after a while, became tiresome. McNish deftly wove in backstory that made Luke seem real, not just a hero–it gave him depth, explained his actions and feelings, and helped the reader root for him.
There’s a lot going on in Angel, a lot of threads that are deftly pulled throughout the story and details that are carefully laid to build on each other–Freya’s father being sick, and her not seeing it; Freya’s brother Luke dealing with bullies, and his past; Freya warring with the bonds society placed on her and her belief in angels, and then actual angels; Stephenie longing for a friend in Freya, and much more. This could have been an incredible book, but for me, it just didn’t work. Still, I can’t help admiring what did work so well. I’m sure this book will still find it’s way to readers who love it. Check it out, see what you think.