REVIEW: Archangel’s Light by Nalini Singh
Dear Nalini Singh,
Illium—playful, loyal, kind, and powerful—has been a charismatic presence in the Guild Hunter series since the first book, Angels’ Blood. Aodhan hasn’t been quite as prominent a character but his light-refracting beauty, artistry, and remoteness give him an almost haunting quality. Their fast friendship was always intriguing and many readers have been waiting for years to see it blossom into romance. Archangel’s Light is that long-awaited novel.
Early in the book, Raphael tells Elena he is sending Illium to help out Suyin and Aodhan in China. Suyin has requested Raphael’s permission to ask Aodhan to remain her second. After all that Aodhan has survived, Raphael will never take his choices away from him, but he doesn’t want to lose him and that’s why he sends Illium.
Ever since the events of Archangel’s Heart, where Aodhan and Illium had a falling out, the two have not been communicating much. Now it’s been a year since the war in Archangel’s War, where Aodhan volunteered to serve as Suyin’s second. In that time their rift has worsened and Illium’s arrival in China raises tensions further since they are already on thin ice with each other.
Aodhan is angry; he feels that because he retreated from the world for so long, Illium no longer views him as someone who can stand on his own and that Illium’s overprotectiveness hobbles him. Illium feels rejected (he also assumes that Aodhan will take the position when Suyin offers it). As far as he’s concerned, he’s worn his heart on his sleeve for too long and if Aodhan doesn’t value his care anymore then fuck him.
So Illium pastes on a fake smile that Aodhan sees through in a heartbeat. Each decides to keep an emotional distance while having the other’s back when they team up–but of course, that’s easier said than done.
Survivors of the horrors that Lijuan unleashed on China during her reign straggle into Suyin’s home base and among the new arrivals is Kai, a descendent of Kaia, the mortal lover Illium once lost his feathers over. Kai bears an uncanny resemblance to her ancestor and at first glance Illium is smitten. Aodhan winces; he never thought Kaia was good for Bluebell but he’s also never said so and never will. Illium feels similarly about Suyin (she and Aodhan are rumored to be an item).
Aodhan wants to confront Illium about his fakeness and Illium is determined not to engage. There are also small misunderstandings and mishaps that wound them. For example, Aodhan retreats from a glancing touch as if burned.
Soon enough, though, Suyin takes her people on a journey to a new location where she plans to build a citadel that isn’t haunted by the memory of Lijuan. Before she leaves, she asks Aodhan and Illium to stay behind (along with a few kitchen staff, Kai among them) and investigate the disturbing disappearance of an entire village.
Their hurts come out under danger and slowly (very slowly) they take small steps back toward each other.
These chapters alternate with others set during their childhood and youth. We see them meet as small angels (so cute; they call each other “Spark” and “Blue”). One is shy and the other gregarious, and that makes each the perfect person to grow up with for the other. Illium brings Aodhan out of his shell and Aodhan settles Illium. They practice flying together, discover their dreams together. And when each one is shattered by an emotional blow, his best friend is there for him.
The mystery subplot is one of the spookiest and creepiest in the series, so I don’t even know why I loved it. Possibly because it’s also one of the tautest and most suspenseful.
This book is relatively isolated from the world politics of the Guild Hunter series. The present-day story here takes place almost entirely in China and none of the other protagonists are present for that section. The flashback storyline about Illium and Aodhan’s childhood and youth is set centuries in the past, so while we see some familiar faces there, these sections have even less to do with the series’ political plot.
This serves the story really well, especially once Aodhan and Illium are alone together to investigate the disappearances. The absence of other distractions (except for the investigation, and that brings them together) puts a close focus on their relationship—a friendship that’s a little screwed up and a lot wonderful.
It also makes the book a good entry point for readers who haven’t read the earlier books in the series—Archangel’s Light mostly stands on its own. Of course, reading the earlier books would enhance the reading experience, but if you’re curious about Illium and Aodhan and haven’t read any of those, I think you can read it first and then backtrack to catch up on the overarching larger-world political plot and the other characters afterward–the flashbacks will fill you in on a lot of Aodhan and Illium’s backstory.
The book is a good introduction to m/m romance for those Nalini Singh readers who aren’t familiar with LGBTQIA romances, too. The romance here is very subtle, a slow, slow-burn friends-to-lovers story that emphasizes friendship.
I know that some readers will be bummed by that pacing, but on reflection, I’ve decided that to not take it so slowly might have done an injustice to these characters and their backstory. This isn’t your typical friends-to-lovers romance where the characters have known each other since college. It’s a five-hundred-year friendship between two people who have known each other practically since infancy but haven’t consciously viewed each other in a romantic or sexual light before, so it can only evolve very slowly. Particularly since they have big issues to work out even just in terms of their friendship and what would feel right to both of them on that level.
The subtlety works in another way, too, and that ties to the way the author develops their characters through their formative experiences.
This is a book that says true love is always in large part about friendship, about being there for the other person when they need you, and that we should value that above youth or beauty. That it’s the devotion that is the heart of a romance, and that wholehearted commitment is worth a lot—and a lot of compromise and sacrifice.
I did want more sensuality and romance for them, but—more on that later.
The book also strikes a perfect balance between sweetness and painful emotions. Because there’s such a long, rare, and close friendship on the line, the stakes are sky-high. The flashbacks of the two children playing together, teaming up to get into trouble, and learning to fly side by side leaven the angst and add optimism when their adult relationship is at its most angry and broken. And later, as the adult Aodhan and Illium start to grow closer again, the traumas of their younger years rear their head in the flashbacks.
The flashbacks do a great job of dramatizing all the plot points that took place in their youth. I was surprised that these seminal moments packed such a powerful punch even though I already knew from the earlier books what was coming.
There were other things to appreciate in those sections, too. I loved Sharine in Archangel’s Sun, but I had some issues with her characterization there—it was difficult to reconcile the fragile Hummingbird of the past with the emotionally sturdier Sharine of the present and I wanted more flashbacks to help me piece that together. That she felt she had to be even-handed in her treatment of Illium and Aodhan bothered me too, and it was hard for me to absolve her of her emotional retreat from the world when her son needed her.
I understand these things much better now.
It was also great to see Raphael as a new archangel, and Naasir and Dmitri in their younger years. Raphael and Naasir were great with the kids and Dmitri’s role in one scene was very moving.
I can only think of a few criticisms.
The first is that I wanted to see how Aodhan went from courier to warrior angel. He couldn’t have attained a leadership position as a member of the Raphael’s Seven much less served as Suyin’s second for his great art alone, for his friendship with Illium, or even for his innate power, and his trauma-based retreat from the world surely interfered some with leadership training. With Illium’s past, we were shown more of that transformation and it went beyond his angelic power potential.
The second thing that bugged me is that Aodhan spots a big clue during the investigation of the village but later on, just when it would be handy to think of, he and Illium forget all about it.
The third is smaller. The chapters set during the heroes’ childhoods are dated “Yesterday,” and the present-day sections “Today.” That was lovely, except that the early scene where Raphael tells Elena about his decision is labeled “A month before today.” I spent the first few chapters puzzled by why a present-day discussion took place before Aodhan and Illium’s childhood and wondering if I was reading about some sort of time distortion (it isn’t that, just confusing labeling).
As I said before, the romance here is very, very subtle and slow burn; this is very much a book about a passionate investment in a tight, lifelong, and transcendent friendship. That wasn’t at all what I anticipated in terms of heat level and more. I have seen a few readers question if the author wanted to write Archangel’s Light because of that or if she felt pressured by her fans but I doubt it was the latter. This book read like her heart and soul were in it and kept me reading until six in the morning. Authors don’t achieve that when they are going through the motions.
There are many things I still want to know. Things like:
If I were sure Archangel’s Light is all we’ll get in the way of Illium and Aohdan books, I would still love the book but I’d also feel a little deprived. I’m not though, so I’m holding off on that feeling. There is absolutely no way that all the things I want to know and see could have been explored in one book, much less fit in with all the childhood/early adulthood backstory and the resolution of their more recent friendship conflict. So I think there’s some reason to think that we’ll get another book about these two. Archangel’s Light ends in a very romantic place that feels very much like a beginning, much as Angels’ Blood did.
Maybe my hopes are pure fantasy, wishful thinking, but I’ll close with this: I was happy to see Illium and Aodhan paired because there was so much buildup that anything else would have felt like a cheat, but I wasn’t a passionate Aodhan/Illium shipper before I read Archangel’s Light. Now I love them. If a sequel does come out, I will feel like I’ve died and gone to heaven. A-/A.
PS I’m reading the book for the second time (still loving it!) and I wanted to amend what I said earlier with regard to the book standing on its own. I still think it does for the most part, but the first 10% or so does refer to many events and other characters in the series. Some of the most important events are later explained by the flashbacks, and several of the characters are new or have been very minor until now (Nalini Singh’s books usually have large casts), so of you’re new to the series or have fallen behind, keep in mind that even veteran of the series may not know them. And remember that about 10% of the way in the book gets easier to follow.