THEN AND NOW: Angels’ Blood by Nalini Singh (2009)
Janine: I loved Nalini Singh’s recent release, Archangel’s Light, so much that it sent me back to the beginning of the Guild Hunter series. The reading experience was different enough this time around that I decided to try something different, a post called “Then and Now”, focusing on a recent rereading experience I had with Angels’ Blood, the first book in Nalini Singh’s Guild Hunter series. I’ve read it at least twice before this, but the last time was in 2012.
All quotes below are from my original review, posted on March 9th, 2009. I’ll start with my original plot summary.
Twenty-eight-year-old Elena Deveraux is a vampire hunter. Gifted with acute senses, and, in another sense of the word, with weapons, Elena belongs to the Hunters’ Guild, an organization through which she is contracted to hunt wayward vampires and return them to their masters. The vampires’ masters are the angels — winged beings with special powers whose most powerful leaders, the archangels known as the Cadre of Ten, rule the earth.
The angels in this book are not necessarily saintly or even good; some of them, are, in fact, downright corrupt. It is the angels who can turn humans into vampires, but they only do so in exchange for a century of indentured servitude on the vampires’ part. Most vampires are the angels’ minions, but some vampires chafe at the angels’ authority and go rogue, and that is when the Guild’s hunters are called on to capture them.
After returning from one such mission, Elena hears from her closest friend and Guild Director, Sara, that she has been contracted to do a job for the archangel of New York, Raphael. It was not a contract that Sara could refuse, as to risk an archangel’s wrath is to risk death. Elena feels trepidation at the thought of even meeting with Raphael, much less doing a job for him, but she doesn’t feel she has much choice, and she would rather die than show her fear.
On seeing the archangel, Elena is struck silent by his unearthly beauty and the power that is “stamped on every inch of his skin.” But Raphael’s terrifying beauty and power aren’t the only shocks to Elena’s system. She is even more stunned when she learns from Raphael that instead of tasking her with retrieving a rogue vampire, he expects her to track another archangel — a being as powerful and deadly as himself.
The reasons why Raphael and the other members of the Cadre of Ten want one of their colleagues captured are shrouded in mystery, and Raphael is not above threatening Elena or using his mental powers to try and control her. When she protests this, he displays an ability to get her to cut herself. To Raphael, who has lived for over a millennium and who feels responsible for millions of lives, one woman’s life is a puny thing.
Elena fully expects that if she fails at the task he has set for her, Raphael will kill her. If she succeeds, she may come to know too many of the Cadre’s secrets. Refusing the job means signing her death warrant as well as her friends’ and her family members’, but taking the mission on is only marginally less dangerous.
Raphael is a terrifying being, unused to being disobeyed, while Elena is fiercely independent and unwilling to kowtow to anyone. But despite this, a powerful attraction coalesces between them, one that unsettles Elena and intrigues Raphael — one that will change them both.
Angels’ Blood is part urban fantasy, part romance, and part detective story, as well as an exhilarating, addictive read from start to finish.
Now on to my original opinions and to my first and my current impressions:
The world-building raised some questions in my mind since I wasn’t sure at what point in an obviously alternate earth’s history the story took place. The level of technology seemed similar to ours, with cars and cell phones still in use, as well as similar fashions, but this is also true of the Psy/Changeling series, which if I’m not mistaken, takes place in the future of an alternate earth.
NOW: It is evident the series takes place in an era that is roughly (very roughly) concurrent with our own time so I’m not sure why I had this bug up my ass. I was probably just grousing about Nalini Singh’s Psy/Changeling series; it irritates me that that one supposedly takes place a century after our own time but everyone dresses like we do. But that series is essentially alternate Earth paranormal romance/SFR and this one is a blend of urban fantasy, paranormal romance, and fantasy romance (with elements of horror and mystery thrillers). I feel that this world is much more interesting and expansive than the Psy/Changeling world, and the collision between the ancient and the modern is one of the reasons why.
I was willing to suspend disbelief though, because of the beautiful images created by the unexpected contrasts in the world you conjured. An angel with blue wings… Celebrities being seduced by vampires at a party as an angel watches… An angel using a cell phone… and I could go on. There was a seductive pull to this world and its not-so-angelic angels.
NOW: Yes! Even twelve years and fourteen books into the series, I still feel this way. Imagery is one of the best aspects of this series. The subject matter here lends itself to Nalini Singh’s natural writing style. Her vivid prose fits this world seamlessly because a lot of the world requires or is enhanced by visual descriptions.
Singh uses a color palette to match the characterization—Elena’s gunshot turns a part of Raphael’s snowy wings golden to show she has marked him, and not just physically; Illium’s unusual deep blue wings are a match for his fun, flamboyant personality and wistful past; Dmitri’s eyes are chocolate-dark, his scent is described “rich, dark chocolate,” and its tendrils wrap around Elena like luxuriant fur, to go with his seductiveness, his darkness, and his sexual decadence.
In the Psy-Changeling books, clothing and objects many times don’t add anything distinctive to a character, but here Venom’s sunglasses are there to hide mesmerizing (literally) eyes and Elena’s shoe contains a sheath for a knife. Clothes, architecture, and furniture are unusual and interesting when they are made to accommodate beings with wings (in the last book, for example, Illium put on a sweater made with four zippers to get around his wings), or because they can show to what degree a character is rooted in another century or what part of the world they come from. And so much of the description sets a mood; the visuals can by turns be breathtaking, glamorous, creepy, or haunting.
The mystery surrounding the archangel Elena was expected to hunt was suspenseful.
NOW: Since I knew all about that this time it was less so, but that’s only to be expected. This was a well-constructed part of the plot and it kept me engaged even so.
There were also many interesting side characters, from Elena’s hunter friends Ransom and Sara to the angels and vampires who were loyal to Raphael. I was particularly intrigued by Illium, an angel who was fascinated with mortals, and by Elena’s father, who had disowned her for being a hunter but showed signs of caring for her nonetheless.
NOW: I can see why I felt that way then, but Dmitri and Sara were the only side characters I found compelling this time. I loved Sara and Elena’s tight friendship and the way Sara was willing to go to the wall for Elena. I was shocked at how attractive I found Dmitri here; I despised him the first time I read this book. This is probably because I now know his backstory. I still think he’s a huge asshole here but he’s a sexy one this time around.
Most of the others didn’t register on me much because they pale in comparison to their later selves except in Ransom’s case–he never really gets developed much more later. It’s interesting in hindsight that Ransom never went anywhere that interesting as a character after this book, given his relative prominence here.
Elena herself was an appealing heroine, bright, loyal, and above all, courageous.
NOW: Elena is a fun character in this book but she doesn’t have the depth or dimensionality that she develops in later books. You can tell that Singh got to know her a lot better the more she wrote about her.
Sometimes [Elena is] almost too courageous. I liked the way she stood up to Raphael even at his most terrifying because she “wouldn’t crawl, not for anyone.” But therefore, when she wisely chose not to antagonize the villain toward the end of the book, it seemed a bit out of character.
NOW: I suppose this is true, but it doesn’t bother me that much now. It’s an inconsistency, but a necessary one because otherwise Uram would have killed Elena and then we wouldn’t have the sequels.
There were times I felt that someone as smart-mouthed as Elena should have run into even bigger trouble than she did.
NOW: Not sure what I was smoking in 2009. The Cadre needed her too much and it’s suggested more than once that after that’s no longer the case, some plan to kill her.
I also didn’t love being told that she was feminine over and over. I never doubted Elena’s femininity because I don’t feel strength and courage are the exclusive territory of men.
NOW: Still annoying. Thank God Nalini Singh doesn’t do this anymore.
The character that made the book, though, was Raphael.
I loved the fact that unlike many romances with immortal beings, Angels’ Blood did not shy away from the natural consequences of extreme age and power. Raphael was not merely jaded by his age and isolated by his power; he had grown distant from human concerns, even as he tried to rule wisely. His compassion extended to human beings as a whole, but not to any one individual, since in order to put thousands or even millions of lives above any one life, he had to exert his authority to a sometimes-terrifying degree.
The conflicts between Elena and Raphael were therefore the conflicts between the old and the young, the somewhat detached and the deeply engaged, and between an individual’s need for freedom and a leader’s need to put the needs of the community ahead of the needs of any one individual’s wants or needs.
NOW: Raphael is reeeeaaally interesting here in light of how much he changes later on in this book and in the following ones. I’d forgotten just how much of a cruel, callous man he was at the start of book one but that also allows his growing humanity and reluctance to kill Elena (even though his attraction to her endangers his immortality) to make him more and more appealing.
Raphael [is] an exciting character to read about (his good looks and sex appeal didn’t hurt, either), and I thought it was a fascinating paradox that Raphael’s very need to rule responsibly was one of the things that threatened to make him tyrannical and capable of dark deeds.
NOW: I still feel this way but I had issues with the first third of the book due to some of his behavior, particularly the time he invaded Elena’s mind to try and get her to worship and the time he did it to get her to have sex with him. Both times he stops when she says no or defends herself, and he allows her to leave the second time because he knows he went too far and feels genuine remorse.
Still, though it bothered me this time, I enjoyed that in 2009—there was a lot I enjoyed reading in books back then as long as it was clearly framed in the context of being morally wrong (I love a convincing redemption arc). In Raphael’s case, those actions were probably necessary to his character arc and the conflict of whether or not he will be able to hold on to his humanity which plays out through multiple books, but they weren’t what I wanted to read in 2021.
There were other things that bothered me in 2021 but did not make a big dent in my enjoyment in 2009. A couple-few times Elena thought that some aspect of a POC character’s appearance was exotic and once Venom used a homophobic descriptor. Vivek living in the basement 24/7 is ableist.
To be fair, Singh is an author of color herself who now writes m/m and I haven’t seen her do these things in a while (I can’t judge the third, since no disabled characters have been introduced in a while). Twelve years is a long time and people evolve. I know I have. But it is still something new readers should be aware of.
I would have liked to understand better what it was about Elena specifically that gave her the ability to engage Raphael’s emotions more deeply than any of his other lovers (all warrior women) had done in his millennium of existence.
NOW: Yes, the book needs more of that. The later books do provide it.
Raphael’s transformation was so absorbing that I wanted more of it, and I felt that it was a little rushed, in that he changed a bit too much a bit too quickly.
NOW: Yup. Still feel this way.
The ending of the book, though not unexpected, was still so wonderful that I have read it a few times now.
NOW: I’d forgotten how romantic the ending of this book was. The last two chapters and the epilogue are pitch-perfect.
NOW: Even with its problematic issues, Angels’ Blood is still enjoyable. I wasn’t bored at any point despite knowing what would happen, so this time around it’s a B.