A Visit to Heaven... with a Quick Side Trip to Hell
Fiction Review: Fall from Grace
Note: I was given a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. My review is detailed, so if you want the bottom line scroll to the end of the post!
Whether or not you are of the religious variety, the word “Heaven” is synonymous with a place or state of peace, perfection, and harmony.
But I am getting ahead of myself.
In the beginning, Ritchie’s version of Heaven is depicted in the way we would all expect – love, community, brotherhood, faith, trust, beauty, devotion…. the list is endless. But the story also begins with competition.
Michael, the first angel and Logos, or Word, of God, and Satanail, the Archon, or Hand, of God (and Michael’s closest and dearest brother), engage in a battle of speed and wits to the finish of an epic flying race. From this seemingly good-natured rivalry, we get an inkling of what is to come. (You can read a basic summary of the novel here.)
Even if you aren’t a Biblical scholar, most of us are familiar with the bare bones of the story of how Satan fell from Heaven (or grace) and became the Devil. Ritchie takes the lore that surrounds this story and brings it to life in a way that teaches us about the nature of humans through the carefully constructed personalities of his angels.
I agreed to read and review this book because the topic intrigues me.
I’ve long been fascinated with the stories of angels, the war in Heaven, the uprising of Satan, and his eventual descent to Hell. I was raised Catholic (I even wore the plaid skirt and attended an all-girls school) so the names and general personalities of at least the most famous of the angels have been familiar to me for as long as I can remember.
But in high school, I started getting into the deeper myths of the Catholic Church. I began reading fiction that depicted demons and angels in a way that I’m sure would get my religious education teachers shaking their heads. And I became of a fan of movies that took an aspect of the Catholic faith and twisted it into breathtaking, action-packed thrillers. In my opinion, what makes the best books and movies in the genre so great is a careful balance between religious myth and pure fantasy.
Ritchie’s Fall from Grace falls right in that sweet spot.
Ritchie uses existing lore in a way that keep the story credible and familiar on many levels. For those into mythology, there are the angels one would expect (and hope) to see. But he takes their stories and creates an incredibly imaginative world replete with a cast of characters that comes to life through his deft manipulation. Through the world he creates, Ritchie freely explores the mythical without the constraints of specific religious boundaries.
Thank goodness! With that freedom, we get to enjoy a whole new world.
By far, the strongest aspect of the book is the world-building the author accomplishes. It is here that Ritchie’s experience as a screenwriter becomes apparent. The storyline is familiar and the cast characters are (in name) angels many of us have heard of before. But the world of Heaven? Truly singular. It is clear that Ritchie was focused on making the place of the story as important as the characters of the story. Through Ritchie’s vivid descriptions, one is able to visualize the different regions of Heaven, the geography, the animals, the sheer size, the beauty of the buildings and cities, and the inhabitants as clearly as if they were on screen.
In addition to the setting, the multitude of angels inhabiting Heaven are neatly ordered and creatively described. Ritchie explains how the beatific society works, from governance to mundane work, from travel to nourishment, he anticipates almost every facet of what life must be like for the angels in pre-Fall Heaven. For example, he explains that the personal strength each angel chooses to harness (e.g., healing, tending animals, forging metalwork, etc.) changes his morphology and appearance. We also learn of the Seraphims, Archangels, Cherubims, and even The Forgotten – creatures scorned by the angels and doomed to the nearly uninhabitable region of Mathey with their caretaker, the Seraph, Sammael.
As I read the story, it was fun to see the dips and turns the author took with the familiar tale, and I was kept on my toes as I worked out what “fall from grace” meant for each of the main characters. The subplots, too, were interesting and full of surprises. For me, the least expected twist in Fall from Grace was Satanail’s (Satan) time in Mathey with The Forgotten, Sammael, and his three wives (one of whom is Lillith). Another fascinating aspect was reading about Earth, mankind, our impact in Heaven, and the arrival of evil. It both was and wasn’t what one might expect. I would love to sit down, pen and paper in hand, and talk shop with the author.
Ritchie’s writing style is clear and intelligent. The prose is enjoyable and vivid, and it was easy to become wrapped up in the story of these heavenly creatures. There were little things here and there that took me out of the story. For example, I’m not a fan of the use of italics for emphasis in novels - I want the author to trust me to get when something is important or different. And at times I wondered if the drama was overdone. (I'm still on the fence on that one because the drama did sync with the grandeur of the imagined Heaven and the importance of the events to its future.) But overall Ritchie’s style was smooth and these small notes did not detract from the story.
One thing I appreciate is how Ritchie deftly characterizes through dialogue. For example, when Michael and Raphael talk, the dialogue is a bit stiff and formal. Their stilted, heavy, and reserved words serve to move the story along, yes, but also help fill in the details of their characters as the more formal, “stiff” Seraphs. By contrast, when Gabriel, the young, charismatic Seraph who enjoys a pint (or twenty) with the farmworkers in his region speaks, we hear an entirely different voice – casual, humorous, witty, and calm.
Speaking of characters – my favorite love-to-hate character is Satanail. Of all the characters in the book, we travel deepest into the mind of Satanail. He is cunning, he is bitter, he is jealous, he is greedy, he is deceptive, he is proud. He is everything most of us try not to be. And he is in pain, unable to admit defeat and fault, unable to repent though a part of him longs to do so. Michael may be the hero of the story, but Satanail often steals the show with his quick wit and terrible ways.
Michael’s character development is slower and he struggles in ways that, at times, are less easy to relate to because he is “the Chosen One” (my words, not the author’s). But as the story unfolds, we witness his internal battle, how carrying the weight of the future of the Cosmos on his shoulder affects him and we begin to see a very human side of Michael. He becomes more likable, more relatable, and less perfect. In other words, he becomes a hero we can get behind.
The secondary characters are developed to differing degrees, and there were only a few instances where I felt that a dramatic change happened too fast. My biggest wish with all of the characters is that I would have loved to dive deeper, see more of their angelic lives outside of the main conflict, and been able to really get to know them on a more intimate level. I relished the parts of the book that revealed the human connection between angels and humans and for me that happened most often in places where I felt a deep connection with a character.
Because, of course, the human side is what the story is ultimately about. There are fascinating themes and lessons within this work of fiction that raise important questions about human nature and society. How do we reconcile our imperfect natures? How do we reconcile faith and reason? What are the greater implications of war? Does life require that we set aside personal freedoms for the greater good? Are violence and evil inherent in us all and if so, how do we tame them? I could go on and on because this book truly makes one think. It is a book where days after finishing the story, you’ll find yourself thinking about something or some theme that germinated from the pages of the novel.
If you're a fan of heavy action and violence, this book delivers. I’m less into long battle scenes than character development, but I was still fascinated by the creativity and thoughtfulness of the war scenes and did not find myself wanting to skip ahead as much as I’ve wanted to do in similar war sequences (even when reading Tolkien - let's be honest: some of those LOTR battle scenes got long!). And call me twisted, but I was fascinated by the less lengthy but more sneaky and creepy violence that permeated the pages because those acts truly demonstrated evil at work, a type of evil and violence that terrorizes us when it happens through serial killers, torture, etc. Horrifying in real life, but intriguing in fiction.
I so pleased to have enjoyed Fall from Grace as much as I did. The subject matter was intriguing and the writing good. Most importantly, I found myself thinking about the book and themes long after the final chapter - the true sign of a good read. I look forward to more from this first-time novelist!
Book discussion groups
Mature YA readers (age 16+)
Folks who enjoy religious mythology
About the Author (taken from Amazon):
J. Edward Ritchie is a novelist and screenwriter specializing in world creation and action epics. A fan of all things genre from films to comics to video games, his work explores the intricate, primal balance between good and evil. He is dedicated to writing stories that embody the fantastical and uncompromising entertainment that has inspired his career. He currently resides in Cape Cod, Massachusetts with his wife and golden retriever.