[Caitlin R. Kiernan. Murder of Angels. New York: Roc, September 2004. ISBN 0-451-45996-2.]
Murder of Angels, Caitlin Kiernan’s impressive new novel, is a book of bridges. There is the Golden Gate Bridge, there are portals between this world and another, and there is the Dog’s Bridge, which is made of bones: “long bones and vertebrae, tooth-studded jaws and parts of broken skulls all wired together, the bones of men and animals and gigantic beasts.” The Dog’s Bridge is perhaps the book’s most important trope; certainly, it embodies the book’s method, that of “syncretization,” which a secondary character describes as “taking elements of older stories and putting them together in new ways, or combining them with other stories to make new and more useful myths.”(1) The novel combines elements from numerous myths, legends, and previous fantasy novels, but, as both the definition of syncretization and the structure of the bridge remind us, what is important about such things is that they should be useful, that they should take us someplace. This Kiernan’s novel most assuredly does, as it reconfigures some of the most familiar conventions of fantasy fiction into a moving story of trauma, choice, and sacrifice.
The book is a sequel to Kiernan’s first published novel, Silk (1998); however, it is not necessary to have read the earlier novel to appreciate this one, which recapitulates the previous book through a series of strategic flashbacks and conversations. In Silk, we met Spyder Baxter, a victim of childhood sexual abuse who had invented a personal mythology to represent her trauma to herself. After Spyder’s closest friends experienced a particularly bad peyote trip, Spyder extended her private myth to include them. Or so we might have thought; over the course of the novel, enough strange things happened for us to think that Spyder’s stories were uncomfortably close to some kind of truth, and when we reached its climax, the book’s supernatural elements were vindicated in striking fashion. Vindicated, but not explained: the book’s climactic image of transformation only deepened its mystery.
Murder of Angels is set ten years after that climax, and picks up the lives of a number of the earlier novel’s characters, most prominent among them Daria Parker, Niki Ky, and Spyder Baxter herself. After its ominous prologue, “The Beginning of the End of Time,” the novel is divided into two parts, “Disintegration” and “Wars in Heaven,” with a brief epilogue, “Land’s End.” “Disintegration” focuses on Daria and Niki, in the throes of a relationship that is winding itself down. Neither has dealt particularly well with the events of a decade prior: Niki—who for a brief time had been Spyder Baxter’s lover—has suffered numerous and substantial mental problems, necessitating her medication and monitoring; Daria has fled into her career—she fronts a band—and alcoholism. Despite years of therapy and drugs, Niki has continued to believe that something happened to them a decade before, a possibility Daria stridently refuses. When Niki begins to receive visitations from Spyder—apparently dead at the end of Silk—it seems that her suspicions are being borne out—although the possibility remains that she is hallucinating. The novel deals particularly well with Niki’s precarious sanity. One of Kiernan’s strengths as a writer is her portrayal of characters at the edge of reason: she recognizes how profoundly disturbing an encounter with the supernatural would be. Her strength is rooted in her style: her ability to coin striking metaphors and similes, her elision of the narrative voice into a character’s voice and back again, her use of paratactic phrase and clause arrangement to create a cascade effect, all contribute to a palpable sense that the world is slipping out from underneath us.
The novel’s portrait of the failing relationship between Niki and Daria is another one of its early strengths. In all of her novels, Kiernan has focused on relationships under strain, but in her portrait of Niki and Daria’s coming apart, she achieves a level of poignance that infuses the end of their relationship with real pathos and regret.
Before long, it becomes clear that Spyder is real, her death more in the nature of transferral and transformation. Transferral in that she moved from this world to another, magical one. Transformation in that there she discovered her role as the Weaver, a kind of archetypal figure. Here Kiernan begins to up the stakes for her narrative, as she moves increasingly in the direction of outright fantasy. Obviously, the fantasy world may serve as a source of explanations for whatever strangeness has come in this novel as well as its predecessor; there is a risk, though, that such explanation will reduce what has been mysterious and suggestive to the clear and simple—and unexciting. Kiernan’s challenge, then, is to account for what has gone before in a way that preserves our interest.
This she does in part two of the novel, “Wars in Heaven.” After Niki herself has left our world, we learn still more about Spyder. Since Spyder’s arrival in the other world, she has been at war with the Dragon, another archetype, of destruction. That war is headed for a climax, as Spyder intends to rid her world of the Dragon once and for all. In order to do so, she needs the help of Niki, who herself plays a third archetypal role, that of the Hierophant, who can assist her in opening a portal between our world and Spyder’s.
The novel engages, then, what may be one of fantasy’s fundamental conceits, that of the seemingly mundane individual who is in fact a figure of tremendous, mythic significance. Spyder is the Weaver, Niki is the Hierophant, and both have power in the other world they never had in this one: power enough to defeat the Dragon. Kiernan is not writing an empty power fantasy, though, and as quickly as she introduces the conceit, she complicates it. Almost from the moment Niki encounters the other world’s inhabitants, she hears murmurs about the Weaver’s methods. Initially, neither she or we take them very seriously: Spyder sounds like something of a maverick, but we have grown used to the figure of the hero who does things her way, who refuses to play by outdated and outmoded rules. As the narrative progresses, it becomes clear that Spyder is no mere maverick—she is genuinely dangerous. She has misunderstood the Dragon and her conflict with him in the most profound of ways, reading the trauma inflicted on her by her long-dead, abusive father onto her battle with the Dragon, and so warping what should have been a struggle for balance into a quest for absolute defeat of the enemy. What is worse, Spyder’s revision of reality has infected the Dragon, transforming it from a fearsome if impersonal force of destruction into her imagination of her father. As such, it has become even more dangerous than it hitherto had been.
In this way, Kiernan cleverly plays with another of fantasy’s fundamentals, that of the internal world made external. Usually, we associate this with the creation of the fantasy world itself, either as a realization of the author’s psychic landscape (i.e. Tolkien’s Middle Earth), or of the protagonist’s psychic landscape (i.e. Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant). Through Spyder’s projection of her inner landscape onto the novel’s pre-existing fantasy landscape, Kiernan focuses our attention on the process of fantasizing. It is a move that reminds one of M. John Harrison’s work, and its relentless critique of desire, but Kiernan’s concern is with trauma, in dramatizing the way that trauma continually twists the world of the one who has been traumatized. Given Spyder’s tremendous power, she has the ability to make her internal damage external, and in so doing to perpetuate her trauma on a massive scale. It is a daring move; in many ways, the novel is about the conflict resulting from the clash between two fantasy systems: the other world’s, and Spyder’s.
Kiernan’s refusal to compromise the integrity of her character complicates our response to Spyder. Increasingly, she emerges as the novel’s greatest threat, as Niki learns Spyder’s solution to her conflict with the Dragon: she intends to exile it, send it from the other world to our world. Unlike the other world, our world has no defenses adequate to the Dragon, so it is no exaggeration to say that, in pursuit of her goals, Spyder is literally willing to destroy the world. The stakes have never been as high in a Kiernan novel. At the same time, Spyder is no cardboard villain; rather, she is caught within her own damage, living out the repercussions of her father’s abuse. She is spiritual cousin to Narcissa Snow, the antagonist in Kiernan’s last novel, Low Red Moon (2003). Both of them damaged and dangerous—dangerous because they are damaged.
If Spyder is no typical villain, neither is Niki the standard hero. Herself the victim of trauma, Niki feels her sanity under constant threat. Time and time again, she is overwhelmed by her strange surroundings, by the changes in Spyder, and by the events confronting her. To call attention to her frailty is not to say she is without resources of her own or—in the end—that she is any less the hero; it is to say how much more fraught are the circumstances under which she must achieve that heroism.
In this regard, the novel’s fantasy world is worth mentioning, as its design carries relevant symbolic weight. Late in the novel, Niki is shown a model of it: “an impossible hemispherical world” which is “divided into bands, each one narrower than the one before it,” like “the nested circles of Dante’s Inferno.” These bands rotate: the outermost one clockwise, the next one in counterclockwise, the one after that clockwise, “and so on to the still center,” so that what we have is a world that is literally at cross-purposes with itself, the conflicts of its various regions made geography. The other world takes the circular images (webs, gyres, spirals, etc.) that have appeared throughout Kiernan’s fiction and writes them onto a landscape. To the extent that we may take it as a model for the self, it represents the conflicting impulses flowing through the individual.(2)
Despite its focus on the other world in its second half, the novel does not wholly abandon this world. Even as Niki moves toward a meeting Spyder for the final confrontation with the Dragon, Daria, responding to a dream-command from Niki, sets off on a quest of her own for the philtre, a magic object. This will bring her into contact and conflict with a wonderfully demented trio that includes one of Spyder’s former friends.
In the end, Niki must confront Spyder, and when she does, it is on the Dog’s Bridge. Whatever its sophisticated aesthetic associations, the bridge has a more fundamental narrative significance, and that is as a symbol for choice, for what takes us from one moment in our lives to another. If the worst fantasies are daydreams of power, of the exercise of the self upon a plastic world, then the best fantasies—like the best fiction in general—confront choice and its consequences head-on. In order for choice to be meaningful, it must involve an element of sacrifice: in deciding on one option, we must give up another. On the symbol for choice, Niki must choose between her lover brought back to her and a world she has already abandoned. It is a moment that makes us feel the agony of the will, of what Faulkner called the human heart in conflict with itself; and it is to Kiernan’s credit that the resolution of Niki’s choice in no way leaves us easy.
Novels are bridges, themselves: over the course of our journey from beginning to end, we travel. Sometimes our destination is so familiar as to be generic; sometimes we find ourselves in stranger places. Murder of Angels takes us to one of those less-familiar locations with grace and power. It marks the latest stage in Caitlin Kiernan’s journey as a writer, and leaves us eager to learn where she is headed next.