Metal and Madness

by Shim

Shim is a bit disappointed by Fallen but still talks about it at great length.
This review will contain big dock-off spoilers for Fallen. You have been warned. Some ideas and points have been shamelessly nicked from the Text Factor and all credit is due to whoever made them. It also contains big spoilers for Ferretbrain Presents: The Text Factor: Halloween Special: Girl Books For Girls, so if you want to listen to that without knowing the ending, stop reading now.

This is actually about the fourth draft of this article, because there are a lot of things you could say about Fallen, and I found it hard to pin down the right angle. One of the problems is that it's a book about the supernatural, with various inexplicable events. As the book progresses, things you thought were true turn out not to be; and as a result, my evaluation of the book itself changed, so going through the story in order actually meant the review contradicted itself. So here's a summary of the review: for me, Fallen was like a luscious cake, with aromatic icing and rich, moist sponge, which I chomped eagerly, but the buttercream turned out to be bland and squidgy, diluting the initial succulent flavour and causing the cake to fall apart.

Isn't the book you think it is. Or is it?

We started reading Fallen expecting a Twilite teenage romance, but with a heavier, more dramatic tone. The cover promised Gothic. A pale, raven-haired goth chick with a black, bustled dress weeps alone in a dusky winter wood where rooks circle - at least, they look like rooks, although as it's set in America, they're probably some foreign bird or other. But ornithology is not our chief concern right now. There's a brief, somewhat incomprehensible prologue. There's a man drawing a girl by night, on the verge of leaving the country because of his unbearable, somehow impossible love for her. It's very Woman in White, except for the sudden inexplicable death. It has its share of flaws, as prologues tend to, but thinking back to The Dreaming Void it seemed like a work of artistry and did set the tone for, as it turned out, about the fourth fifth of the book.

And suddenly we're a girl called Luce, being barked at by a clipboarded matron, in a school that evokes the Empire of the 41st Millennium.

Here's the short version: Luce is interned in a reform school after the mysterious death of her boyfriend. Luce is sporadically haunted by mysterious shadows, which are somehow involved in the earlier death of her boyfriend in a horrible fire, hence her being at Sword and Cross. She's also been on anti-psychotics most of her life, and periodically had weird episodes, so you can see why people might think some intervention was necessary. She befriends various eccentrics, and meets two hot guys, Daniel (standoffish) and Cam (obviously into her), but feels a supernatural connection to Daniel. Meanwhile, eerie shadows torment her periodically, and she has strange visions. A guy dies in another mysterious fire around Luce. She picks Daniel, but Cam doesn't give up, and gets a bit creepy in the process. It turns out Luce is Daniel's perpetually-reincarnated lover, and pretty much everyone else is a fallen angel. There's a big angel brawl and someone tries to sacrifice Luce to end the Heaven-Hell war. She gets taken away to safety somewhere else.

Well Metal

One of the things Lauren Kate does well is evocative writing. She's come up with an interesting setting and really throws herself into it. The Sword and Cross reform school is a perfect environment for romance. It has massive stone walls, omnipresent CCTV,[1] and barbed wire. Where other schools have tacky laminated signs, Sword and Cross has labels chiselled (I like to think, in heavy Blackletter) into the stonework. It has its own cemetery. The swimming pool is in an abandoned church; and not one of those modern low-slung Methodist halls with wheelchair access and surround sound, but a crenellated, stained-glass-windowed edifice. The other students may or may not be psychotic. It's well metal. Embarrassingly, I didn't immediately realise it was deliberate melodrama. I thought it was just a really ridiculous setup for a story. Once I clicked, though, I really found myself warming to the setting.

But I wasn't kidding about the romance. One of the things that Sword and Cross achieves as a device is cutting out all the noise, because the students are basically cut off from the outside world. Luce is trapped with her fellow inmates, which speeds up the narrative and avoids having to worry about outside interference. It's also, as someone pointed out, probably essential for maintaining the atmosphere. A big part of Fallen is the heavy gothic atmosphere, and as soon as you introduce ordinary things, or have Luce talk about her life to someone outside it, you notice that it's actually preposterous. As it is, the setting both excuses and enhances the more implausible aspects. Strange behaviour is expected from problem teenagers, and the bizarreness of both the school and its occupants make it hard to spot whether anything weird is really going on, or if it's all in Luce's mind. Given that she's been on anti-psychotics, and sees menacing shadows nobody else can see, it's a distinct possibility. Lauren Kate pulls off this semi-gothic feel with aplomb, or possibly several plombs, but manages to keep an eye on the modern teenageness of the book most of the time and stop it taking itself too seriously. Mostly, Kate keeps Luce's mind relatively informal and the gothic stuff for the narration. Occasionally she slips up; there's one point where Luce wonders how Cam can smuggle in "everything he needed to throw a Dionysian soirée", which didn't ring true to her normal vocabulary, no matter how much Classics she says she's studied. On the whole, though, it's pretty solid.

As well as the atmosphere, Kate manages to write some scenes that I found really evocative. The dismal official 'social' was convincingly grim, and the illegal party afterwards brought back memories of claustrophobic gatherings in people's college rooms - slightly squalid affairs that people nevertheless manage to enjoy. I mean, other people. The parents' day is suitably strained and corny, but Luce's parents are shown up as caring and sensitive, though still humanly fallible. Above all, given it's ultimately a romance, the romantic scenes were generally very well written and often original. There's a recurring theme of closeness and 'fitting together' that ultimately arises from Daniel having know Luce over and over for centuries: on the rare occasions he touches her, it's completely natural and familiar. There's a lovely scene in the gym where she confronts the gorgeous, bare-chested youth about her déjà vu and visions, demanding he tell her to her face that she's never in her life seen him before that week.
Her heart raced as Daniel stepped toward her, placing both hands on her shoulders. His thumbs fit perfectly along the grooves of her collarbone, and she wanted to close her eyes at the warmth of his touch - but she didn't. She watched as Daniel bowed his head so his nose was nearly touching hers. She could feel his breath on her face. She could smell a hint of sweetness on his skin.
He did as she asked. He looked her in the eye and said, very slowly, very clearly, so that his words could not possibly be misunderstood:
"You have never in your life seen me before this week."

Although we know there's something going on, Daniel generally does come across as a nice but troubled boy, dealing with interest from a girl he barely knows who seems seriously disturbed. Cam's scenes, too, are well done and graduate fairly nicely from charming to alarming, helped by Luce's own feelings solidifying. Daniel is somewhat hot and cold to Luce, but the whole star-crossed-lovers plot provides the first decent explanation I've seen for this popular trope: he loves her, but telling her that might actually kill her. Luce's emotional fumblings around both Daniel and Cam are convincing, and although I know it's all plot, it's nice that she's allowed to be interested in more than one boy, and make advances to them, both practically and without implied criticism. Luce's platonic relationships are good too. Several times, she agonises convincingly about friendship, wondering whether the others' friendliness conceals hidden agendas and personality problems. The madcap Arriane, for example, takes Luce under her wing, but gets quite possessive, and her behaviour is sometimes odd enough to alarm Luce.

Not natural

Eventually, the supernatural static builds up to crackling point and my metaphor breaks down in embarrassed silence. Daniel is a fallen angel, as are several of the other characters. Luce is the latest reincarnation of the girl from the prologue, who Daniel is eternally in love with. The fate of the universe rests in their hands.

For me, sadly, the book lost some of its appeal as the supernatural took the spotlight. The well-metalness of it dropped away to make room for plot, and the rather vague supernatural background couldn't fill its shoes. Lauren Kate did a great job at creating a plausible romance in a quirky setting, and building up the supernatural elements that both threaten Luce and dominate her romantic relationships. I loved the shadows, which were appropriately creepy and menacing without being campy, and for most of the book they're so unexplained that it builds up a good atmosphere of tension when they appear. Unfortunately, the explanation (they are harmless spies) rather deflates the menace, and it's flatly contradicted by previous events, where the shadows act against Luce and possibly even cause the lethal fires.

Basically, the problem seems to be that Lauren Kate does a great job of establishing a punky gothic dystopian supernatural school romance setting, but that she's not so good at the crunchy explanations that underlie the smooth chocolatey goodness of the first three-quarters of the book. The fact that a lot of people are supernatural beings started cracking open inconsistencies in the previous chapters. It's never clear exactly what the student body at Sword and Cross is: the students talk with casual rawness, and describe themselves as crazy, nuts, psycho, but we don't know what any of them actually did. They act in rather strange ways at times, but they're all portrayed as people, not a bunch of stereotypes; and one of the most eccentric people is the officially-sane Penn. Initially, I was impressed by the nuanced depiction of problem teenagers. However, when they all turn out to be angels, not only is that achievement undermined, but their eccentricity doesn't make sense any more. It doesn't even make sense for them to be in the school at all. Some have been there for several years, and of course, Miss Sophia and Mr. Cole are staff members. There's no suggestion that they have memory-altering powers and faked it, and they can't predict the future to know Luce will come there, so why have all these angels been hanging around in a reform school? At one point, Arriane is rendered helpless by an electric shock from her control wristband, but elsewhere the angels take savage beatings in their stride.

The Official Bitch Molly is maybe the best example. She made a decent bully, being petty, spiteful and possibly jealous of Luce, but not overwhelming the more interesting parts of the story. But I didn't find it very convincing in an ancient, evil supernatural being. There's a particularly odd bit in the Religion class.
Miss Sophia... "We call him Satan now, but over the years he's worked under many guises - Mephistopheles, or Belial, even Lucifer to some."
Molly, who'd been... rocking the back of her chair against Luce's desk for the past hour with the express purpose of driving Luce insane, promptly dropped a slip of paper over her shoulder onto Luce's desk.
Luce... Lucifer... any relation? Her handwriting was dark and angry and frenetic. Luce could see her high cheekbones rise up in a sneer.

I'm sorry, Lauren Kate, but this makes no flippin' sense when Molly turns out to be an evil fallen angel. Even if your evil fallen angels do focus on irritating people in mundane ways, Angel Molly will know a lot about Lucifer, and not think about him in the same way as a mortal teenager, and it doesn't make sense to me for her to connect the two in that way. Heck, from what I know so far, I'd expect Molly to admire Lucifer, if not serve him, so that would be a compliment. And it's not clear why she's so psychotically wound up about Luce anyway, nor why she doesn't actually kill her, given how vicious she's implied to be.

Talkin' 'bout your veneration

I've got to admit that I don't really understand the canon-slash-theology of the book. I'm not sure if I just haven't read enough books about angel romance, or enough mediaeval literature and Catholic doctrine, or if it actually is just confusing. From what I can make out, there are angels and demons, and also fallen angels. The latter seem to be basically just like humans, only, y'know, cooler. But because of the (generally praiseworthy) fairly limited exposition, most of which is right at the end, I have no idea how the universe is supposed to operate in Fallen.

One of the things that bugged me is the crux of the plot. So Luce is continually reincarnated every seventeen years, right? And she always meets Daniel and they fall in love and she dies tragically, right? But wait! This isn't just one of the reincarnations - this is the one where everything really matters. This one could end the war, somehow. Why? Because in this life, Luce hasn't been baptised. "[Your parents] effectively left your soul up for grabs," as Miss Sophia says. So when she dies this time, she dies forever! And also the world may end, or something.

Unfortunately, the rest of the book doesn't support this as a premise. It's clear that her and Daniel have turned up all over the world, sometimes in places where Christian baptism is deeply unlikely, so I have to assume that on those occasions any religion did the job, an option which the text left open. But the whole book is about fallen angels, in a very specific type of Christian tradition, which makes that pretty much nonsensical. More to the point, the whole Daniel-Cam axis has been blatantly about choice and temptation, and I think it's supposed to parallel the Garden of Eden (though I don't remember there being two serpents, both really hot, but one was a bit offhand and the other quite friendly). The scenes where Luce is with Cam are painted as definitely seductive, whereas the Daniel ones are weird but wholesome. There's an enormous fuss made about Luce going off with Cam and being persuaded into kissing him, suggesting that choosing him to love might be the key.[2] But in infant baptism there's no personal choice at all, which makes it sound like theological bureaucracy is the key. It's possible that all this might make sense if we knew the whole background and the theological plot, but from the scraps we've had so far, it doesn't make sense at all. Above all, it feels flat as a plot, as though the fate of Middle-Earth ultimately hinged on whether someone had submitted a form on or before the closing date. Technicalities are not the stuff of epics.

Nevertheless, the important thing is, Luce and Daniel finally get to fall in love. In one of the more baffling sections of the book, Miss Sophia says their love is apparently the key to the Heaven-Hell war that's apparently going on, controls the fate of everyone's souls, and her death unbaptised will sort it out (but explanations will have to wait until (I presume) another book). Said death appears to require yer'actual ritual sacrifice tied to a really stereotypical altar and lots of chanting in tongues, so apparently it's not as simple as that.

Oh, and she also kills Pennyweather.

Cheap Shot

The death of Pennyweather Van Syckle-Lockwood was one thing that really rankled with me. The fact that it bothers me shows that Lauren Kate did a great job somewhere. Penn was a great character, with an interesting personality, and a fantastic name. She's a good friend to Luce, someone I warmed to, perhaps because she was interestingly human. Then Miss Sophia cuts her throat. Everything, from the event to the writing, is baffling.
"Luce's eyes widened as she watched Miss Sophia raise the dagger over her head... deftly blocked Luce's arm... while she dragged the dagger across Penn's throat."

I don't know about you, but when I'm cutting people's throats, I find that raising up the dagger like some stereotyped cultist is counterproductive, as what you need is a controlled sideways slice rather than a random stab. Which is exactly what Miss Sophia does at the end, so... why, Lauren Kate, why?

Dropping the pedantry for a second, it's completely unnecessary. The crippled Penn is incapable of intervening in Miss Sophia's plan, which is to sacrifice Luce like the aforesaid random cultist. Apparently killing Luce will sort things out, somehow or other, and she won't reincarnate this time.
"No ritual to welcome you into religion equals no reincarnation for Luce. A small but essential loophole in your cycle."

Why? We're back to the heavenly bureaucracy, dishing out reincarnations like free bus passes to the over-60s. But I already ranted about that, and we're talking about Penn. She talks about Penn being a "pillar of salt" dragging Luce down, but at this point she's no longer even a mild inconvenience to Miss Sophia. It doesn't even feel right in the story, whereas Todd's death earlier at least fitted into the mysterious atmosphere.[3] Either Lauren Kate wanted to get some cheap sympathy, or it just suited her purposes to leave Luce all alone, and this was the cynically easiest way. Because she is all alone now. She didn't have much contact with her parents anyway, and she gets flown somewhere remote at the end of the book. Except for Penn, all her friends, and her enemies, turn out to be supernatural beings, which is very much not the same as friends. And Penn is dead, pointlessly, meaninglessly. As Luce is now being flown away to safety, Penn's death isn't even necessary to write her out. Now there is only Luce and Daniel, and that brings to mind other romances, where only the lovers matter and the rest of the cast is irrelevant. They tend to be rubbish.

Looking back

Now, I realise that I've ended the review with a scathing attack on the plot, setting and writing. And given that the end of the book is where these things start crumbling, it's entirely appropriate. There's a lot to like about Fallen, with its joyfully overdone setting and its surprisingly playful tone. Throughout the first two-thirds of the book, Kate kept a bit of tongue in her cheek, playing with and lampshading the more melodramatic aspects, and the story is all the better for it. Unfortunately, where the big theological world-ending plot seeps in and people start dying, it starts to take itself more seriously, and to be honest this book is too preposterous to treat entirely seriously. Plus, cracks of varying gape start opening up in the whole fabric of the book. If it didn't start taking itself seriously, I'd be more willing to overlook the fact that some bits of it don't make sense, and might not without reading three more substantial books. I might read Torment, given that I bought the pair on special offer. I suspect I won't finish it. I seriously doubt I'll get through the tetralogy.

Though there are plenty of things left unexplained, it looks to me like this book - like Twilight - will in the end ultimately be about the Daniel-Luce romance, and given the world is at stake, I think I can guess how that's going to end. Finding out the explanations for some of the weirdness, which may not be more convincing than the ones I've already read, just isn't much of a lure at this point. I suspect Fallen is a book whose cracks some people can happily skip over, and hang on for things to make sense in the next volume, and I just don't fall into that category. But don't let me put you off reading it. Grab a library copy, enjoy the first two-thirds, and maybe the last will be to your taste as well.

In the Text Factor final, in the end, I voted against Fallen because though I liked both finalists, I could see more ways for Fallen to disappoint. Having read it, I stand firmly by that vote.

[1] Although it's against the text, I can't help imagining this as the camera birds from Gunnerkrigg Court.
[2]I'm perfectly willing not to quibble about the definition of love for the sake of a good story.
[3] An alternative way of looking at it is, I still haven't the faintest idea why presumably-Cam would have set the library on fire and, apparently, deliberately killed Todd just as they escaped. Like other bits of the story, it builds up supernatural tension with events that don't seem to make much sense once you know what the supernatural stuff is.

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Comments (go to latest) at 07:34 on 2011-01-14
This perfectly sums up my reaction to Fallen. I really enjoyed it until the end. I almost wish I could read the same book without the supernatural elements. Especially as I was enjoying Luce's friendships with Penn and Arriane.

I've been tempted to pick up Torment just to see what happens, but it'll probably be for cheap at the used book store. at 03:59 on 2011-01-17
Thanks for the text factor closure. I had the same reaction, though I was never interested in Daniel/Luce. Anything involving true love, fated love or love at first sight bores me, and this had all three. What I wanted from Fallen was a boarding school story – Harry Potter meets Gormenghast - with more about the other students, the insanely gothic lessons (which failed dictator did she write on?) and the various absurdly cool elements that made the first half of this book so much fun. I suppose it still would have needed a plot and reason for existing, but I’m sure there’s a better option than a war between angels and reincarnated love. As you said, that doesn’t explain a lot of what goes on anyway.
Shim at 06:58 on 2011-01-17
I could go either way. I think the hypothetical pure gothic reform school story could be a lot of fun, but as you say, you'd need a plot for it. Also, quite a few of the elements come from the supernatural stuff - her entire relationship with both Cam and Daniel, for example, works as well as it does because the weirder bits are obviously somehow supernatural. Otherwise all of that would also need reworking so it wasn't either really hackneyed love at first sight or jackassery. Much of the romance depends on the recurring feeling that there's some past history and the whole fitting-together theme. Of course, Beta-Cam not being some kind of seduction!angel would probably be an improvement, but... also, the early supernatural stuff (shadows, mysterious fire) and Luce's fragile emotional state helps establish the gothic atmosphere. Beta-Fallen might also need to consider more carefully why everyone's in Beta-Sword and Cross (although a story where it's just never brought up by the narrator might be interesting, it doesn't fit the idea that everyone knows everyone's history). Why is Luce there? Why are Daniel and Cam there? Those are especially important for establishing what kind of people they are.

What probably would have worked better for me would have been a low-angel version. The reincarnated lovers thing sort of worked for me, it was the big theological lot that bogged it down. I'd probably have been happy enough with a simple non-angel plot. Maybe their relationship is more complicated somehow (he's not immortal but remembers reincarnations, I dunno... maybe they're not always lovers...). The angel thing could have worked for me with fewer angels and without the big plotline, which frankly just feels unnecessary. We talked in one of the TFs about different ways the series could go, and I think my favourite was the idea that it's about four different lives, though maybe with some higher-level romance plot progressing through them (otherwise why four books?). Now I'll start getting glares from the counterfactual criticism naysayers, and will shut up.

Short version, bring on the Fallen AU fanfic. at 10:04 on 2011-01-17
I would have preferred the romance if there’d been more to it than that supernatural attraction and recognition. Perhaps if there had been more interaction, if Daniel had not recognised her straight away (people are usually reincarnated in different bodies, right?) and they’d been able to have a normal conversation. I like the romance genre, but for a pairing to work for me it needs a lot of dialogue. I need to see for myself that there is chemistry between a couple, not just take it on faith because the author tells me it’s there. I think even Bella and Edward spend more time talking than Luce and Daniel do.

I could definitely have done with fewer angels. It made characters like Arianne less interesting. I don’t have any answers for BetaFallen. Is a reason ever given for why the school is a base for both sides in the angel war? I don’t remember one. The watertight world building was one of the things I enjoyed about Glass Houses. By the end of the book you understand why Morganville is the way it is, and how Claire, as an outsider who doesn’t think the same way as the Morganville natives, can be a force for change. Fallen has so many loose ends in comparison.
Dan H at 15:05 on 2011-01-17
I think I'm in an unusual position of not having been disappointed by Fallen because it worked out pretty much the way I predicted it would and I don't mind at all.

Spoilers Follow.

One thing I would say having read (nearly) all of Torment is that while Daniel/Luce is still the central pillar of the text, Kate actually does deconstruct the relationship quiet a lot. A lot of the second book involves Luce realising for herself a lot of things which seem to be bugging people here. She spends a lot of time coming to terms with the fact that she doesn't really know anything about Daniel at all, and there's a rather cool bit where another boy kisses her, and she's surprised by how wrong it doesn't feel. Pretty much the entire second book is a deconstruction of the series' central trope - it's Luce sitting down and saying "well okay yes, we're doomed eternal lovers but what does that actually *mean*."

Perhaps I'm giving Lauren Kate too much credit, but it genuinely does seem like the series is engaging with the underlying assumptions of its subgenre in some interesting ways. It does, at least at the point I've reached, seem to be questioning the ideal of love put forward in this kind of book.

The War in Heaven stuff still seems a bit weird and out of left field, and there's still part of me that's holding out for Luce to turn out to be Lucifer (which would be srsly awesome). Torment doesn't really clarify why Luce/Daniel is so important (apparently Daniel holds the key to the balance in the final war because ... fnuh?)

So yeah. I kind of stick by my vote too. I still think Glass Houses was technically superior, but I really liked Fallen and Torment and am looking forward to Passion
Shim at 19:21 on 2011-01-17
In fairness to myself, I think on the whole my disappointment stems from the überplot. I'd accepted your prediction of the way things would go, including becoming more romantic, and to be honest I was quite pleased with the supernatural romance elements. Even the Daniel/Cam foil worked, although that would have worked pretty much as well if he'd just been some teenager. So the school romp turning into a supernatural romance of destined love and reincarnation wasn't really what put me off, it was the supernatural romance of destined love and reincarnation turning into The Matrix that did that. I already mentioned something about this, but in short, I had no problems with the romance, because I felt like the reincarnation angle, with some memories remaining, actually did excuse the mystical attraction and even covered up somewhat for the lack of Luce-Daniel interaction. So I'm glad to hear Torment has more analysis of the relationship, but I wasn't too worried about it.

@Dan: Did you actually predict that the romance would actually be a cover for the world-destruction backplot, which I don't remember, or did that just not bother you for whatever reason?
Dan H at 20:27 on 2011-01-17
It just didn't bother me. And I don't think it's so much that the romance is a cover for the world destruction backplot as the world destruction backplot is a backdrop for the romance.

I mean when you get right down to it, the whole War in Heaven thing is just a big excuse for it to be All About Luce and Daniel.
Shim at 21:34 on 2011-01-17
Sorry, I phrased that badly and agree with your description. I was thinking in terms of things overlaying other things, not like the cover-story style. The Luce-Daniel thing is obviously the main event. I suppose I meant something like, the big reveal of the supernatural fated love actually isn't the big reveal, because the theological plot is both technically bigger (fate of the world and all that) and requires more reconsideration of what is really going on, and I suppose is also more hidden in the first place. Romance starts cropping up fairly early on (and yes, on the back cover), but stuff about the destruction of the world etc. does not. It rather took me by surprise. Hope that makes sense, I'm shattered.
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