(Young Bill Young here. I don’t typically read fantasy. I count myself firmly in the sci-fi camp when it comes to speculative fiction. But finding myself at Half-Price Books recently, with a gift card in hand, I stumbled upon this remarkable novel by Steven Brust)
Knowing how a story ends can ruin the reader’s experience, but not when you’re talking about a powerful mythological story like the revolt and fall of the angels. As Joseph Campbell noted, “myths are public dreams.” They are dreams that we revisit, retell, reexamine, and reanalyze to find meaning.
Heavily influenced by Milton’s Paradise Lost (and doubtless other retellings of the great fall), Brust’s To Reign in Hell is still remarkably original. In his book, Satan is sympathetic but indecisive, while Yaweh is loving but gullible. These two, and the five other “first born” (Lucifer, Michael, Raphael, Leviathan and Belial) arose from the chaos (cocoastrum) and fought to retain their shape and order (illiastrum). To survive, they created Heaven as a refuge from the chaos. But cocoastrum cannot be denied for long. Subsequent “waves” from the chaos led to the creation of the archangels and the host of angels, as well as the deaths of many angels and new forms for Leviathan (a giant serpent) and Belial (a winged dragon).
When Yaweh concocts a plan to create a new heaven (a globe) that will forever protect the angels from the chaos, the stage for revolt is set. For this plan will also result in the deaths of many angels. Should the angels have the right to decline participation in the new creation? Or should they be forced to work and risk their lives for the great good that will be accomplished? Enter Abdiel, a manipulative, ambitious archangel who uses the controversy to further his own rise at the expense of Heaven.
On his Dream Cafe website, Brust has this to say about To Reign in Hell: “I didn’t have an outline as I was writing it, and I remember getting about 4/5 of the way through it and saying, ‘Geez, Satan is going to win. That’s interesting.’ I shrugged and kept writing to see how it came out.”
We know how this story ends. We’ve known for generations and across the chasm of time. But it’s the telling of the tale that really matters.