To Reign in Hell

by Steven Brust

Cover image

Publisher: Ace
Copyright: 1984
Printing: May 1985
ISBN: 0-441-81496-4
Format: Mass market
Pages: 269

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Ever since reading Christian fiction about angels as a child, I've been intrigued by stories of what could have happened in Heaven before the creation of the Earth and of humans. Angels are an odd and problematic presence in a strict Protestant reading of the Bible; they show up as messengers of God, they're individualized enough to have names, and yet they are apparently not the same sort of being as us. (Although even that is unclear.) Clearly not all of the angels are dead humans; angels appear before the first human dies. Do they have free will? Did Satan choose to rebel, or was that preordained? If they do have free will, why are humans interesting or necessary; why couldn't the same drama be played out in the earlier creation?

Attempts to address similar questions are traditionally the province of Christian fiction and speculation (Milton's Paradise Lost being the premiere example), but fantasy writers and others outside the normal Christian tradition have occasionally taken shots at it as well. The role-playing game In Nomine doesn't deal that directly with the early history of angels, but there are scattered details throughout the world background. Hal Duncan's recent Vellum goes further into origins and ties angels back to Sumerian mythology and other ways of viewing the universe. But apart from Paradise Lost, it's quite rare to see this topic tackled as directly as Brust does in To Reign in Hell.

This is the story of the rebellion of the angels, or rather the story of the events that would later be called that by the followers of Yahweh. It is, from the start, a subversive and strongly anthropomorphized account that takes everyone involved down several pegs. Brust's portrayal of angels, archangels, and the First Ones (of which Yahweh is only the first of seven) is of creatures with human confusion, emotions, bickering, desire, and differences. They have pride and love and preferences and affairs that end badly, but they start from a basic unity of purpose: to defend the angels, created from waves of primordial chaos, from the surrounding chaos and the continuing waves that kill or maim more angels each time. They are decidedly not omnipotent or omniscient, including Yahweh, and that's why trouble can start.

Brust's retelling shows a painfully plausible cascading failure of communication (provoked by a rather devious and self-serving angel named Abdiel, but not entirely his fault) around the Plan. The Plan is immediately recognizable as the idea of creating Earth, but unlike the traditional account, creation of Earth itself is the whole point. Man factors in not at all. (Man turns out to be just another type of weaker angel, a side effect of the wave of chaos triggered by the creation, and plays no role in the story.) Heaven is a four-region land surrounded by high walls to keep chaos out, and is inherently unstable. Earth is conceived as a stable, self-sustaining creation of order that would hold back chaos on its own without requiring the constant and costly defense of Heaven. However, in order to create Earth, the angels would have to leave Heaven and build in the regions of chaos, and it's certain that in the process many hundreds of them would die.

Satan here is distinct from Lucifer; both appear, both are among the seven First Born, but Satan is the second-oldest. He is not firmly opposed to the plan; for most of the book, he considers it an open question. But right after it's first proposed, he asks a question: what if the angels don't want to sacrifice themselves to build Earth? Is it right to force them to do so in the name of protecting them from later tragedy?

To Reign in Hell is at times a frustrating book since so much of it details tragic misunderstandings and missed opportunities for communication that make a reader want to grab the characters and shake them. Some of this is a bit contrived, but most of it is just typical of creatures with poor communication skills and insufficient willingness to extend the benefit of the doubt. Once sides start to form, the split develops its own momentum, and Brust's portrayal here of the way schisms develop and war becomes almost inevitable is applicable to many other situations. One of the beautiful touches of the book is that Brust leaves Satan's question unresolved: because he can't agree without reservation, Satan is assigned to the other side almost by default, and once the battle lines are drawn, it's no longer possible to discuss the question in any useful fashion. All Satan wants at the start is for the question to be honored and given serious attention, regardless of how it's decided, but the mere raising of the question becomes an act of rebellion. The resonance with various polarizing political questions is eerie.

Brust's style is very heavy on dialogue, and at times To Reign in Hell reads almost like a play. The setting is indistinct and important only as a background for the character interactions. He manages a large cast well, although few of the characters gain much depth and complexity; instead, characters are painted with broad strokes and clearly recongizable characteristics to emphasize the basic divisions of allegiances, thought processes, and emotional reactions. The strength of the book lies with the reader's foreknowledge of the outcome and Yahweh's slow slide into paranoia and tyranny. Reading this is like watching a friendship fall apart under the weight of too many misunderstandings and too little trust. The characters have to be somewhat dysfunctional for it to work (even with Abdiel's active interference), so the initial steps are the least plausible, but the story gathers resonance as it grows.

This is mostly an idea book. Brust writes some memorable character quirks (Beelzebub as a dog who speaks Elizabethan English is probably the most notable) and has fun with word play and unexpected reuse of famous lines, but none of the characters are compelling in and of themselves. The story is all about its scenario and what it says about failure of trust and conflict resolution, about how history is written by the winners and how badly attempting to do good can go wrong when it's not done honestly. As with many modern retellings of this story, you're meant to sympathize with the rebels. Beyond that, it's a lesson in how binary ideas of good and evil grow out of something that's far more complex and murky and how both sides of a duality can be good in their own ways. When this clicks, it's an excellent book; when it doesn't, the somewhat repetitive dialogue and plot patterns can be boring and a bit trite. Overall, I thought it could have been tighter, but it satisfied me.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2006-10-25

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21