Synopsis: "His classic novel of the revolt in Heaven," is what the book cover says. However, this is no biblical account. Like Milton in Paradise Lost, Brust tells a fictional story (perhaps heresy, from certain viewpoints) of what went on in heaven to cause the famous Fall.
Seven beings created themselves by battling against a ravaging chaos called "cocoastrum" -- the angels Yahweh, Satan, Belial, Raphael, Leviathan, Lucifer and Michael. They, specifically Yahweh, raise heaven as a haven from this chaos, but waves of cocoastrum overcome its walls at irregular intervals. While they battle to hold it off, more angles are created in their wake -- each generation far more numerous than the last, but equally less powerful. The waves destroy many angels and maim many more. Each wave is a war, and each war is a tragedy.
Yahweh hatches “The Plan” to create a place the cocoastrum cannot penetrate. But to do so, they must effectively cause the fourth wave, and all the angels must help hold it back or build this new place (yes, it's Earth). But if the angels do not help, it won't be possible. And some may choose not to. So is it right to make them all work on the plan for the greater good, even if they don't wish to risk their own lives?
Yahweh asks Satan to be responsible for making these angels comply, but Satan's not comfortable doing so. Not knowing if his friends, the first wave angels, will help, Yahweh gets nervous. More, a later wave angel, Abdiel, is terrified that he may have to die to execute the plan. So Abdiel begins manipulating Yahweh, Satan and the others to foment revolt, forcing Yahweh to create his own army, which Abdiel puts himself in position to lead. Events speed into full war, the creation of Yeshua (Jesus) and the sundering of Heaven.
This is like reading a train wreck. Immensely interesting, but you know by the names (Yahweh, Michael, Raphael and Satan, Lucifer, Leviathan, Belial, Lilith, Asmodai...) that it cannot end well.
Brust does a great job of unfolding a very personal story of misunderstandings, betrayals, lies and stubbornness that's a portrait of crumbling group dynamics. This is not a story of good and evil or the typical huge egos. It's immensely personal and takes pains to show each player in their own light. Some, like Abdiel, work in their own interests, but for understandable reasons (Abdiel is a coward). Others, like the loving Lilith or the crippled Belial and Leviathan (forever maimed into the shapes of a dragon and sea serpent, respectively, thanks to their last brush with cocoastrum), tug on your emotions. Satan reads like George Washington with his faithful friend Beelzebub, who is himself maimed into the shape of a golden retriever. Yahweh is the kindly builder who wants nothing more than the safety of the friends he loves, but can bear the death of thousands to save millions in the future.
You watch as the disagreement over The Plan balloons into the most cataclysmic rift at the hands of selfish manipulators. The whole time you hope the first angels will just sit down and talk and understand each other. But, again, you know those names... The universe does explode over one angel's lie. (Whose lie is very interesting.)
The setting lets Brust get away with a few things he couldn't otherwise. For example, treachery has never been invented. There's never been a murder. The few lies told have only been mischievous… So when Abdiel -- aghast that he may die himself and more than willing to have others take his place -- begins manipulating the situation, you accept that Yahweh and the other angels are naive of such wiles. Likewise, when characters do foolish things in rage, you understand that this is a rage unseen before in Heaven. Brust uses a gentle touch, seldom straining your suspension of disbelief, but the setting makes certain aspects of the plot possible. It also adds an element of children's naiveté, of innocence, that solidifies your sympathy for the characters.
The overall effect is a very good read. But the end's a train wreck in its own right: a sudden stop that doesn't get where it was going. The final battle is too abrupt, nothing is resolved (which is expected), and it's unclear what the heck happened to half the angels you've come to care about. There is an epilogue, but it's equally opaque, as if the book were setting up a sequel that never happened. I also feel like Brust's writing style is a little too steeped in modern American English, a little too conversational, which makes the writing a little breezy. That's not a bad thing for readability, but it undermines the atmosphere. While the characters come to life, their universe does not; it feels like this story could just as easily be set in a Wal-Mart. That makes this "classic" less so than books like The Lord of the Rings, or contemporaries such as American Gods or the Harry Potter series. (On the book cover, Tad Williams says Brust "just might be America's best fantasy writer." Perhaps the Brits just do fantasy better?)
About the Author
To Reign in Hell was the second book of Steven Brust, who has so far written 19 novels -- including 13 books of the Vlad Taltos series, the Alexander Dumas-tribute Khaavren Romances, and a Firefly novel available for free on his home page (http://dreamcafe.com). He lives in Nevada, has recorded a solo album, and is an open “Trotskyist sympathizer.” He was also a member of the Scribblies, thinks of it as Minnesota’s equivalent of the J.R.R. Tolkien’s/C.S. Lewis’ Oxford Inklings.