Book Review: Rebel Angels by Michele Lang (Spoilers for the Series)

And I finally get to the third and final book in the Lady Lazarus series. Unlike the first two reviews, where I avoided spoilers for the book I was discussing, here there will be, as this is the final book in the series and I have things to say regarding the ending.

Also, this review will be more general, and not as divided into sections, as there won’t be too much for me to say regarding the characters and setting that’s new to this book. So, let’s begin. There’s a war on.

When last we left Magda, she had done a great deal of damage to Hitler, but cleverly (both on her part and on the part of the author) left him alive. Magda to prevent the demon Asmodel from being able to take a new host, and Michele Lang to keep history more or less intact.

In Rebel Angels, we travel further east, to Azerbaijan and the USSR, where Magda hopes to find the Heaven Sapphire, an ancient and powerful gem connected to the book of Raziel that could give her the power needed to defeat Asmodel and finally end Hitler and the war. And of course, both the Germans and the Russians want to get their hands on it.

But first Magda and Raziel, newly married, get the chance to spend one relaxing night together–only to be attacked. Here we see how Magda’s magical ability has grown; the process of dying and coming back is much easier, and she is able to bind and kill a powerful demoness without too much struggle.

After concocting a clever escape plan that involved an elaborate wedding party  to which all manner of magical creature is invited, the pair escape (Magda’s little sister Gisele is being protected in England at this point).

Here we are reunited with the character of Ziyad, who briefly appeared in the first book, and he is still working to protect his people from Stalin and the USSR. He reluctantly agrees to guide our heroes. He has at the same time changed and the same, being more confident but still as driven toward his goal, and he goes with Magda and Raziel despite knowing it could end very badly for him.

Once we get into Soviet territory things get really interesting. As was briefly mentioned in the earlier books, the communists were vehemently anti-magic, and worked on developing technology to counteract magic. And as such, they come after Magda and the other local magic users.

From the time they arrive they are regularly hounded by Soviet forces from the sinister Institute, making an already difficult task more troublesome. Magda and Raziel also have to contend with distrusting locals and a general lack of precise information on the Sapphire’s location.

An interesting development occurs when they meet several local fallen angels, who of course recognize Raziel and, not being the evil sort of fallen angels, agree to work with them. And as they are a different manner of fallen angel than Raziel, they retain some of their angelic qualities, which makes them all the more intriguing.

They soon find the gem, only to realize that it is far more dangerous than they had suspected. And just then men from the Institute attack. As has happened before, Magda overestimates her abilities, and is quickly taken down by the Soviet anti-magic devices, and captured. (Though Raziel escapes with the gem.)

This is when we reach the most interesting part of the book, and perhaps the most unexpected part: Magda spends several months trapped in the Institute, and ultimately has her ability to use magic surgically taken away by a suitably creepy professor in what was probably the most surprising development of the story. As you’re reading, you assume it won’t work, that she’ll overcome the scientific experimentation, but she doesn’t, at least not enough to retain her magic. Near the end of this she also learns that Gisele was murdered over in England, which hurts her, but ultimately adds little to the plot. Again, I never saw the need to include England at all.

When Magda wakes, Raziel is there and the war has changed. By this time the Germans have invaded the USSR, and it has allied with England and France (The United States has not entered the war, and Germany attacked Russia before France). As such she is free, but without magic. Raziel tells her this, then about the plan to end the war with a final strike on Asmodel and Hitler as the Battle of Stalingrad rages.

Then they confront the ancient demon, and defeat him, a more powerful foe, in what is possibly one of the cleverest such victories I’ve read. I won’t describe it in detail but, suffice to say, Asmodel is destroyed, along with Hitler, and then Nazi Germany crumbles and the war ends in 1939, becoming known as the Eastern European War of 1939.

The book ends with Raziel and a pregnant Madga in New York the following year, beginning a new life together, without her magic. (Though it’s hinted that her child might still get magic.) We also see that Magda’s friend Eva also survived the war.

The magic is more or less the same as previously, and apart from the Sapphire and flying carpets, there isn’t too much new done with it–particularly as our main character loses her magic. The history, however, warrants more discussion.

First, what I liked. I liked the portrayal of the Soviet Union. I think that their hatred of magic is a realistic reaction, and it’s important to remember that in many ways they were as bad as Nazi Germany. And also, the little moments where we see that Churchill doesn’t really like Stalin and the USSR despite being allied with them. The reason for Hitler invading the Caucasus is true to reality as well, and the Central Asian people were portrayed close to what I have learned.

Where I will take issue, however, is with the ending, and with the changes to history in Ms. Lang’s alternate Earth. In the storyline of Lady Lazarus, World War II as we know it never occurred: it is called the East European War of 1939 upon its completion. In this altered history, Germany never invaded France, the United States never joined the war, and the Holocaust didn’t happen at anywhere near the same level. Looking at it quickly, it can seem like a good thing; so many less people died, and Europe in particular was spared all of the destruction is sustained in our world.

But as I’ve studied more history, and thought about this some more, I don’t know if I’d want to live in a world that didn’t experience World War II, and I say this as a Jew whose grandfather only survived in occupied France by hiding with his family on a farm. Historically, war brings change to the world, change that often leads to a better world. Particularly in the world of technology, war jumpstarts things. Without the developments made during World War II, where would we be today?

World War II showed us the true horror of war, of genocide, and of the atomic bomb. Had we not witnessed this, who can say what would have happened? I can say with some certainty that the Cold War, which would likely have happened regardless, would have become hot. Atomic weapons would be used in war and in retaliation before the world truly understood their power.

And what about more specific histories? We call the World War II generation here in the United States ‘the greatest generation’. Had that generation not participated in the war, how would our country be different? For example, the fact that so many men were overseas for years fighting the war was crucial in pushing the women’s rights movement forward. The service of African Americans in the armed forces and experiences overseas, particularly in occupied Germany, gave many the drive and courage to push the civil rights movement forward. Without the war, how many more decades would such advances in equal rights have taken?

And as far as Jewish history goes, where would we be today? Of course the holocaust was a horrific event, one of the most terrible in a history punctuated with tragedies. But where would we be, had all of this not happened? We would still be in Europe, most likely. The State of Israel would likely not have been re-established, and assimilation would have continued at the pace it was before the war. Which would be wrong. In Jewish tradition, G-d uses wars to move the world forward, closer to what is His ultimate plan. With that worldview, it is clear that we were meant to return to our ancestral land (if not necessarily by the same means).

I don’t know if I’d want to live in the world that exists at the end of Rebel Angels. However, I do like the fact that this book prompted me to think about this idea, and about history. And again, it’s fiction, which is where we can write these alternate histories and have wish-fulfillment stories. I mean, who hasn’t wanted to go back in time and kill Adolf Hitler? (Though as I mentioned above, I don’t think I would, given the chance. It would alter the timeline too much, and there are other was history can be altered, but subtly, so that the benefits of World War II still exist. I hope to one day reach that point in my own stories and show what I would do, given free reign to alter history.)

So that’s all I really have to say about Rebel Angels, and the Lady Lazarus series. They’re solid historical urban fantasy in a seldom-used setting, and despite my minor gripes (mostly the ending), they were good books. And to be honest, given how the series was set up, I don’t know if it could have ended with anything other than Hitler’s death. And again, at worst it just provides an interesting conversation about the path our own history has led us on.

And so ends my first review of a series on this site. I think it went alright, and I learned a bit in the process. I just hope that next time, I can get the reviews out in a more timely manner. Next up I’ll either continue my series of posts about the Mass Effect games, or discuss my thoughts upon starting a new book.

Until next time, keep reading, and writing! (And study history. In addition to understanding our past, it also provides for great story material, even when our stories aren’t set on our world.)

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