Rebecca Roanhorse’s 2022 Tread of Angels is an upcoming fantasy novel.
Eons ago, the demons lost their war and the survivors fled to Hell. Abaddon was not a survivor. Struck down by Azrael, the demon-leader’s massive corpse became the foundation of Abaddon’s Mountain.
Humans being humans, they view the demon’s remains not as the relic of a world-shaping war but rather as a resource. The town of Goetia’s economy depends on mining and selling Abaddon’s remains. Upon this basis, a thriving community lives, a community divided, as human societies generally are, into the favoured (the Elect, descended from the victors) and the disfavoured (the Fallen, descended from the losers).
Celeste Semyaza is Fallen. She makes her living dealing cards at the Eden. Circumstances will force her into a new and unwanted role: one part lawyer and one part private investigator.
Virtues are the Elect elite, the town’s ruling class. Ask any Virtue and they will explain that they are paragons whose lofty position is thanks to their proximity to God’s one true path. It follows therefore that to murder a Virtue is a sin far more egregious than ordinary homicide. Thus the Order of Chamuel’s keen interest in swift, public justice for Daniel Alameda, violently emasculated and left to bleed out.
The Order is certain it knows who the killer is: Celeste’s younger sister Mariel. The Virtue’s Circle will host a perfunctory trial. Since the Elect consider all Fallen to be sinful by nature, there is little doubt as to the outcome. Mariel’s only hope is that some particularly persuasive advocate speaks on her behalf. Celeste accepts the role of advocatus diaboli.
Celeste has three days to find proof of Mariel’s innocence. While the Elect are willing to let her defend her sister, they see no reason to give her any help in her investigation. The only resources available to Celeste: her own, those of her friends, and … those of the demon Abraxas, a former lover whose reasons may have nothing to do with saving Mariel.
If Celeste fails, Mariel will suffer. But if Celeste wins, Celeste and her allies will probably suffer. Virtues do not appreciate being challenged.
I went into this assuming it was the Old West with added demons. Maybe it is, but the evidence to support this is equivocal: words entirely absent from the text include “America” and “United States.” This could very easily be a secondary fantasy world with some similarity to the American Old West.
The legal setup might seem a bit one-sided, what with the accused getting no defense unless an interested party volunteers to defend them. On closer examination, it’s much worse than that: most would-be Fallen advocates would never get past the court’s front doors, which are guarded by Holy-Water-armed zealots. Celeste only becomes an advocate by cheating her way past the guards. Once inside, they let her stay because they are convinced she is bound to fail.
This book is also a mystery, of the sort that critiques social inequities rather than celebrate them; it’s closer to the Hammett/Mosley side of the genre than the Christie/Chesterton side. Accordingly, it should come as little surprise that the Virtues don’t seem as virtuous as all that, or that their lofty social status seems to derive from being the ones doing the judging. Apparently, even a direct line to the hereafter does not preclude business as usual.
Old timey F&SF editors were sometimes skeptical that speculative fiction mysteries could be made to work; this work is further proof that such a claim is pure bunkum. In fact, this short novel (novella?) demonstrates that Roanhorse could, should she so choose, easily make the leap from fantasy to mystery. An alarming prospect, given mystery’s larger market share and the number of authors who have exited F&SF for mystery, never to return. Enjoy Roanhorse’s fantasies while you can, lest we lose her to another genre.