Keeper Shelf: The Darkangel by Meredith Ann Pierce

Squee from the Keeper Shelf is a feature wherein we share why we love the books we love, specifically the stories which are permanent residents of our Keeper shelves. Despite flaws, despite changes in age and perspective, despite the passage of time, we love particular books beyond reason, and the only thing better than re-reading them is telling other people about them. At length.

If you’d like to submit your reasons for loving and keeping a particular book for Squee from the Keeper Shelf, please email Sarah!

I have a number of very vivid memories associated with books, but this is among the clearest: I am thirteen years old. My dad wants me to run errands with him, and bribes me with a trip to the bookstore first. I head to what would now be considered the YA section looking for whatever Tamora Pierce book I hadn’t gotten to yet, and am sad to see that they don’t have it. But there’s another Pierce shelved right next to her. This book has an inky black spine, and the title is written in the color of blood. I pull it out. I see the cover.

The Darkangel by Meredith Ann Pierce. An angel in a toga with black wings and long white hair.

Look at that cover. There is so much there, there. A half-naked goth angel with silver eyes, gently caressing a bat (spoiler alert: inside, it’s more ‘snapping bat wings for fun’ instead of ‘gentle caresses’). Weird mummy things hiding behind a rock. A blonde girl looking like she’s either ready for ravishing, or suffering from severe intestinal distress. An albino lion lunging at a strangely-translucent jackal. I mean, what doesn’t this cover have?

Reader, I failed in my charged task of accompanying my dad on errands that day. While he went from store to store, I sat in the front seat of our minivan, broiling in the Florida sun, reading The Darkangel. By the time we made it home, I had finished. I knew it would be pushing my luck a little too hard to ask to go back to the bookstore to look for the sequel. So I started reading it again.

In this review, I’ll basically be sticking to The Darkangel itself, rather than trying to encompass the entire trilogy it began. Mostly because if I tried to write about all three books, we’d be here all day. But also because that first one is the one that most struck me, the one that has wormed its way through my heart for nearly twenty years, now. It’s a book I read over and over and over again, a book that will never let me go.

So, with all that business going on on the cover, what did I find when I actually opened up the book?

We start off with young Aeriel, who is a slave, and her mistress, Eoduin, collecting flowers for a wedding that will happen at sunset. It’s clear from the start that Eoduin is selfish and spoiled, and she doesn’t treat Aeriel all that well, but she’s the closest thing to a friend Aeriel has ever had. And so Aeriel is devastated when they are attacked by the darkangel—a black-winged vampyre—and Eoduin is dragged off to be his bride.

Realizing that without Eoduin around she’s going to be sold and that she basically has nothing left to lose, Aeriel decides that she’s going to go off to murder the vampyre in revenge. Instead, he steals her away to his castle to spin cloth for his thirteen brides—all of them now hideous, ghostly wraiths because he has sucked out their souls, which he keeps in vials around his neck. Once he has taken a fourteenth bride, he will finally bring the souls to his mother and she will make him a real vampyre. Until then, he still has a little spark of humanity left in him, which might be his undoing.

Right away, this felt different than any other fantasy novel I had ever read. It was dark, and difficult, but utterly compelling. And the world felt so alien to anything I’d ever seen—this was no faux-medieval European analogue. It seemed to take days and days just for the sun to go down.
It actually took me two readings to figure out what was going on, there. The Darkangel has a secret. On the outside it looks like pure fantasy, but in its bones, it’s science fiction.
Because it’s set on the moon.

As a little baby speculative fiction writer, this blew my freaking mind wide open. I didn’t know that you could do that.

Other things that I did not know you could do before reading The Darkangel:
– Spell vampyre with a y.
– Spell lyon with a y.
– Basically spell anything you want with a y.

Anyway. The greater story of the world gradually unfolds mostly in the background. At some point, humans terraformed the moon. There are the ruins of domed cities, and all kinds of strange and fantastic creatures. But eventually, the humans from Earth went away, and all they’ve left behind are legends and stories, and a new society that worships them as absent gods.

In the foreground, Aeriel’s stuck in this ruinous castle with thirteen mummy ghosts who can’t wear anything but cloth spun from love and charity (…seriously), half-starved, ravening gargoyles, and a moody adolescent nightmare who breaks the wings off bats and blinds lizards for fun. Oh, also, there’s a helpful little-person called a duarough who lives in the caves below and turns to stone when he’s exposed to sunlight. (Where would any fantasy heroine be without the contractually obligated little person hanging around to be helpful and move the plot along?)

Here’s the thing about that moody adolescent nightmare known as the darkangel, or the icarus, or the vampyre (Pierce uses all three of these terms basically interchangeably).

When I was thirteen, I thought he was so hot.

Besides drinking the blood and stealing the souls of thirteen women and torturing small animals for fun, he also repeatedly mocks Aeriel’s appearance. He’s rude and haughty and horrible, and I ate it all up like candy.

He’s beautiful, you see. And by book logic, his beauty means there’s some good left in him, if only Aeriel can reach it.

At this point in 1998, I hadn’t yet discovered Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which was about to become the obsession of my teen years. I hadn’t yet met Angel, the vampire with a soul, who was dangerous and evil but oh, he was beautiful, and he could still be saved. But I already had years-worth of that narrative seeping into my brain. Beauty equals goodness. Bad men can be changed. Good women can change them.

The Darkangel hardly started me down that path, but, looking back, I can see how it codified a template for me, a set of expectations for what relationships could and would be.

And yet, if I had the chance to go back, to rip that book out of my young self’s hands, I wouldn’t do it. I might have a serious conversation with her about problematic faves, but I wouldn’t deny her the chance to lose herself in a strange new world, no matter that its messages might not be so healthy.

When Aeriel begs the darkangel to stop torturing tiny animals, he agrees, if in return she will keep him entertained with stories. So she becomes Scherezade. One story she tells him is that of an old slave who had once been nursemaid to a young prince named Irrylath. When they got trapped in a desert oasis, the nursemaid drowned Irrylath in a lake as tithe for the witch that lived there, so that the rest of the party might go free.

This story completely upsets the vampyre, causing him horrific dreams. One guess as to why.

It’s at this point in the narrative that the duarough sends Aeriel off on a quest to find the means to destroy the vampyre before he can take his final bride. The vampyre almost catches her, but that awesome albino lion steps in, wounding him and causing him to retreat. Aeriel spends some time in the desert with the standard contractually-obligated-in-fantasy tribe of nomadic racial minorities, learning how to fight. There’s a ghost Pegasus. (I cannot stress this enough: Ghost. Pegasus.) There’s a fight with phantom jackals. And finally, just in time for the vampyre to fly off in search of his final bride, Aeriel returns to his castle. He’s surprised that she’s come back, and even more surprised to realize that she’s gotten hot.

Yes, while she was in the desert, Aeriel got boobs.

Of course, it’s supposed to be her newfound strength and confidence that make her beautiful, but that whole boobs thing is hammered home pretty hard. Again, maybe not the best message for a pudgy, pimpled, puberty-wrecked babyme to absorb, but we work with what we’re given.

In any case, the darkangel is still injured from his fight with the lyon, and peeved when he can’t find and capture a bride. He decides that Aeriel’s hot enough that she’ll do in a pinch. Aeriel still doesn’t really want to kill him, but she doesn’t have much choice. And so, on the wedding night, she puts her plan into action.

With a potion brewed by the duarough, she’s able to poison him, and free the souls of the wraith wives. But the poison is not death—it is a spark of life. The only thing keeping the darkangel from fully healing is his lead-encased heart. Instead of waiting for the duarough to explain all of this, which he was totally going to do, Aeriel jumps the gun a little bit, and cuts out her own beating heart to put inside the vampyre’s chest.

Rereading The Darkangel recently for the first time in several years, I stopped cold at this scene. I had completely forgotten that it existed.

Fifteen years after I first read this book, a surgeon split my sternum in half and stopped my heart to fix a piece of it that was broken.

When I was thirteen years old, I had no idea that this was something that would someday happen to me. And yet I wonder. A part of me wants to believe that the universe knew I would one day need this image in the background-information of my brain, Aeriel cutting out her heart, and still surviving.

Because she does survive.

And maybe the books that we read, the books that become part of us, help us survive in ways that are difficult to quantify.

So far, the plot of The Darkangel has been stuffed with, well, stuff, but there’s just a bit further to go. The duarough melts the lead from the vampyre’s heart, and puts it in Aeriel’s chest. She revives in time to learn that the vampyre is, of course, Prince Irrylath. Thanks to Aeriel, he’s human again, and now they must go off to defeat the witch who was his mother. It’s an ending, but also, of course, a beginning.

I think part of why The Darkangel has stuck so long with me is that it is, in reality, many stories wrapped into one. It’s Beauty and the Beast. It’s the Arabian Nights. It’s Bluebeard. It’s Jane Eyre. It’s sort-of The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, but edgier and dark. It’s gothic romance, it’s a traditional quest fantasy, it’s a tragedy. And, sure, it’s dated and problematic on many levels, but, at least to me, it was also revolutionary.

When I look back at my first attempts at writing fiction, I can identify the DNA I borrowed from dozens and dozens of stories, but there is perhaps no story I stole more heavily from. Even when I don’t realize it’s happening, this story creeps into my own work again and again. Even when I think I’ve forgotten it, an image will pop up in my dreams. For me, it’s the prime example of how one serendipitous encounter with a book can influence the rest of your life. For good and for ill, it’s a book I can never fully leave behind.

The Darkangel comes from Heather’s Keeper Shelf! Heather Morris is a cyborg librarian living in North Carolina. Her work has appeared in Apex Magazine, Strange Horizons, and Daily Science Fiction, among other places. She’s on Twitter @NotThatHeatherM and she blogs sporadically at The Bastard Title. She’s been dragging around her paperback of The Darkangel from house to dorm to apartment for almost twenty years, now, and sometimes she still pulls it out just to gawp at the cover for a bit.

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