Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Conversation: The Angel's Cut by Elizabeth Knox

Cover art for The Angel's Cut, featuring the tip of a white wing that stretches across the entire length of the cover. The title is superimposed over it in purple.
Some months back, the lovely Lynn O'Connacht and I had a marvellous time talking about THE VINTNER'S LUCK by Elizabeth Knox. (If you missed the discussion, here's Part I and Part II.) We had such a good time hashing out our thoughts together that we decided we had to talk about THE ANGEL'S CUT, too.

It took us a little while to get our ducks in order (thanks, Hugo Awards), but we've finally managed the feat. As was the case with THE VINTNER'S LUCK, there will be spoilers below. Lots and lots of spoilers.

If you're all right with spoilers and would like a little summary before you dive into the discussion itself, here's the jacket copy:

Hollywood, 1929. While Conrad Cole is working late on elaborate plans for his aeroplanes and his films, a mysterious stranger appears at his door. Xas soon finds himself caught up in the glamorous and treacherous world of movie-making and entangled with both Cole and a young woman who owes her life to the eccentric director. Both of them are drawn to Xas without knowing his secret - that under his shirt he hides the remnants of great snowy wings that set him apart from humankind, and that he is destined to wander the earth forever, always hearing the beating of feathers behind him, threatening him that his dark brother has found him again.

And if you'd like to know a touch more about Lynn, my partner in crime, she had this to say for herself when we tackled THE VINTNER'S LUCK:

Hi, everyone! I'm Lynn, an indie author, a reader, a gamer, and an occasional watcher of dvds. I met Memory in 2008 or so and she's been one of my blogging inspirations ever since as well as an awesome writer with great taste. It's been wonderful to read THE VINTNER'S LUCK together with Memory. It's a book we both fell in love with the first time we read it and it seemed like a great book to try this buddy reviewing thing out with.

THE ANGEL'S CUT worked just as well, as you'll soon see--though this time around, we were slightly more divided in our opinions...


Remember, the spoilers start NOW!

Lynn: This is my first time reading THE ANGEL'S CUT, provided that you don't count the attempt where I didn't get past the first ten pages. :( It’s a terribly negative beginning of my commentary, I’m sorry! It’s just that… When I first read THE VINTNER’S LUCK I loved and adored it and I was certain that this story, for me, was over and done. I didn't need a sequel, and I was scared to find that the sequel wouldn't live up to the first book. And then I read it and it was nothing like I was expecting (or I suppose hoping) and didn’t finish. I don’t think I’d have picked it up again if it weren’t for this buddy read.

Memory: I'm sorry. :( Now I wish I hadn't suggested we keep going. I feel like I made you read something you really weren't into.

Lynn: Nooooooo. Don’t be sorry! I made me read it. If my friends are anything to go by, a fair amount of people feel this way about picking up the second book. It’ll help them figure out whether they want to read the book or not. If I really hadn’t wanted to read it, I would’ve told you. I wanted to read this book and see if I could love and adore it as much as I did my first read of THE VINTNER'S LUCK, or at least appreciate it as much as I did on a reread. You gave me a reason to do just that. ^_^

Memory: Whew! I can totally understand how you felt the story was finished, too. THE VINTNER'S LUCK is more Sobran's story than Xas's, and it carries him straight through to the end of his life. For me, though, I was just as keen to hear what Xas got up to with the rest of his post-winged existence, especially without Sobran around to tie him to a particular slice of humanity.

Lynn: I think that may already show the differences in enjoyment then? If someone’s equally interested in learning more about Xas then this book is going to be a much better fit than if they’re like me and prefer to have Xas a little more to the background in terms of the narrative structure.

Memory: I'm a greedy reader. When I like a character, I want to see as much of them as the author is willing to show me. Mysteriousness is all very well and good, but I adore those moments where the veil peels back and we get a firmer glimpse of them.

Lynn: ^_^ I’m quite different, at least for this book. When I tried to read it the first time and the very first viewpoint we get is Xas’… In all honesty, I think that as much as anything else is what made me put the book down that time. One of the things that I loved about THE VINTNER'S LUCK is how, even though Xas is central to the story, he's also peripherally there and we don't get to hear his perspective as directly. I can reason why THE ANGEL'S CUT needs to start with Xas, but for me it means that I really did need both a lot of distance from the first book and the knowledge that Xas was going to be so much more... visible before that first scene hit me. How did you feel about the very first scene being an introduction to Xas?

Memory: To be honest, I was excited. I always love those moments where the text shows us a beloved character from a different perspective, and this was no exception. There's that little bit at the end of THE VINTER'S LUCK where Xas speaks directly to the reader, and this opening both builds off of that and takes a step back. It lets us know that yes, Xas's own story will be more central here--but maybe not in the way we expect. The last time we saw him was in the late 90s, in his own words. Now we're back in the early 1900s, in the third person, with this prose that's both deeply rooted and elusive. If that makes any sense.

Lynn: In that elusive way where you go “Yes, that makes sense, but don’t ask me to rephrase it”. ^_^ You make a good point, though. The opening here does tie in strongly with the end of the first book.

Memory: At its heart, I'm not sure Knox's prose is at all dissimilar to the approach she took in TVN, but it has a different effect on the reader (which: me) because we're keenly aware that Xas is nonhuman. He doesn't perceive the world in the same way mortals do. The very fact that he reacts to Lucifer's arrival as he does shows he has different priorities and different ideas of what is or isn't acceptable, and that imbues the simplicity of the prose with new meaning.

Lynn: I don’t know… If I’d been Xas, I suspect I’d be reacting to Lucifer quite similarly, so the nonhuman perception may not be as strong for me as it is for you?

Memory: I more meant the way he throws himself out of the basket, trusting that the fall into the ocean won't really hurt him. I'm sure I'd be similarly terrified if Lucifer showed up while I was in that position, but being human I'd be more willing to stay in the basket and risk Lucifer (who might just want to talk and/or rough me up) than jump over the side and definitely die.

Lynn: That’s what I meant too. ^_^; Minus perhaps the bit about trusting that the fall won’t hurt me. I’m pretty sure it’d still hurt a lot less than anything involving Lucifer, though.

Moving on. I did find THE ANGEL'S CUT slow to grow on me, even though I settled into the story quite quickly after that first scene with Xas and Lucifer throwing me for so much of a loop in terms of what I was expecting going into it. Slow-growing books can be the best books because you're reading it and reading it and you think it's just going to be one of those okay reads that are enjoyable and not fairly remarkable and then wham something happens and you realise how deep the story's actually gone. (This is me reading horror a lot of the time. I will generally yawn my way through a horror story and then have ALL THE NIGHTMARES EVER. So I don't read it.) I'm not entirely sure how I feel about the character relationships yet. Was this something that you've experienced with this book as well or did you fall for it immediately?

Memory: Well, my experience was somewhat different this time since this was a reread for me, but I think it did take me a short while to commit to the character relationships the first time through. Knox is all about the layers. She gives the reader these little snippets of her characters' lives, these details and stories that tell us who they might be, and she lets us decide for ourselves how they fit together. I slowly gained a sense of what they meant to one another, where they clashed and connected, and how they might complement one another in the long term. This time, of course, I already had a pretty good grounding in who everyone was, so I paid more attention to what was going to be important later on. Spotting foreshadowing is fun!

Lynn: It is! Not that I was in a position to do it for this read, but I agree. Did you find yourself picking up on a lot of things you missed the first time? Were there any bits of foreshadowing that wowed you on the reread for any reason?

Memory: Having said I like to spot foreshadowing, I, um, can't point to anything specific. I definitely read it differently now I knew this was Lucifer's take on things, rather than something we were privy to solely from the characters' perspectives. I also found myself paying closer attention to Cole's actions, and to the way Flora interacted with everyone. I see her as the central human character now, whereas the first time through I think I was more inclined to focus on Millie.

Lynn: Well, that happens! And yes I can imagine I’d reread the book quite differently knowing that this is Lucifer making sense of things too. That casts a wholly different feel over the story and adds another reason to question what you’re being shown especially the scenes where Xas and Lucifer are concerned.

It’s interesting, though, to hear you focused on Millie the first time around since I focused on Flora fairly early on. She’s the glue that connects the humans in the story, at least before Xas appears and complicates matters. Curious how different people focus on different things. Millie is definitely Xas’ entry into this particularly bubble of human relationships and she’s important and then… she vanishes when Xas is firmly in its centre, doesn’t she? *ponders*

Memory: I think I latched onto Millie because she's the first of the human characters who enters Xas's life. She's also a pilot, like he is, so there's an immediate connection between them. Like you said, though, she largely drops out of things once Xas is ensconced with Flora and Cole.

Maybe she's a little like Xas's own personal angel. She introduces him to people and to jazz, then retreats to the periphery of the story, if not the periphery of Xas's life. Then, of course, she vanishes altogether.

Lynn: Ooooh, I like that way of looking at Millie. It makes a lovely parallel to Xas in THE VINTNER'S LUCK, except, well, mortal.

Also, that opening scene with Lucifer?.. I think I just got my first glimpse of what you were hinting at when we read THE VINTNER'S LUCK and I am so very intrigued. I'm imagining you sitting there smug as a cat as you read this. And then that scene with the zeppelin captain and and -- Oh, I liked that scene so much. But I have little words as to why. I liked the indirectness, the way Xas tried to evade it, the way it brought up THE VINTNER'S LUCK as a bit of a recap. I liked how the story introduced Flora and her backstory too. I hope we'll get to learn a bit more about her. So! Seeing as you've already read it, who's your favourite character, do you think?

Memory: This is going to sound really weird, since you know I'm a character-oriented reader, but... I'm not sure? THE ANGEL’S CUT is at once one of those books where I'm deeply invested in the characters and one of those books where I can't so much point to them from outside the narrative and say, "That one there. That is my favourite."

Lynn: Why would that sound weird? I struggle with picking favourites more often than not because I love all the characters. (Except, in this case O’Brian wins. By a landslide. I’m biased in favour of cats.)

Memory: I can almost always pick a favourite. This book is an anomaly. If there were a dog, though, there's a good chance I'd like the dog best. ;)

Each of the characters intrigue me in different ways. Cole's amorality fascinates me, as do Xas's attempts to understand (and maybe, in his own way, ameliorate?) it. I feel a great deal for Flora, hurt and talented and addicted. I want things on Millie's behalf. And of course, I'm interested in how Xas navigates the world; how he latches on to particular people, and how he's constantly and forever forced to filter himself because his perceptions don't entirely match everyone else's. He performs humanity, and sometimes his performance ain't that great.

Most of all, I'm interested in the roles they each play in Xas's life, and the ways he changes theirs. Which I suppose is the whole point.

Lynn: Very much so. I think they’re also about how they change his life, though. I felt that was a pretty strong element here since so much of the book is about Xas learning to move forward and fit within the world.

One of the things I would’ve done if I’d been recording my reactions live would’ve have been to go “A CAT! THERE IS A CAT!” when O’Brien showed up. (I may be a little fond of cats. And I may in fact have initially been semi-live recording my reactions.) I thought, for a short little while, that O’Brien was Lucifer's doing. You know with him showing up at the very beginning of the book and all that.

Memory: Little aside: I met Xas's cat on my first trip to Wellington. He was supremely uninterested in me, though I did manage to pat him.

Lynn: Awwwwww. Alas. On a different note, I do wonder where Knox is going to go with the difference between Xas and Lucifer's saliva and such. I mean, is it really a difference between their beings or is that angel/angel is different from angel/human in that regard.

Memory: I think it's a matter of Lucifer being an archangel and Xas being a regular angel. (Or as regular as he can be, what with the whole before-the-fact copy of Jesus thing.) Archangels are protectors and warriors, first and foremost, so they need defenses against regular angels just as regular angels need defenses against humans.

Lynn: That just begs the question why they need those defences… (Great. Now I feel dumb. Way to go, Lynn.)

Memory: I'd assume God, being all-knowing, saw the potential for a war in heaven, and a need to ensure his chosen warriors would have the advantage over the upstarts. Or those who weren't upstarts their own selves would, at any rate.

Except I get the distinct sense that the God of Knox's books isn't exactly all-knowing in every single area.

Lynn: Not quite, no. That’s an interesting point too since it allows you to open up a whole discussion about the nature of God if you wanted to have it. You could probably write a paper on the way Knox treats religion and spirituality in these books. Good point about the potential for war, though that just makes me wonder about Lucifer more. If I recall he didn’t start or try to start a war, but it does make one wonder in how far God foresaw that happening.

I've also been having a spot of trouble telling Cole and Crow apart in this, but I think that's mostly because they're borderline tertiary characters in at least the beginning, so I feel like don't know them too well. (I also have a massive headache and think even worse when I do. Boo, headaches.)

Memory: Plus, they're both named Conrad and they both have last names that start with C. I'm the kind of person who always gets Clark Gable and Cary Grant mixed up because their initials are the same, so... yeah.

Lynn: I did settle into the differences, but it took a while. I have a lot of practice keeping similar names apart, but I wonder how much of it was intent on Knox’ part. I’m phrasing that wrong, but I’m curious. Did Knox count on people confusing the two Conrads? How does that confusion affect the book?

Memory: Her decision to name them both Conrad reminded me of Kelly Link's story, "Louise's Ghost," in which both central characters are named Louise. The confusion is definitely deliberate there, and I assume the same is true here, though Knox doesn't take it quite as far because she mostly refers to them by their last names. Maybe we're meant to see them as two sides of a coin; both talented, but with different approaches to harnessing that talent and different weaknesses.

Lynn: I do agree that it’s probably deliberate. I’m just wondering how the confusion affects the overall interpretation. The times Knox chooses not to refer to them by their last name, but to let the confusion reign are interesting too. There’s a blurring of personality there that I wish I’d paid more attention to. I can see what you’re saying about them potentially being two sides of the same coin, though. They do both come together for a while too which is interesting given how much they’ve clashed in the past. If I recall, they had quite a decent bit of success working together, didn’t they? And if we’re meant to see them as two sides of a coin, does that mean Xas is the edge of that coin? What does that mean for, well, everything if he is? He was gone when Cole and Crow got working together, wasn’t he?

Memory: I suppose Crow is to Flora what Cole is to Xas, in a sense. It's not an exact parallel, but there are some similarities there. I wonder how significant it is that Xas's main interaction with Cole comes before the the two Conrads collaborate so successfully, while Flora's relationship with Crow falls after.

Lynn: Narrative symmetry? It’s an interesting one, though, I do agree. I like the fact that the relationships aren’t exact parallels. For one, it highlights the fact that Xas isn’t human (and kind of mostly immortal). You’d expect the relationships to be different. But, also, because they’re such a small cast, I think we get a chance to see how people behave differently depending on who they’re interacting with. Except Xas, to a large extent, since he’s so far outside of the way humans generally interact with one another.

And I do so like Xas as a character, though I prefer seeing him through other people's eyes, I think. How about you?

Memory: I like him just as well through his own eyes as through other peoples', though I do think it's a bit more fun to watch how the humans in his life react to him. It's obvious to us that he's an angel and any oddities in his behavior spring from his nonhuman origins, but all the other characters just... don't get it. And it makes sense they don't, because who thinks, "Oh, yeah, my nice but kind of weird friend must be an angel"? (Okay, I kind of assume people are vampires on the flimsiest evidence, but I'm a bit odd.)

Lynn: Oooh, I think that nails it. I like that aspect of the dramatic irony in seeing Xas through other people’s eyes. I like the way it makes me puzzle out Xas on my own as much as I can. I can’t do that so much through his own eyes. But then I’m a trusting reader, so I’m inclined to take things at face-value in a situation like this.

Memory: Whereas I am suspicious and inclined to argue with everything, unless I'm so deeply invested that I forget to do so.


Huh? That is not a proper ending.

It certainly isn't. You can read the rest of our conversation over at Lynn's blog. We discuss O'Brien, Lucifer, and lots more!

A fuzzy grey poodle with a scruffy haircut asleep on a bed beside a paperback copy of The Angel's Cut. The cover features the title against what is presumably a white wing.

Fluffy!Murchie wants you to go to Lynn's blog.
He also wants you to read THE ANGEL'S CUT.
Fluffy!Murchie is terribly demanding.

Links

Fluffy!Murchie also wants to tell you about a few ways you can read THE ANGEL'S CUT. He always advocates your local library as the absolute best source for books, of course, but he's a smart dog and recognizes this may not be an option for everyone where every book is concerned--especially a book like this one, that hasn't seen a wide North American distribution. If you're in search of another way to read THE ANGEL'S CUT, you can try:

I receive a small percentage of the purchase price if you buy the book through Kobo, Amazon, or Audible. I get an extra month of Scribd if you sign up for a two-month free trial.

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