To Reign in Hell

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews To Reign in Hell by Steven Brust, introduction by Roger Zelazny.

In his City of God, Augustine of Hippo may have been drawing on earlier lore, but he provided the earliest orthodox reading of Genesis I:4 (and God divided the light from the darkness) to refer to the separation of the angelic hierarchy from the rebel angels. Biblical traces of Canaanite theomachies, such as the Leviathan references in Psalm 74, were incorporated by later theologians into this conjectural narrative. Eventually, this story became grist for the mill of secular literature, implicit in Milton’s Paradise Lost, and explicit in Anatole France’s Revolt of the Angels. Steven Brust’s 1984 entry in this field is To Reign in Hell.

On the back cover of the paperback, an author’s blurb declares, “From all my readings on the revolt of the angels, two things are clear: God is omnipotent, and Satan is not a fool.” And yet in Brust’s novel, Yaweh is not omnipotent, and he is even less omniscient. Instead, he is somewhat fear-ridden and easily manipulated. Satan may not be a fool, but he spends most of the story paralyzed with conscientious indecision. The conflict of moralities between the two is quite comparable to the one revealed in the interview between the archangel Michael and the Pan-like Janicot in Chapter 28 of James Branch Cabell’s The High Place.

The novel is readable enough, but it would be a stretch to compare it to classical treatments. As a piece of modern fantasy literature, it incorporates some novel metaphysical devices: cacoastrum as the chaos-stuff from which heaven is extracted, and illiaster as the organizing principle that permits the angels to generate themselves, each other, and their environment. Brust also performs a lot of exposition through dialogue. The combination of these factors led me to think of this book as a possible back-story to the Lucifer comic books, which substantially let Brust off the hook regarding his illustrious precedents, and made it easier for me to enjoy the story.

Character development is a little halting, hampered in the early going by Brust’s frequent refusal to identify characters until they have been acting or conversing for several paragraphs. This technique creates some dramatic tension, but he uses it enough for it to verge on annoyance of the reader. Perhaps the author actually meant it to reflect a lower level of individualization among the angels prior to the development of the central conflict. I also observed that the framing device of the Three prior Waves of heavenly disruption and development could be compared to the Four Worlds of the qabalah, thus placing the angelic events of the story in the World of Yetzirah or “Formative World,” which would be pretty doctrinally correct.

On the whole, I found the book a fairly engaging read, and it even afforded me a few surprises, despite the necessary foreknowledge that it would conclude with Genesis I:5. [via]