This is a bit of a different novel for me. While I am a Christian, I generally don’t enjoy Christian fiction. Whether in book or movie form, most religious fiction feels a bit cheesy or heavy-handed, or otherwise sacrifices plot to spread the message. Also, part of the fun of reading is to learn about other kinds of world viewpoints. I wonder if that’s why I tend to prefer comics about female characters, and out of the 12 novels I read last year, only one was written by a man. And last but not least, this is not meant to be a religious blog by any means.
So why am I reading a Christian novel? It turns out that Only Angels are Bulletproof’s author, Emily Ann Benedict, is my second cousin. I’ve never met her; she lives in California far as I can tell while I live in Ontario, Canada, but I still felt that I should read it. I have other reasons why I wanted to read at least one directly religious novel and that ties to the writing update portion of this post, but let’s save that for after the review.
For Benedict’s first novel, this is pretty good. The main story itself is paced very well, makes great use of plot twists without going overboard and has a good sense of mystery behind it. Basically, there’s a spree of bank robberies that Scott Malkin, an FBI agent, is trying to solve. The book opens with one of these robberies where a young woman is shot multiple times, yet is miraculously unharmed. This young woman later disappears, which results in the entire case being renamed “the angel case.” The actual plot ends up being fairly compelling, leading to an ending that’s both intense and emotional.
The action actually flows pretty well, and feels a lot more grounded than most of the fantasy books I read. Of course, that’s not a detriment to the fantasy books, but still. Apart from the opening, people don’t just walk away from a fight without some pain – something that happens way too often in movies. The relationship between Scott and “the angel” is also kind of fun, starting with a lot of suspicion and maybe some disdain on Scott’s part, but it later forms a deep bond between them. That said, there’s a moment between them shortly after the climax that seems to come out of nowhere. Saying anything more specific will spoil the book, but it has to be mentioned.
The writing style isn’t perfect, but then again it is a first time published book. The same could be said for the Dragon Whisperer that I read back in 2013 and it’s entirely possible that Benedict has improved in her later work. For example, some of the jokes the characters throw around are amusing, but the fact that they’re described as laughing for almost a minute kind of ruins the joke on a couple of occasions. This could just be my personal writing style talking, but there are a few too many instances of replacement words for “said.”
As for the religious content, it’s obviously going to be in there. That said, it didn’t feel heavy handed apart from the fact that Scott seemed to be the only person on his team that wasn’t a Christian from the start. It never feels like it’s completely hijacking the story, and since the FBI team is searching for a mystery “angel girl”, it feels appropriate.
Would I recommend this book to non-Christians? Probably not. There’s still enough religious speech weaved into the narrative that if you want nothing of it, those moments will likely turn you off. However if you are, and a story that weaves a criminal investigation with ideas of angels walking the earth interests you, this is worth looking into. I enjoyed it, and I plan to check out more of my cousin’s work in the future. If you’re interested, here’s her website, and this link leads to where you can read the first chapter.
Part of the reason I wanted to read at least one religious book is because I’m writing vampire fiction. There have been lots of different interpretations over the years, but vampire fiction often acknowledges its religious roots. By no means am I trying to turn my series into a religious series, but I won’t shy away from religious themes either. Bram Stoker’s Dracula almost reads like a Christian allegory in some ways, yet it still functions as a compelling vampire story for any fan of the genre.
If done right, exploring religious themes in secular fiction can be fascinating. I’ve seen it done in the Kate Daniels series, utilizing mythology from various beliefs to add depth to the storytelling. The first three Indiana Jones movies are other examples of this working well. And then of course entire books have been written about the religious parallels in the Lord of the Rings series, whether Tolkien intended them to be there or not. But unless you’re going out of your way to create religious fiction, there’s a tricky balance one has to maintain.
I’m trying to include characters from as many different faith backgrounds as possible in my series. For example, in the first book I have three main characters. One is a Christian, although she’s not hardcore about it. One is an atheist, who later becomes a vague spiritualist after becoming a werewolf (he still doesn’t believe in a higher power). The third was born a soulless vampire so in his own words – “I’m soulless; what do I care?” In later books in my series I’ve already written Pagans, Jews, Muslims and at least one Universalist. At least religiously speaking, my favourite character that I’ve created is a young man who wanted to be a Catholic Priest until he was turned into a vampire. He obviously has to change his life goals.
But the main reason I wanted to read at least one religious book with regards to my own writing is that it might help me plan the next rough draft I’ll be working on. Because this is book 8 in my series (which I haven’t even found a literary agent for), I shouldn’t talk much about it. Let’s just say that, well … the plot will involve one of the few beings that Dracula is afraid of. Before I get to that though, I’ll not only be querying a few more literary agents, but I’ll be doing the third draft for book 2 in my series, which mostly takes place in 1940 Berlin.