The title of Kat Heckenbach's first novel, Finding Angel, is intriguing and becomes more so after you've read the book. One might even argue it's a bit of a misnomer. You expect the story to be about someone looking for Angel and discovering her, a kind of missing person story. But no one is looking for Angel in the story. Angel is the protagonist and point-of-view character. She knows where she is but not necessarily who she is. Gregor is looking for a girl named Anna but finds Angel, who used to be a little girl named Anna. So why isn't this book entitled "Finding Anna" or something else entirely? Finding Angel is Angel's story. She was found wandering a rural road and adopted by the Masons, who also have several other adopted children. Angel's only link with her past is a silver charm bracelet that she was wearing at the time of her discovery. One charm is a heart inscribed with a strange-looking beetle. The other charms are letters: A-N-G-E-L, which the Masons assume spell her name. (We learn later in the story that the E and L charms are out of order.) Gregor takes Angel back to her childhood home on a magical island that is invisible to the rest of the world. She learns that she has magical abilities and that she is a Finder, someone whose most developed magical talent is finding things. But Angel is no longer Anna, not after living with the Mason's for several years. Angel/Anna must discover how she fits into the past and future of her homeland as she forges an identity and finds out who Angel is. Oh, I almost forgot. There is also a homicidal maniac named Dawric who will stop at nothing to find and kill her so he can steal her talent.
Part mystery and part fantasy, puzzles occupy center stage in Finding Angel. The first mystery is Angel's past. She learns that Dawric nearly captured her when she was a young girl but that Gregor used his talent for Gating--creating passages through space to other parts of the world--to send her away from Dawric. Unfortunately, Gregor was not able to follow her through the gate and did not know where he had sent her which is why it took him years to track her down. When Angel returns with Gregor, her parents are gone, looking for her in some other part of the world. The next puzzle is the significance of the charm bracelet, which Gregor tells Angel is a family heirloom that is passed from one generation to the next through the first born. But what is the bracelet's significance? What does it do? Angel finds a vague prophecy in an old book that she believes relates to her as it mentions something about a Finder. Gregor, who is going through a type of Romeo-and-Juliet personal crisis about which he is exceedingly reticent, dismisses her obsession. Casting a shadow over the other mysteries is Dawric, whom Gregor insists is gone, but Angel suspects is closer than Gregor thinks since the prophecy appears to relate to him as well. And finally, there is the jigsaw puzzle that Angel helps Sir Benjamin--a retired professor--assemble in his bookstore.
Magic is commonplace on the island. There are magical items, such as an interpreter lens that renders text in any language. Angel learns to use magic to take care of mundane chores, such as washing the dishes or cleaning up after her puppy. Magic is also put to more dramatic uses, such as Gregor's Gating and Angel's Finding. A professor at the university on the island can make himself invisible while another can tame animals and people. Fantastical creatures abound, including unicorns and various types of dragons which many residents keep as pets. Elves--the Tolkien variety--also inhabit the island.
One of the unique features of Finding Angel is the relationship Heckenbach depicts between magic and science. In most fantasies, magic occurs and is taken for granted. We're not given much explanation of the nuts and bolts of it other then where the power to perform it comes from. Heckenbach delves into the science behind the magic. Gregor alters the appearance of Angel's hair color by "magically adjusting the surface's absorption and reflection of wavelengths" (p. 83). Invisibility comes from bending light rays. When Angel asks Gregor why the left over food on the dishes cannot just disappear, Gregor explains:
"Things don't just disappear. They have to go someplace. First law of conservation of matter. Matter cannot be created or destroyed; it can only change form" (p. 49).As Heckenbach describes it, magic, like everything else, is answerable to the laws of the physical universe. Magic acts within those laws and uses them, rather than contradicting or stepping outside of them. However, just as Gregor and Angel can magically work within the laws of the universe, those laws can also impinge on their magic. Gregor says that technology interferes with their magic, which is why daily life on the island is so low-tech.
"It's all the waves and particles released by electronic devices. They suppress our magic" (p. 47).Heckenbach has created a strong cast of characters to complement Angel's story. They have their own concerns and their lives have trajectories independent of Angel. Gregor, for instance, is involved with a young Elven girl named Siophra, whose father has forbidden their marriage. Kalek, Siophra's brother, is caught between his father and Gregor. Angel is more an observer than a participant in Gregor's subplot until Siophra is drawn into the machinations of Dawric and his partner. We even get a sense of Dawric's hopes and dreams although his desires have consumed any sense of morality he may once have possessed and transformed him into a cunning maniac. However, Finding Angel's narrative structure and single point-of-view character limits our exposure to and understanding of some characters. While Angel meets Kalek numerous times, her meeting with Siophra is fleeting. Like Angel, we have to rely on second-hand reports to form an opinion of her. Siophra's father undergoes a transformation from a cruel and unbending patriarch to a damaged and repentant father in the novel's final chapters, but Angel only has contact with him after the transformation.
The story breaks from Angel's point of view in a few mini-chapters that report conversations between an unnamed scientist and an unnamed man whom I assume to be Dawric. I suspect Heckenbach wants to foreshadow the dangers that are encroaching on Angel, but in a fantasy novel, the reader expects danger to be lurking without being told. I would rather see those chapters expanded so that the reader has a lot more information than Angel or cut.
Finding Angel is a good read with a complex story line and enough twists and turns to keep the reader off balance. The final chapter hints at a continuation of Angel's story in a sequel. I'm looking forward to it.
Come back next week for an interview with Kat Heckenbach. While you wait, check out her blog and all things Finding Angel at http://www.findingangel.com/.