A review that originally appeared in Black Static #11:-
Alex Bell: The Ninth Circle
(Gollancz paperback, 304pp, £7.99)
His head stuck to the floor by blood, a man wakes up in a flat in Budapest, with no memory of who he is or how he got there. There’s a lease agreement which names him as Gabriel Antaeus and a large pile of money for which he cannot account, but it deters him from going to the police. As the days progress, Gabriel searches for clues as to what has happened to him, befriending the enigmatic foreigner Stephomi, who appears to know more than he cares to reveal, and Casey, the pregnant girl across the hall, who claims to be a virgin. He discovers that he has great strength and stamina, and superior fighting ability to ordinary people. He receives esoteric parcels and clues that hint at a dark mystery in his past, something connected to a ‘Ninth Circle’. And then there is the burning man, who is leaking out of his dreams and into the real world. Slowly it dawns on Gabriel Antaeus that he has been drawn into an angelic conflict and may have a pivotal role to play in deciding the fate of mankind.
I have mixed feelings about this book, which is presented in the form of a journal written by Gabriel Antaeus to record his journey of self-discovery, and this first person narrative device is part of what I found problematic. The simple, matter of fact tone of voice used isn’t entirely convincing. On the one hand it does drive the story forward at a healthy pace and, by the very simplicity of the prose, capture the personality of a man whose identity has been misplaced, but at the same time it doesn’t quite ring true for the person we are asked to believe Gabriel Antaeus is, a hobbyist scholar with a special interest in eschatology and angelic lore, somebody who reads Dante. There is no whiff of sophistication about the text. I have similar misgivings about the Budapest setting, for which we are given no real rationale. Bell describes the city in some detail, but it never feels like anything more than scenery, architecture, guide book stuff. You don’t get any of the grit and gravel, the sights and smells and other stuff the tourists won’t see. Gabriel interacts only with foreigners, people who, just like him, are outsiders in this setting, and so there is no real sense of place, nothing to really convey the authenticity of Budapest. Change the names of the monuments, streets etc and it could just as easily be set in London or New York.
On the plus side this is a fast paced story, one that effortlessly draws the reader in and keeps him turning the pages. A particular highlight is the angelic stuff, which adds a novel slant to the proceedings. Central to this is the character of Stephomi. Gabriel is a somewhat moralistic person, certain of what constitutes right and wrong, and Stephomi takes the role of tempter, presenting him with moral conundrums, demonstrating that not everything need be black and white, even where the Devil is concerned. His ponderings give the book intellectual and philosophical muscle, and lead into the final scenes in which archangels do battle and the actions of Gabriel Antaeus will make a difference.
Ultimately though there’s a contrived feel to the proceedings, as if the plot has been made convoluted for the sake of being so, rather than out of any necessity. The revelation of Gabriel’s past compounds this impression, as if somebody decided it would be a good idea to transplant elements of spy series Alias into Christopher Walken film The Prophecy, but didn’t quite work out the ramifications. There’s no denying that the journey to the story’s destination is compelling, with Bell skilfully luring the reader on one step at a time. It’s only at the end that you look back and wonder exactly how you got to where you are, or if it’s a place you want to be at all.