The best writers are not, necessarily, those with the best ideas; they’re they ones with the best execution. Richard Russo’s Empire Falls is simply a re-telling of Great Expectations. Russo certainly isn’t the only one to undertake that very common idea, and yet there is fine-spun brilliance in every line of Empire Falls and that is why the book won the Pulitzer. Jennifer Crusie’s Welcome to Temptation is the story of a big city girl from the wrong side of the tracks and a small town boy whose family runs the town. Romance has seen that setup time and again, yet Crusie slipped magic and subtext into the tale and a finer poor girl/rich boy story cannot be found. The ideas aren’t worth much, but the achievements are priceless
Michelle Rowen’s sophomore effort, Angel with Attitude, sounds like a great idea: the heroine, Valerie Grace is an angel, and the hero, Nathaniel, is a demon. It stacks up to be the ultimate good girl/bad boy story: she’s just wants to get back to heaven and he wants to coax her to hell. This is delicious. What common ground could such a couple have? How far will she fall? Can he be redeemed? The answers don’t really matter. It is how those answers unfold that prove whether the setup succeeds or fails. Like all ideas, Angel with Attitude comes down to the execution.
Valerie and Nathaniel’s first common ground is Niagara Falls, the spot on earth where Valerie falls after she’s pushed from heaven. Valerie, it seems, became rather prideful in her duties of worshipping and serving and therefore, like Satan before her, was kicked out of heaven. Unlike the devil, and those who chose to follow him, Valerie wasn’t sent straight to hell to be a demon, but is allowed a human life on earth. If she’s good enough, and resists temptation, at the end of her human life she’ll be let back into heaven. Maybe.
Angel with Attitude isn’t a morality play or a lesson in Judeo-Christian doctrine, so why Valerie’s sin of pride is treated in a lesser manor than Satan’s is never addressed. Or why, moreover, becoming human is a punishment when human beings are the Judeo-Christian god’s ultimate creation. Though some explanation as to why angels continue to fall from heaven – and enough do so that The Management has created a what-to-do-once-you’ve-fallen manual – would have been a significant help to the world building. Further, the punishment on earth versus in hell seems a too easy manipulation by Rowen to give Nathaniel, a tempter demon, whose job it is to tempt fallen angels into hell, a reason to be in Valerie’s life.
The organic nature of Nathaniel’s presence aside, the idea of a tempting demon as a hero is a luscious one. Nathaniel is reminiscent of the ever-tortured Cole from “Charmed.” He’s the definitive evil doer who might be in the midst of a change of heart. He’s a smoking man in black who lies and doesn’t immediately have Valerie’s best interests at heart.
Unfortunately, Nathaniel’s tempting of Valerie isn’t the focus of Angel with Attitude. The Key to Heaven, a key rumored to open the doors of heaven to anyone who should use it, emerges as the story’s focus. As soon as Valerie learns of the key’s existence, and that she will be able to use it, the key falls into the hands of Julian, another demon. The consequences of Julian, or any other demon, using the key are cataclysmic and Valerie sets off to retrieve the key. This proves to be a great stumbling block for Angel with Attitude. Once the key is in Julian’s possession, the steps Val takes to recover the key fail to make much sense. She decides the only way to find Julian is with the help of another demon. Preferably not Nathaniel, as he would only try to tempt her. Val enlists the help of a witch to summon a non-Nathanial demon. But, why doesn’t she simply summon Julian? According to Rowen’s mythology a demon summoned is bound to whoever summoned them and must do as commanded. So, why not summon Julian and demand the return of the key? There isn’t a compelling reason, other than an immediate end to that storyline, for Val not to do just that.
To compound this issue, the demon that answers Val’s summons is, of course, Nathaniel. With this turn of events the balance of Valerie’s good girl resisting Nathaniel’s bad boy is lost. He poses no threat to Valerie once under her command. He’s forced to tell the truth and is, generally, castrated as a character. In addition to the lack of conflict and the loss of the chase between them, Nathaniel is never given the opportunity to be his own man. In their first meetings, Nathaniel is under the influence of the Home Office (Hell), tempting Valerie because that is his job as a tempter demon. While it’s refreshing that Rowen doesn’t allow Nathaniel to immediately soften and break the rules for Valerie, the reader still isn’t given an idea of who Nathaniel is outside of his work. After being summoned, Nathaniel is little more than Val’s trick pony and guide dog through the Underworld (a place somewhere in between earth and hell) as she searches for Julian and the key.
The idea of a love story between an angel and a demon couldn’t be cuter and based on that alone Angel with Attitude should entertain and should compell. Unfortunately, it never quite lives up to the promise of that idea and ultimately frustrates with a plot that works against the setup.
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