Toil is the first thing that comes to mind entering into Oliver Fairfax’s historic novel The Angel Strikes. What we encounter first and foremost are peasants, commoners, doing what all human from the very beginning of our species history have done–move from one place on Earth to another. Our species may revel in storytelling, but we are defined by our ever present drive to move. Migration is sometimes based out of whim but most often is driven by cultural and environmental pressures. In this novel, the two mix as our protagonists flee a famine to find themselves in the midst of arguable the greatest land war in European history.
It would be fascinating to read The Angel Strikes as a romanticized take on the current refugee crisis hitting the European continent. Slowly, those fleeing the wars and famines in the Levant have made their way to Turkey and Eastern Europe. Much like the Napoleonic world wherein The Angel Strikes takes place, we see families and individuals enmeshed in intrigues, politics, and the everyday pragmatics of survival. Leaving the harsh famines of European Russia, the teen-aged Paul Brandt finds his niche druing the Napoleonic Wars making The Angel Strikes not just historical fiction but an adventure novel. It is this angle which enlivens the story being told provoking readers to go to the library or internet to research for themselves the varied instances and quirks Fairfax has already dug up and made so dramatically real for us.
These Russian serfs settle in the woods south of Berlin in early 19th century, taking advantage of what they find and doing what serfs know best, work, to carve out a small place for themselves to live off the land they have embraced. Immigrant stories are complicated but passionate showing us the human will to survive and prosper against the cruel reality of war and politics.
In perhaps the most well-orchestrated scene in this first of the series, Paul Brandt literally fights for survival during the Battle of Jena-Auerstedt becoming a cultural icon (for the time), the Angel of Jena. A Russian serf in an adopted Germanic land standing against a would-be French empire. We are reading what could be called epic history akin to epic fantasy. Similarly, there is the ‘Determined Servant’ status of the mysterious Rosina, Paul’s would-be love interest who is herself a dedicated assassin:
I must tell you, but I didn’t know at the time, a ‘Determined Servant’ is a person who’s been chosen or determined for a certain task. He or she must continue with that task until it’s done. but if the task is not completed when the Servant’s death is near, the Servant must appoint another to continue with it after his or her death. There is no choice for the Determined Servant. The tasks and the Determined Servants are order by the Toyny Prikaz, which is the office dealing with confidential matter sin the the Kremlin.
We as readers grow alongside Paul, taking in a queer mixture of an old, familiar world and one new and filled with many secrets and challenges. It is a testament to Fairfax’s acumen as a writer that he is able to place readers in Paul’s mind and so calmly yet decisively illustrate his character that it overtakes us. Farifax’s Paul Brandt transports us to a time many readers will barely have any superficial knowledge of, but as the story unfolds and Paul’s place in it, we visceral learn the past in a compelling fashion. This is the ultimate goal of historical fiction, and Fairfax achieves it. But make no mistake, even though The Angel Strikes may start slowly, it is an excellent adventure novel.
Oliver Fairfax is a nomad. A Scot by birth, he has wandered from England to Hong Kong and back twice. He has lived in France and now in New Zealand.