Is it possible to enjoy a book because of its limitations, as much as you might enjoy it despite them? I’m faced with this issue right now because after all four (or two) volumes of Pale Fallen Angel, I can’t deny I’ve enjoyed the story. I’m just not sure if that’s the result of the way it was written or an unintentional by-product.
The D stories don’t lend themselves to being epics. They’re called light novels for a reason: they’re compact, fast on their feet, and trimly written. Small wonder the longer D stories end up tilting under their own weight. The would-be epic two-part Journey to the North Sea was impressive, but caused Hideyuki Kikuchi’s storytelling framework to bulge at the seams. With the four-part Angel, the framework has ripped clean open. I didn’t like seeing the brevity I associated with the D series turning into the very same ponderous, bloated fantasy that I started reading the D books to get away from in the first place. But after both volumes of Angel, I found I’d done my best to enjoy the books for what they were and not for what I wanted them to be.
The plot’s remarkably complicated, which is in itself an aberration. D has offered his services to, of all people, another vampire — the Baron Byron Balazs (say that three times fast), he who seeks his own father Lord Vlad, the better to put him out of his misery. Vlad’s team of hired goons have made no end of trouble for D and his allies — among them a brother-and-sister acrobatic troupe, easily my favorite characters this time around apart from D himself. But one of Byron’s cohorts, the vampire princess Miska, has become the subject of immense interest by Vlad’s mad-scientist buddy de Carriole. Apparently she carries a diabolical power within her that has the capacity to destroy … well, everything, really. And Vlad has been cooking up some unholy sorcery of his own that involves impregnating female vampires, but the less said about that the better.
The D books are not known for being this tangled, but I attribute that this time around to Angel’s sheer length. That much more length means that much more for Kikuchi to throw in and play with, and it makes sense when you think about the D books as playgrounds of sorts for his imagination. The lawless frontier and lone-gunman mystique of the Western, the bubbling beakers and arcing electrodes of the mad scientist’s lab from the Universal Pictures monster movies, the ghoulish atmosphere of the Hammer Studios horror films — Kikuchi raids all of them freely for inspiration and tosses in bits and pieces wherever he sees fit. D himself is only our hero in the sense that he leads us past, and through, all these different manners of strangeness. The world itself, the stage, is the main character here; everyone else, D included, is just a bit player.
Once I’d put aside my dissatisfaction with the length and breadth of the story (there is such a thing as having too much fun), I found a lot to savor in those very bit players. No D story would be complete without its gallery of grotesques and freakazoids, and its more sympathetic characters. I mentioned May and Hugh, the acrobats; they had me from the moment they walked in back in the first half of this story. But on the gallery-of-freaks side, there’s folks like Chlomo — a makeup artist who can turn people into copies of other people he’s seen with nothing more than a little blush and powder. Or the ethereal Cordelia, a victim of horrible experiments that transformed her from vampire to undersea dweller … but didn’t change the fact that to be underwater causes her endless agony.
Then, over the course of the last book, Kikuchi does something truly unexpected and interesting. He digs down into the history and psychology of each of these characters, exposes their hurts and their needs, and uses that material to bring his story to its conclusion. It’s a welcome change from one of those endings where everyone just pulls out guns and the guy with the biggest gun wins — even though we do get something close to that along the way. In part four, the nearly unkillable character Vince faces off against something called the Big Bang Accelerator, the functioning of which I will leave to the imagination (but your first guess is probably right).
This technique has one drawback: it keeps the ending at arm’s length for what feels like an unnaturally long time. Just when we think we’re going to get the real climax, it’s postponed in favor of another, and another. But it also allows the book to end on a note of sad reflection, a lamentation for things that could have been — a feeling that’s far more in keeping with the gothic nature of D than any number of things blown up.
I still feel the longer D books are out of keeping with what the series is best at. I suspect my patience is going to be tested again with the next D novel, which is another two-parter, Twin-Shadowed Knight. But if you take Angel in smaller doses, it has the same net effect as the best single-volume stories in this series — and since that was how it was intended to be originally read anyway, I’ll keep that lesson in mind for when book thirteen debuts this October.