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While the Fantasy-Hive is not participating in this year’s Self-Publishing Fantasy Blog Off (SPFBO) – the eighth such event – we do have some overlap with people who are, which is how I got a recommendation to take a look at Small Miracles, a SPFBO8 finalist chosen by the Queen’s Book Asylum blog.

This is a charming little book, impossible to categorise or to predict which way its twisting plot will go. Suffice to say the story often left me bewildered, but never unengaged.

It’s a good sign when I find I have highlighted the very first line in the book, in this case

It was eight O’clock on a Wednesday morning when the Fallen Angel of Petty Temptations walked into a quaint café on the north end of Church Street.

small-miracles-olivia-atwater.jpg?resizeThis opening immediately sets up the mix of uncanny and prosaic, a juxtaposition that characterises the entire book. The opening pages describe the protagonist – fallen angel Gadriel – in some detail, though most of that description is stressing how utterly ordinary and unremarkable she is.  However, Atwater’s prose makes for very comfortable reading about a character whose sartorial choices are mostly about the unobtrusive comfort of knitwear.

We meet Gadriel using her small powers of persuasion to shorten a queue of customers before meeting her unfallen counterpart, Barachiel the Angel of Good Fortune. As they catch up over coffee Atwater sneaks in references to the story’s central plot device – the accounting of sin. As with the charming TV show The Good Place Gadriel and Barachiel are involved in the maintenance of celestial balance sheets, you might think of it as the accountancy of sin (not to be confused with the sin of accountancy), with chocolate counting as ½ a point of sin, while heartfelt compliments and other modest good deeds earn points of virtue.

After a lost bet with Barachiel, Gadriel owes the (still) angelic one favours. In this case Barachiel sets Gadriel to tempt a mortal named Holly Harker into a little bit of sin because

She has one of the lowest cumulative sin metrics I’ve ever seen. Truly she must be even more miserable than a Greek Cynic…. I want you to tempt her… just enough to make sure she’s enjoying her life?”

Associating virtue with misery and sin with enjoyment might take old fashioned weight loss messaging a little too far or too simplistically into the moral domain. However, it makes for an interesting set-up as Gadriel finds the simple challenge has some surprising complications.  It also means that each chapter opens, like a Bridget Jones diary entry, with a helpful running score of Holly Harker’s cumulative sin metric. (She starts on “-932” sin points – positively brimming with virtue).

In her acknowledgements, the author says Small Miracles drew on Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens for inspiration and in some ways was a homage to it. Having never read Gaiman’s source work, and only knowing that story from brief trailers of the TV show starring David Tenant and Michael Sheen, the parallels passed me by. However, Small Miracles did make me think of a Peter Cook and Dudley Moore 1967 film Bedazzled with its tale of unintended and unpredictable consequences when fallen angels dip their hands in the lives of mortals. The miracles (and temptations) that Atwater’s protagonist Gadriel peddles in are more modest than those wielded by Peter Cook’s character George Spiggot (aka The Devil) and seem to invoke a lot of chocolate. However, as Atwater’s acknowledgement points out Small Miracles is “a story about tiny, personal disasters, rather than about giant, world-ending ones.”

The text is peppered with Pratchett-esque footnotes.  These fall into two categories, the first being authorial asides that raise a smile, or an eyebrow or both, for example the one about how

”Just as God created the platypus out of spare parts, Lucifer created the original chihuahua out of spare spite…one would be hard-pressed to find a more concentrated form of evil that the average chihuahua.”

The second category of footnotes provide a running score update to quantify Gadriel’s successes and failures in de-miserifying Holly’s excessively virtuous existence.  For example “+10 Points of Virtue (Holly Harker): Rescuing a Lost Kitten.” One can’t help feeling that Atwater must have had an excel spreadsheet open alongside the manuscript document as the precise accounting of these numbers is both the substance of Gadriel’s challenge and an important plot-point as the story approaches its denouement.

Gadriel makes an engaging protagonist, mischievous rather than malicious, while also endearingly out of her/his depth, more an angel fallen through a disagreement over policy than from any actual vice.  You will have noticed my slight ambiguity about Gadriel’s pronouns and indeed a quick google search for references generates this information, from Christianity.com Angels are not male or female in the way that humans understand and experience gender.”  Atwater has Gadriel and Barachiel charge into that ambiguity with a refreshingly fluid approach to gender explained in the very first footnote.

“Angels… chose a gender for the day, in rather the same way that you or I might choose a shirt or trousers…But as with any fashion choice there is always the danger that one might turn up at a luncheon meeting wearing exactly the same gender as the friend with whom one is meeting. This is considered both gauche and embarrassing.”

The angelic beings’ gender fluidity is an interesting touch with a consistent explanation within the story. The human characters accept this pretty much at face value with Holly simply noting “I don’t mean to be insulting… it’s just that… weren’t you a woman before.” Holly’s open-mindedness is refreshing, particularly in the contemporary context.

As Gadriel digs deeper into the secret of Holly’s virtue, Holly’s teenage niece Ella puts in an appearance and this draws Gadriel into some school based shenanigans. I do enjoy seeing how different authors present the realities of school life, the stresses and squabbles and the staff room politics, and Atwater delivers a credible depiction of a somewhat dysfunctional school, not least in the image of the school disco “The disco was in full swing…The swirling lights highlighted an empty, yawning gap between tables where no one dared to dance.”

Of course even a gentle chocolate infused story such as Small Miracles requires a villain and a threat, and there is more at stake for Gadriel than losing face with Barachiel. Those who have dabbled in C.S.Lewis’s The Screwtape letters may be familiar with the name Wormwood (or indeed if they have perused the Book of Revelations). Suffice to say the character is not a positive one and their arrival in the midst of Gadriel’s mission significantly ups the stakes, without losing the gently whimsical nature of the narrative.

Overall, this is a very different but enjoyable take on the fantasy genre, with its entertaining examination of the everyday struggles of ordinary folk, all heroes within their own complicated and unexpectedly spicy lives. As one of the many footnotes points out God may show mercy, but capsaicin does not.


Find out more about Small Miracles and order your copy HERE



The post SMALL MIRACLES by Olivia Atwater (BOOK REVIEW) appeared first on The Fantasy Hive.

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