It’s difficult not to ponder the end of the Earth these days. That sentiment subtly infuses Marguerite Reed’s remarkable debut novel Archangel, which inverts contemporary environmental musings by chronicling the cautious early days of a possible Earth replacement: Ubastis. The viewpoint character is Dr. Vashti Loren, a xenobiologist charged with studying the planet, both to confirm its suitability for human life and to ensure that colonization will not disrupt its underexamined ecosystem. Vashti is also a notorious figure: the widow of a tragically murdered hero, an unenhanced human in an era of rampant genetic modification, and a rare individual who possesses the capacity for killing in a future where violence has largely been programmed out of humanity. In fact, violence is so passe that it is left to “Beasts” — cloned soldiers, designed as a necessary evil. When one of Vashti’s friends smuggles a Beast to Ubastis, Vashti is forced to confront the repressed tragedies of her past, even as she’s propelled headlong into a tangled drama to chart the future of the planet.
Archangel builds slowly at first, but ultimately is a gripping, immersive read. Its most striking asset is rich, vivid world-building, which depicts a complex, space-faring future humanity that manages to be both relatable and convincingly alien. The same is true for Ubastis, a rough-edged frontier world with its own nascent culture and environmental mystique. This thoroughly envisioned setting is explored through an equally rich protagonist; Vashti is a complicated, layered hero, fierce and smart, stubborn and tortured. She serves as a captivating window onto the planet’s burgeoning intrigues, which I hope will continue into a sequel. A superb debut.