Of Love and Evil
Alfred A. Knopf: 176 pp., $24.95
During the Christmas season, it's perfectly reasonable to think about angels, isn't it? After all, didn't they bear glad tidings about a babe born in Bethlehem?
Angels have long been message-carriers, although in Anne Rice's new novel, "Of Love and Evil," the news that the angel Malchiah brings to Toby O'Dare concerns something that's hardly a reason to celebrate: a murder plot.
"A young man named Vitale … is praying both desperately and faithfully for help," Malchiah announces, "and you will go to him and find a complex of mysteries which only you can understand."
Toby is whisked off to another time and place, trading present-day Riverside's Mission Inn, where he is summoned, for Rome in the Renaissance. Why is Toby so qualified for solving this "complex of mysteries"? He's a professional assassin who wants God's forgiveness for his crimes. He and Malchiah were introduced in last year's "Angel Time," the first in the "Songs of the Seraphim" series which will probably be a long one: Toby's killed quite a few people and has a lot of penance to do.
His mission in Rome seems clear: Reveal the plot of Lodovico, a jealous young nobleman, who is slowly killing his favored brother Niccoló right under the eyes of their father, Signore Antonio. Stealing another's inheritance is a Rice staple, and here she shows her familiar ease with exotic characters and treacherous situations.
Niccoló wastes away despite the efforts of Vitale, the family's Jewish physician. Understandably he fears the worst if the youth dies. He will be blamed for the death with terrible consequences for himself and the city's other Jews. Then, Toby finds a connection—an intriguing one between Niccoló's diet and a sinister plant Lodovico is growing in a courtyard—that might save the day.
Back to 21st century Riverside, right?
Not so fast: Tragedy occurs on the heels of Toby's discovery and he encounters another angel, warning him that Malchiah is not what he seems. You're duped, the angel tells him, you're "locked in a belief system that is nothing but the stage machinery of lies." As if this weren't enough, there's a dybbuk in Signore Antonio's house — an angry spirit who won't stop throwing around the furniture. Toby's hands are full.
So are Rice's. For such a slender novel, "Of Love and Evil" also dramatizes the plight of the Jews in Renaissance Italy and includes plenty of meditations on religious belief that sound like Rice's own explanations about why, earlier this year, she quit organized Christianity for a simpler form of faith. Toby's lessons seem to be her own.
"[Y]ou never know anything for certain," he concludes, "even when your faith is great. You don't know it. Your longing, your anguish, can be without end."
Unfortunately, Toby doesn't have much time to reflect on what he's learned. A visitor appears in the book's last pages bearing tidings of the cliffhanger sort, reminding us that believers aren't the only ones with uncertainty in their lives.