Angels and Demons Week: Review: Dancing on the Head of a Pin

By Paula R. Stiles

Sniegoski, Thomas E. Dancing on the Head of a Pin: A Remy Chandler Novel. New York: ROC, 2009. 304pp. USD $6.99; CDN $8.50. ISBN-10: 0451462513; ISBN-13: 978-0451462510.

Remy Chandler, angelic private dick, is back in the second of Thomas Sniegoski‘s apocalyptic noir series (We’ll review the third, Mythos-themed Where Angels Fear to Tread, tomorrow). If you’ve read the first book, A Kiss Before the Apocalypse (which we reviewed earlier this year), you’ll already know that Remy is really a seraph named “Remiel”, who went AWOL from Heaven after the war between Lucifer and God. Because Remiel stayed loyal to Heaven and fought on the winning side to the bitter end, he’s avoided the fate of fallen angels like his friend, Francis, or the Denizens (those of Lucifer’s followers cast down into Hell, some of whom have been “paroled” back up to earth from Hell), or the Black Choir (those angels who refused to choose sides and were exiled from both Heaven and Hell). But because he’s since become a neutral party – falling in love with a human woman, getting a job (albeit in his own business as a private detective), and living a human life – he’s found himself repeatedly forced into the role of a mediator, a professional neutral party, between Heaven and Hell. If Remy has a true allegiance and a home now, they’re to humans and on earth.

This time round, he’s having a tough time. His wife died of old age in the previous book and his human shell is weakening, his original seraph nature constantly longing to burst out, even go back home. So, when he’s drawn into a case involving a tortured angel, some forgotten leftover WMDs from the War, Denizens, hellhounds, and a mysterious group called the “Nomads”, this war inside his soul proves as dangerous as any external enemy.

This time round, I liked the story and protagonist better. In A Kiss Before the Apocalypse, Remy’s love for his wife, Madeline, dipped too often into sentimentality and the noir sounded too cliched at times. Here, Remy’s bitterness and grief nicely ground his snark and give an edge to his ongoing internal battle. We sense that if he let out the seraph part of him, he could do far more damage than any other character, even Lucifer Morningstar himself. This contributes to the analogy between Remy’s disillusion over the corrupt system of angels that caused the War in Heaven, and resulted in the current schism, and the noir detective hero’s cynical opposition to a system where corrupt cops/lawyers/judges/politicians and vicious criminals are just two sides of the same dirty coin.

I also enjoyed even more the ongoing expansion of the angelology from the previous book, which encompasses both angels and demons (most demons in the series being fallen angels, as in Christian tradition [while fallen angels do populate Hell, it turns out that demons are an entirely different creature. More like Demon Knight than Dante]). Sniegoski doesn’t just introduce a group (like the Denizens) and then drop it. Sequences of scenes revolving around Remy’s interactions with these groups comprise large sections of the book. And because these are all former angels who were involved in the War in some way, and Remy recognizes them as all former brothers, however distant, the encounters with them have the tragic depth of the ultimate, dysfunctional family feud. With supernukes.

Some things that don’t work so well, at least not yet, are the development of Remy’s thin veneer of humanity and the effects of the humanity forced on the fallen angels of Dancing on the Head of a Pin. I get in theory why the Denizens would be contemptuous of the human weaknesses that they both feel and exploit, and confused about the value of their “parole” on earth, but too often, they come across as Dumb on Cue. And the combination of inner monologue and flashbacks to happier times used for Remy can be moving, but it’s not very illuminating in terms of why he prefers his humanity. It’s not as though he’s mortal, and his ability to seraph-out and come back from it will always be there, so what does being “mortal” really mean to him? The story hasn’t answered that question very satisfactorily so far, though villains’ use of threats to Remy’s dog, Marlowe, as his Achilles’ heel is a good start.

I’m also not thrilled with the portrayal of the Archangel Michael. In Christian tradition, he is a hero angel, paradoxically the most powerful and the most human. Even in Paradise Lost, which much modern angelic fantasy (including this series) merrily pillages, Michael is both the strongest (During the War in Heaven, he cuts Satan nearly in half, forcing a temporary retreat) and the most compassionate of the angels. At the end, after Adam and Eve have fallen, God sends Michael to shepherd them out of Eden, giving him the option of doing it harshly or in a kind and enlightening manner. He chooses the latter option and his gentleness is their last taste of Paradise. It therefore annoys me to see fantasy writers, over and over again, give us an arrogant and inhuman Michael, not only because it goes against tradition but because it fails to set up an adequate opposition to the equally-arrogant Lucifer and because I like the traditional version of Michael.

That said, Remy continues to grow into a more interesting character and the series’ universe has one of the most truly varied angelologies I’ve seen. The fallen angels aren’t just demons or vampires in disguise. They’re all angels and they act like angels, but that doesn’t automatically mean they act well or on humanity’s behalf, or all look and behave the same way. Still, regardless of what the angels do, this is not even a crypto-dualistic universe. God is definitely in charge. He is just allowing the angels free will alongside humans (In Sniegowski’s version, the War is sparked partly by humanity’s being granted free will first), in order to learn and grow amid their bickering amongst each other.

Finally, I thought the cover for this one was an improvement over the one for A Kiss Before the Apocalypse, which made Remy look like John Denver not a seraph fighting to become more human. In fact, the covers in this series show a steady improvement, with the one for the upcoming A Hundred Words for Hate in March being the best of all.

You can find Dancing on the Head of a Pin on

Angels and Demons Week continues through December 31.