Perhaps because the bloodletting was far away, perhaps because it was carried out by the French -- always the arbiters of taste and fashion -- there is a continuing romantic fascination with, rather than any revulsion against, the excesses of the French Revolution. By calling Susannah Kells' book "a novel of the French Revolution," her publishers milk the terror and violence for all they are worth. "The Fallen Angels" also relies on that other chestnut of the period, Anglo-French enmity, characterized by a relentless historical Tom and Jerry act between the fanatical haters of the aristocracy on the one side and the gallant and exemplary English nobility on the other.
The heroine, the beautiful and accomplished Lady Campion Lazen (the unusual first name is mandatory for the genre), only daughter of the once powerful but now dying Earl of Lazen, the richest man in all England, is your ordinary, average superwoman:
"She could have been in London; she could have danced in palaces and taken tribute from every hopeful son, yet she would not leave Lazen. Her father was sick, her brother absent, and she had taken the reins of Lazen into her slim hands and it was she who was its ruler now. She was sensible, practical, and decisive. She could talk to ploughmen and lawyers, millers or magistrates, and every man left her presence a little bit in love."
The man she loves, the gypsy-born Gitan, is appropriately tall, handsome, mysterious, masterful, magnetic and unsuitable. "The gypsy's face was dark, thin, and savage as a hawk's. Campion stared at the face, struck by it, thinking suddenly that never, ever in her life had she seen so superb a man. He rode as though he trampled a conquered world beneath his mare's hooves."
It is not enough for Lady Campion and her gypsy to undergo the obligatory rigors of a romantic courtship; they must also contend with the machinations of the notorious 18th-century secret society, the Illuminati, and its sinister and murdering members, the Fallen Angels. The Illuminati, dedicated to bringing about the rule of universal Reason, wish to rule the world, and regard the revolution in France as the first step. By acquiring Lazen Castle and its fortune, they hope to take over England. It will not come as a total surprise to the perceptive reader to know that only the resourceful Lady Campion and her brother Tony, who is busy stirring up antirevolutionary feelings in France for the British Secret Service, stand in the way. The Lazens, however, also have to break the run of bad luck that haunts the family: "Lazen, the house of fortune, seemed cursed in all things but its daughter."
The initiation rites of the Fallen Angels, the appointed agents of destruction, are described in gruesome detail. These villains are modern psychotic evildoers. There is nothing banal about their evil.
Directed by their leader Lucifer, whose identity is a secret, the Fallen Angels pursue the Lazen family both in France and in England. In France they rape the aristocratic betrothed of Tony Lazen repeatedly before decapitating her in a Paris prison, and in England Lady Campion is attacked on a lonely hillside by a pox-ridden criminal, and then more subtly pursued by a designated Fallen Angel, whose intentions are no less terrible. Perfidy and treason are rife, and all are suspect: Lord Pauncely, a distant precursor of the head of British Military Intelligence, who also collects erotica; Valentine Larke, a member of Parliament who also owns brothels; and the gypsy Gitan, who serves many masters.
The denouement is predictably violent but love, of course, triumphs:
"She was an aristocrat with the blood of kings, and he was a man. He loved her, and she knew it . . . She went to that place where all the roads begin. She rode, hand in her lover's hand, for love."
The Lazen family and England are saved, the Lazen curse is broken, and Lucifer, who wanted to make Lazen Castle a place where "music and poetry and refinement could live," instead of a place where the footmen slouched and the family talked of nothing but horses and farming, is suitably punished for his presumption.
Perhaps the greatest reservation one has about "The Fallen Angels," and books like it, is the sense that the writer has a contempt for her readers, which she hardly bothers to conceal. Kells seems content to give readers what she thinks they deserve -- junk food, not cake, with no obligation to worry too much about authenticity, credible characters or style. One merely thinks of a neat, convoluted plot, plumps it with sex, violence and blue-blooded persiflage, and in no time one has a book. "The Fallen Angels" could have been a respectable example of its kind. The plot has some nice twists and the French Revolution has immortalized other works of fiction. But Kells is no Baroness Orczy, and Gitan is not the Scarlet Pimpernel. One suspects that "The Fallen Angels" would be a slight embarrassment even to Lucifer.