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Literature / To Reign in Hell

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"All right, old friend," said the other. "I'll stay the night. Have you brandy?"
Yaweh nodded. They both stood at once, as if a hidden message had come to them, and embraced. "I don't see you often enough," said Yaweh.
"Heaven has grown too large," said Satan.

Born out of the flux of Primordial Chaos, the angels have erected Heaven as a bastion against a hostile universe. Even so, the Cacoastrum (the stuff of chaos) periodically grows violent and assails the walls of Heaven in great Waves, which the angels must fight to keep back. At the same time, the Waves are the only way angels may reproduce, for they force their will upon the flux as they fight and it mimics them in response. Now, during a lull after the Third Wave, the angelic lord Yaweh sets forth an ambitious Plan to erect a permanent safe haven against the chaos. Many may die in the creation, but it is fewer than will die in another Wave.

Not all agree with the Plan, however. Some fear dying in the execution. Others question whether it is right to force others to face the flux. Rumors and discontent filter through Heaven faster than truth, and discord arises in their wake. Though none want it, conflict seems inevitable...

To Reign in Hell is a 1984 fantasy novel by Steven Brust that retells the story of Yaweh's creation of Heaven and Earth, and Satan's creation of Hell. It is notable for its simple, yet compelling cosmology, its witty use of language, and its depiction of the War in Heaven as an avoidable catastrophe that was tragic for all concerned.

This novel provides examples of:

  • Aerith and Bob: The names of the angels draw from several angelological and demonological sources, resulting in a mixture of names derived from Hebrew (Yahweh, Satan, most other angels), Latin (Lucifer) and Arabic (Harut). And then, of course, names like Michael and Gabriel are common names nowadays.
  • Alternate Character Interpretation: The basis of the novel's entire characterization and plot. Yaweh is merely the firstborn angel and as fallible (or more so) than the rest, Satan is honest and forthright to a fault, Lucifer is magnanimous and cares intensely about free will, Yeshuah is almost bipolar with a desperate need to be loved... The entire point of the book is to recast the War in Heaven as a tragic falling-out of honest but fallible people goaded on by a few malcontents, rather than as a titanic battle of good versus evil.
  • Brainwashed: One of Abdiel's tricks from experimenting with illiaster.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Mephistopheles, among others. He periodically has to apologize for carrying it too far.
  • Dirty Coward: All of the manipulation and civil strife in Heaven is caused by Abdiel's fear of possibly dying during the execution of the Plan.
  • External Retcon
  • Flowery Elizabethan English: Most of the angels speak modern English, but Beelzebub must speak in flowery Elizabethan flavor, like a character from William Shakespeare, due to damage from the Cacoastrum. Ariel is compelled to speak in some form of verse and rhyme.
  • Forced Transformation: Getting damaged by the Cacoastrum can cause angels to be stuck in a single form. One is a dragon. Another is a dog.
  • Foregone Conclusion
  • Gender Flip: Raphael is generally considered male but is female in the novel.
  • God Is Flawed: Yaweh is the first among the angels, and technically their progenitor as his struggles against the Primordial Chaos caused others to come into existence. He isn't above the failings his brethren are subject to, including pride and being a poor judge of character.
  • God-Karting with Beelzebub: God, Lucifer and Satan (all of them, really) start out as friends and brothers.
  • Historical Injoke
  • It's Personal: Several people on both sides admit they don't even care about the rightness or wrongness of Yaweh's big Plan to create Earth, but have their own reasons for taking one side or the other.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Mephistopheles, to go with being a Deadpan Snarker. He likes unsettling people in their assumptions about themselves, but often finds he goes too far and has to backpedal because he doesn't really mean to actually hurt anyone. He actually takes it upon himself to be the bearer of bad news to Leviathan, when Ariel is murdered while others are still grieving and trying to figure out what to do about the situation.
  • Jumping Off the Slippery Slope: During the last Wave, Abdiel was trapped for a time in a bubble of stability surrounded by raging Cacoastrum, coming inches from being destroyed by raw chaos. Now, faced with the possibility of dying during the construction of a new, stable world out in the flux beyond Heaven, he starts justifying every act taken to find a way out from having to ever face the Cacoastrum again, from lying to brainwashing to outright murder. He even ends up trying to start the Fourth Wave just to redirect everyone's attention from him and his misdeeds.
  • Last-Second Word Swap: Ariel is requested to speak in other than rhyming couplet. In response, the following:
    ''The judgments that you tend to pass,
    On poets you wish to harass,
    Would give me to swear,
    Were I unaware,
    That you are naught but an asset to the Heavenly throne,
    wherefore I leave you alone.''
  • Literary Allusion Title: From Paradise Lost, which the book draws heavily upon:
    Here we may reign secure, and in my choice
    to reign is worth ambition though in Hell:
    Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven.
  • Manipulative Bastard: Abdiel is the ultimate architect of the revolt due to his unending manipulations of everyone, including Yaweh.
  • Not in This for Your Revolution: Satan doesn't actually oppose Yaweh's Plan, and even agrees with it in principle... but he takes up leadership of Lucifer's rebellion because he hates the lies Yaweh has told to draw the angels in line.
  • Our Angels Are Different: They're mostly human in composition and mentality, though they have control over magic through a substance called illiaster (which is basically ordered primordial chaos), and some have taken on unusual forms. When they die, they don't leave a body behind, but instead disappear. Each successive generation spawned from the Waves is weaker than the previous. Humanity is revealed to be the weakest, "final" generation of angels who were born out of the Cacoastrum when Earth was built.
  • Pride: The deepest flaw of many involved, on all sides of the equation - fitting, given Pride is supposed to be the Sin that begat all others and lead to the Fall. Even Yaweh is far from immune to it.
  • Primordial Chaos: Yaweh and the Angels are fighting to save Heaven from incursions of the formless, chaotic, destructive Cacoastrum from which they all originally sprang.
  • Poor Communication Kills
  • Really Gets Around: Lilith was the first angel to invent the "differentiation of genders, and then taught the angels why." Most remained male simply because she was female. And she's broken a lot of hearts.
  • Satan Is Good: He's no villain, and struggles with ethical matters long after others have become secure in their choices.
  • Shades of Conflict: The conflict starts out as a clear White vs. White and at best strays into White vs. Grey toward the end. There is only one character who is evil and he is responsible for escalating the conflict.
  • Speech-Centric Work: As a way of parodying Roger Zelazny's tendency to feature large stretches of dialogue without speech tags or any other additional text.
  • Stealth Pun: Spear Carriers
  • Those Two Guys: Kyriel and Sith, a pair of lesser angels who show up throughout the plot to have Rosencrantz and Guildenstern-style conversations about the events.
  • Villainous Breakdown: Abdiel is too frightened when Mephistopheles finally corners him to put up any resistance or even speak.
  • Wounded Gazelle Gambit