In life, Hanna Singer, protagonist of this unique fantasy, was a rare individual: a medieval atheist. After she dies, she finds out just how wrong she was. As it turns out, the Christian villagers who had tried so hard to convert her didn’t have it quite right either.
In the afterlife, Hannah becomes a Celestial Advocate, someone who argues the cases of souls petitioning for admittance to Heaven. The concept alone is falling-off-the-chair funny, and the book lives up to that promise, with slapstick, puns, and wry cultural references scattered throughout. The Archangel St. Michael is a delightful trickster, with a fondness for whoopee cushions and neckties that light up and play music. The angels and advocates—even many of the recently deceased—don’t shy away from a good death joke. But Hanna Singer, Celestial Advocate offers more than comedy. In this series of linked stories, Peter G has an admirable go at some thorny theological and ethical conundrums.
This otherwise delightful collection could have used some professional editing. Sloppy mistakes—run-on sentences, misplaced clauses, incorrect word choices (‘grizzly’ for ‘grisly,’ and ‘prone on his back’), a chronic problem with ‘lie’ and ‘lay,’ frequent clichés—detract from the story. The author plays fast and loose with medieval history (English peasants reading the Bible in their hovels a century before Gutenberg) as well as with logic. The arguments at trial often sound more like late-night dorm-room debates between young adults who’ve been scarred by religion than well-reasoned legal or philosophical arguments. More often than not, the courtroom drama devolves into nose-to-nose shouting matches between the advocates, occasionally spiced with race-baiting and name-calling.
These flaws are more than made up for, however, by well-developed characters, witty dialog, and the tender relationship between Hannah and her boss and mentor, St. Michael. Peter G had a very clever idea for a story and took the trouble to develop it into a full-out narrative that reminded me at times of Neil Gaiman, at others of Mark Twain.
Though Hannah Singer is disabused of her atheism, she never gives up her common sense, passion for justice, and love for humanity. When she sees what the big picture is really like, the reasoning and instinct that supported her atheism are only reinforced. Hannah’s suggested punishment for Torquemada is brilliant, and her genuine concern for those she defends is touching. The scene in which Hannah first meets the big guys (God and Jesus) is absolutely lovely (and God, as it happens, makes a great cup of jasmine tea). The story in which Hannah defends a mermaid’s petition to be granted a soul is the sweetest of the lot, and one that will likely have a deeper resonance for self-published authors. The last story poses more cultural and ethical questions than the previous six together. In this one, Hannah not only confronts a complicated and potentially heartbreaking situation, she confronts her own self-doubts.
Hannah Singer, Celestial Advocate is a funny, moving, and thought-provoking read. I’ll be watching for more book-length works from Peter G.