When I first heard about Oracle of Philadelphia, I couldn’t help but get excited. It’s not often I get to read a novel set in my beloved Philadelphia, much less a fantasy novel. Only after I started reading did I realize that most of the scenes in the book are actually set in other countries, or even in Hell, rather than in Philly itself. Although this was a bit of a letdown, I found I couldn’t be too disappointed, as there’s plenty of great stuff going on in this book to distract from the fact that there’s not enough Philadelphia.
Oracle of Philadelphia is the story of Carrie, an 8,000-year-old-but-looks-much-younger woman gifted with immortality and the ability to read minds. Although Carrie tries to live a quiet life and fly under the radar, she often finds herself playing host to angels, demons, and humans seeking aid or information. Most of the human supplicants come pleading for a way to escape the bonds of demonic contracts. Though she aches to help them, Carrie always turns these supplicants away, knowing that it is beyond her power to convince a demon to release a victim from his or her agreement.
This all changes, however, when Carrie meets Sebastian, a young man who has forfeited his soul to save his dying sister. Sebastian’s noble sacrifice and purity of heart cause his fate to weigh heavily on Carrie’s mind, filling her with a determination to save him no matter the cost.
The action in the book is twofold. Half of the events take place in the present and are related to Carrie’s quest to bargain with the archdemons of Hell and win back Sebastian’s soul. The other events in the book play out in flashbacks from the past, showing key moments in Carrie’s life throughout the millennia.
The sections of the book that deal with Carrie’s attempts to save Sebastian are interesting and well-paced, and I enjoyed watching how the decisions Carrie makes affect both her and the people she cares about. Likewise, the scenes in the past go a long way toward helping the reader get to know Carrie and understand the world of the angels and demons with whom she interacts. My only complaints about the plot are minor: the sections in the past feel a little too modern, and there are certain liberties taken with religion and the Bible that made me uncomfortable.
I’m all for new spins on old tales, but when the old tales are Bible stories, I get a little uneasy. There are times when Corrigan reworks the facts of the Bible to accommodate her own storyline, and I wasn’t very keen on tinkering with the details of Christ’s birth, Moses and the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt, etc. Likewise, I was a little bothered by some of the anachronisms in the scenes of Oracle of Philadelphia that tell of Carrie’s past.
For example, Carrie was born around 6,000 B.C., meaning she basically should have been a cavewoman grunting and wielding a club. Instead, she was attending fairs, humming music, and thinking about cribs, cradles, and other furnishings. Likewise, the dialogue in the book always sounds modern, whether that dialogue is taking place in ancient Greece or present-day Philly. Corrigan has a note at the end of the book acknowledging that her priority is entertainment, not historical accuracy, but it still made me wince to read phrases like, “Yeah, because that’s going to happen,” said by characters living in prehistoric Egypt.
As already mentioned, though, such things are minor and didn’t really interfere with my enjoyment of the story. Corrigan is a genuinely good writer, with no awkward diction or bothersome grammar issues to take me out of the book. It was so refreshing to read a book written with such a bright, clean style. I also really appreciated Corrigan’s great humor and appealing turns of phrase. One of my favorite lines from early on in the book is, “Madame Zarita devoured the obituary section of the Philadelphia Inquirer with the voraciousness that most people reserved for Thanksgiving dinners.” I literally laughed at loud when I read that, and I found myself grinning at several clever descriptions throughout the novel.
As much as I like Corrigan’s writing style, I love her cast of standout characters even more. Chief among them are Bedlam, a monsoon-loving, Terry-Pratchett-reading chaos demon, and Gabriel, an archangel so sweet and wonderful he’s like a warm, bright ball of (very handsome) sunshine. There’s something almost childlike about each of them, Gabriel in his innocence, unguarded and sincere, and Bedlam with his insatiable curiosity, short attention span, and fascination with oddities.
The two really jump off the page, and I can’t help but wish they existed in real life. It’s safe to say that I have a googly-eyed schoolgirl crush on Gabriel, and I couldn’t help grinning in delight every time Bedlam came on the scene, whether he was in the kitchen concocting strange dishes (such as garlic bread with gummy bears or pancakes topped with coleslaw) or enchanting Carrie’s jukebox to play nothing but obscure, angry break-up songs for days on end. The two are a lot of fun and play a big role in Oracle of Philadelphia‘s attainment of three stars.
Oracle of Philadelphia is Corrigan’s debut novel and appears to be the first in a trilogy of books with Carrie at the center. I can’t wait to see how the characters and plot progress in the subsequent books and hope to see more of Bedlam and Gabriel ASAP!
A free copy of this book was provided by Red Adept Publishing in exchange for an honest review.