Small Miracles by Olivia Atwater
“A little bit of sin is good for the soul.”
PL Stuart’s Review
I have provided an honest review of this book – “Small Miracles” by author Olivia Atwater – below for purposes of the Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off (SPFBO) Number 8 competition, in which this book is one of ten finalists. Before We Go Blog (where I am one of the judges) is assigned the book, along with the other 9 judging blogs, to help determine which one of 10 books will emerge as the SPFBO 8 Champion.
In 1990, two iconic fantasy authors, Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, collaborated to write the famed novel “Good Omens” (full title: “Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch”.
This is NOT a review of that book. Yet unavoidably, there will be comparisons between “SmallMiracles” by Atwater, and that seminal work by Gaiman and Pratchett.
And that’s a good thing.
Atwater pokes great fun at the celestial realm of angels and demons in her marvellous work, and with such features in “Small Miracles”, one will definitely be reminded of “Good Omens”. Additionally, Atwater has also noted, in the acknowledgement section at the back of the book, that she has drawn inspiration from “Good Omens” in her work.
Although there is no impending, world-ending disaster lurking in “Small Miracles” – this is considerably lighter fare. But its lightness doesn’t mean it’s not a worthwhile, intriguing book.
The plot of the novel appears simple and fun, at first glance. Described as eminently unremarkable and plain-looking, Gadriel, the chocolate-loving, gambling-addicted main character, is the Fallen Angel of Petty Temptations. But he/she has “fallen” more over policy violations than any real horrific sin.
His/Her purview is minor transgressions. He’s/she’s not really evil despite the fallen angel status, but rather mischievous, and his/her agenda is not really sinister. What Gadriel does is prod humans to succumb to minor temptations, and thus achieve overall increased happiness and satisfaction with their lot in life.
While companionably meeting up over a coffee, Gadriel becomes indebted to his/her non-fallen angelic bookie and sibling, Barachiel, after losing a friendly wager. Barachiel is the Angel of Good Fortune.
But Gadriel has an out. In what appears to be a simple task for the formidable powers of an angel, if Gadriel can successfully tempt a mortal without sin, named Holly Harker, to stray, his/her debt will be erased.
Says Barachiel of Holly,
“She has one of the lowest cumulative sin metrics I’ve ever seen. Truly she must be even more miserable than a Greek Cynic…. I want you to tempt her… just enough to make sure she’s enjoying her life?”
Gadriel is confident, even a bit cocky, about his/her chances of success in terms of seducing Holly to give into temptation.
Yet, true to her advanced sin metrics, Holly proves remarkably incorruptible, despite Gadriel’s initial efforts to inveigle Holly to live a little, and treat herself to some of the better things life has to offer. So Gadriel is forced to up his/her game, and use small miracles to achieve his/her ends.
I fell head over heels for Gadriel, Holly, and the characters in this book. Since for me, every great book begins with great characters and great characterization by the author, I was, pardon the shameless pun, in Heaven here.
The endearing, smart, yet somewhat naive and slightly fumbling and flawed Gadriel was a wonderful main character. Once she finds out she’s out of her depth in provoking Holly to acquiesce to sin, she resorts to something different, but Holly’s intractability also leads to Gadriel and Holly forming a great relationship, as they get to know one another better.
This allows us some of the novel’s best, most light-hearted amusing, and yet tender and poignant moments, as these two characters interact.
Holly is absolutely lovely, yet complicated, and her childhood traumas have influenced her adult life, and hold the sad key to why she is so staunch in her virtue.
Holly’s gruff niece Ella was also a fabulous character, and her teenaged life at school provided more exceptional opportunities for character development for all three: Gadriel, Holly, and Ella. Both Holly and Ella are dealing with emotional and psychological pain, and the bond between the three becomes one of catharsis and healing, in unintended ways for all of them.
And while this is indeed a less heavy book than “Good Omens” (featuring such portentous figures as the Anitchrist and the four “bikers” of the Apocalypse) the ominous character Wormwood – an inexperienced devil whose mandate is to tempt humans to hell – from C.S. Lewis’s “Screwtape Letters”, appears in “SmallMiracles”, to provide an antagonist, if there is one, for the book.
Whimsy and satire is employed in highly effective fashion by Atwater to convey some fairly stark and challenging themes in the book. Love, loss, grief, death, forgiveness, redemption, family. Atwater shows a very deft hand in handling these issues.
And, I absolutely adore the theme of gods or demi-gods or beings such as angels, interfering with the lives of mortals, and producing unplanned-for results. The overriding sense here is one of hope and optimism, and despite Gadriel meddling to try and tempt Holly to sin, you know everything is going to work out for the best, in the end.
The worldbuilding is definitely Pratchett-esque. Set for the most part in modern-day London, England, with the backdrop of the heavens looming, one of the most interesting features of the novel’s world, and a clever plot device, is how sin is accounted for and tallied up. With each good deed, a mortal gets a little in the black on the ledgers, while each infraction earns a little in the red.
There are numerous witty footnotes spread throughout the book, again like Pratchett, that amusingly prompt the reader to keep their own personal tally of the sin lost or virtue gained on the balance books. I loved this feature of the worldbuilding, and laughed out loud at some of the footnotes.
Kudos to how Atwater approaches gender fluidity in the novel! As per many interpretations of Angels from a Christian perspective, which denotes them as not being assigned a gender in the way humans can comprehend. Atwater notes in her work, casually,
“Angels… chose a gender for the day, in rather the same way that you or I might choose a shirt or trousers…
Really liked how this was done!
Atwater is a seasoned, accomplished writer of many books, and it shows in her prose. Polished, graceful, and ultimately, highly readable, there are ZERO stumbling blocks to devouring this book. Save stopping to read the footnotes, which for me, I didn’t find distracting, but rather, enriching, though I can see how some might not feel the same.
Atwater takes slice of life, regular folk’s existence that has more depth than at first realized, combined with playfully misbehaving angels doing petty pranks that turn out to have bigger consequences, compelling themes handled light and very adroitly, brilliant characters, wonderful prose, satire, and that cozy feel that is so popular right now, to spin an absolute delight of a novel.
Were Pratchett alive, I dare to hope he’d agree with my rating, if he read the book, which according to Atwater, is somewhat of a homage to his “Good Omens”.
Paul’s SPFBO Score: 9.0 out of possible 10.
Dan Fitzgerald’s Review
This unusual take on angels-and-devils fantasy mostly takes place in the real world, and it begins with a bet of sorts: one fallen angel challenges another to tempt a woman enough that her cumulative sin metric moves by twenty points. It took me a minute to get into this book, in part because the concept didn’t particularly appeal to me, and in part because of the way it uses footnotes. They are peppered throughout every chapter, and while it’s easy enough to flip back and forth between the book and the notes, I found that the meta nature of the footnotes took away from my reading experience more than they added to it, and I soon ignored most of them. It was at that point that I became invested in the story of Holly Harker, the subject of the wager, and her troubled orphaned niece Ella.
I loved the gender play with the angels, who can become male, female, feline, or presumably anything else, and this played into the romance arc in a delightful way. I’m always here for genderbent romance, and this was a fun treat. Don’t get me wrong—this is not a capital R Romance. It’s a meditation of love, grief, sin, and mortality, but the romance was the thing that stuck with me. It’s a cozy, heartwarming story, idiosyncratic as hell, and quite unique.
Dan’s Small Miracles (7.5/10)
Whitney Reinhart’s Review
Small Miracles by Olivia Atwater was touted as “If you like Pratchett, you’ll enjoy Atwater!” As I’ve read exactly one Pratchett book, years ago, I can’t speak to that comparison, although the cover certainly evokes the design of Good Omens by Pratchett and Gaiman. So, that’s nice. I’m sure other reviewers will speak more eloquently about the similarities and differences between Pratchett and Atwater. I’m not that person.
Let me start by saying I was amused and entertained throughout Small Miracles. The idea of a Fallen Angel of Petty Temptation who fell from grace because of their own gambling problem is quite charming. Gadriel, said fallen angel, is in deep with their bookie, Barachiel, the Angel of Good Fortune.
Barachiel has come to believe that a little bit of sin, in moderation, is actually good for the soul and has a particular human in mind who could use some small sins in her life. Gadriel is challenged to convince Holly Harker to give in to temptation occasionally. Fortunately, “A bit of petty temptation was perfectly within her wheelhouse.” Challenge accepted…not that Gadriel has much of a choice. After all, Gadriel owes a debt and Barachiel just called it in. Holly turns out to be a tougher nut to crack than Gadriel expected and thus the point of the story.
Holly Harker is an overworked, overstressed salesclerk and coffee shop attendant who has custody of her teenage niece after her older sister’s death. Her delightfully mischievous niece Ella who rarely says no to temptations in whatever form. Holly strives to be perfect in order to do the very best job possible raising the headstrong Ella. Ella works just as hard to be Holly’s opposite. Gadriel’s only option is to bridge the gap between them and help them find common ground.
“The thing is, the dead don’t need anything from you—not love, not forgiveness. Those are things you offer because you need them. The main person who needs anything from you is Ella, and all she really needs is for you to show up every day—”
Small Miracles provides some interesting insight into gender fluidity and personal relationships. I enjoyed Atwater’s deft handling of these topics and appreciated the way she presented them as integral to the story without drawing virtue-signaling attention to them. She neither shies away from nor smacks her readers over the head…the characters are simply who they are. No unnecessary apologies or gratuitous shock.
That said, I was distracted by the running sin tally/scorekeeping at the beginning of each chapter and the footnotes at chapter’s end. There are a LOT of footnotes. I read the ebook version of Small Miracles and flipping back and forth on an ereader is even more of a hassle than it is in a hard copy. While I read each and every note, these breaks pulled me out of the story and that was a bummer. I would have preferred the information be somehow worked into the narrative along the way if at all possible. As far as the sin tallies go, well, I don’t know why I am the way I am, but I kept trying to do the maths. Wholly unnecessary but I couldn’t help myself. I wound up squinting my eyes and zipping past these notes, trying to ignore the niggling little voice in my head telling me I was missing out on important information.
Nevertheless, I am glad I read Small Miracles and did truly enjoy the story. The stakes aren’t earth shattering but are very real to the parties involved. The power structures are new and interesting. The ending is very, very well done.
My score for this book is 8/10.
Tyra Leann’s Review
Small Miracles is a delightful short read, perfect for fans of Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens. The premise is a small bet between a fallen angel and an angel. Gadriel is the fallen angel of Petty Temptations and she sets out to encourage Holly Harker to enjoy her life a bit more. If this had been the only plot point it would’ve been a cute story but there are other plot points involving Holly’s niece and an evil math teacher at her school.
There were components of the plot that I felt weren’t fleshed out enough, particularly regarding the math teacher interactions. Overall, that is the main reason my enjoyment wasn’t higher, I just wanted this book to be longer. The other component I felt that took me out of the story at times were the points tallies at the beginning of each chapter. Things like lying or eating chocolate are negative points but helping elderly people cross the street or holding open a door give you positive points. It just took me out of the story a bit as the math is presented in the footnotes that are especially challenging to read on a kindle and I ended up just ignoring them at times.
I really enjoyed how gender was portrayed, the angels can choose to present in whichever gender they look on a given day. However, it’s considered unfashionable to show up at the same gender as someone else and this is a sticking point whenever two of them appear on page together. I thought this was a playful way to show how fluid gender is.
Overall, this was a fun fast read that I wish had a bit more depth to it but I still recommend it to anyone looking for something enjoyable to pick up.
Tyra’s Review – 7/10