On an Earth colony planet called Penance – it was founded, Australia-like, as a penal colony – a plague has swept through just as a mutation appeared in the population and left innocent people with the spotted flesh of a leopard. These leopards are hunted down by vigilante Plaguellants and must spend the daylight hours in hiding. Amandine Sand is a “leopard”, but also a spectacular performer on the trapeze and a member of the Cristallo circus.
She is also in the midst of a breakup with her lover Malaga, and finds herself powerfully attracted to Nikos Annapoulis, a so-called Titan businessman who is a potential buyer of the cash-strapped Cristallo.
“Angel on the Ropes” is a science-fiction story set in the year 2375, a romance, a tale of violence propelled by prejudice, a look at civil rights and moral choices and a trip behind the scenes at the circus. It is the first novel by Jill Shultz of Binghamton, whose background includes work as a science writer, zookeeper, land steward, naturalist and program director of the Maine Writers & Publishers Alliance. She does not have experience as a trapeze artist (and even admits to a fear of heights), but in this instance she enjoyed the collaboration of trapezist Serenity Smith Fourchion, a Cirque de Soleil alumna and an instructor at the New England Center for Circus Arts. Her descriptions of Amandine’s flights on the trapeze are among the most commanding passages of “Angel on the Ropes”.
She drove out with every drop of power in her body and soared upward. She released the bar, then tucked as tight as she could, trying to squeeze out more speed so she’d finish her rotations and meet Jango [her trapeze partner] at the correct rendezvous point. He might slip out of his lock and slide down to match her actual trajectory, but she’d be coming at him fast enough to strip the skin off his hands, hard enough to dislocate his shoulders. And he had to hold on.
Tight as a pill bug, she somersaulted once, twice, still rising through the rigging. She completed her third spin at the peak of her flight, well above the frame. And then she began to fall. As she turned her fourth somersault, she caught a blurry glimpse of Jango lying on his back in the air, reaching up to her. She blasted toward him.
Yes! That was five!
Jill allows her characters to communicate in sign language (through parenthetical words) and also renders their thoughts in italics as well as speak conventional dialogue…
“Look at me, Amandine.”
She opened her eyes. His open expression made her heart stop and then run slow as sap struggling through a winter-numbed tree. A voice in her head whispered, For me?
For me, it crooned in amazement.
His eyes softened to a smoky blue. (You are so beautiful).
A tear rolled down her cheek. Tiva.
…and through expressions in the Penancian dialect, such as kushti, kecking and the epithet “Moulti tiva”, which appears dozens of times as the novel progresses and gives it a wordful takeaway.
The leopards encounter an organized effort by the plaguellants to kill as many mutated persons as possible, despite the assertion of their innocence and the discovery by doctors of why the mutation occurred. Meanwhile, Amandine finds out that health care in Penance is not being fairly distributed. In what will strike many readers as an ironic satire on several of today’s major issues, health care is being rationed through a lottery and delivered at health casinos.