Emily and Matt were created to balance each other, as soul mates.
"His gaze was that brilliant horizon that kept her steady so she wouldn't lose herself in the wide majesty of the stars, or the treacherous depths of the ocean. Their souls were one, keeping each other on the right course, oblivious to the rest of the world."
They have been trained from birth by their Archangel teacher's, Michael, Gabriel and Mark, in order to serve unique, yet complimentary purposes. Emily has been trained to answer the requests from humans in need, while Matt has been trained as a warrior in order to eradicate sinners while simultaneously protecting the innocent. Together, they're sent to Earth in human shells - Liz and Daniel - in order to gain information about the human experience in order to help Heaven understand why people lose their faith. They are given no information pertaining to whom they are meant to help or what they are meant to do, and are told their training will guide them towards the right course of action. Their world is shattered, however, when they learn that while on Earth they will not retain any of their memories from their training in Heaven.
I don't usually provide a summary of the plot in my reviews, but in this case I felt it necessary, as it took me almost the entire book to piece the above summary together. Small clues and details were leaked throughout the book, which helped to eventually put together the entire picture. While I can appreciate the element of suspense this helped to create, it did make for a very frustrating read. I kept wondering what purpose Emily and Matt were serving while living human lives as Liz and Daniel, and how battling with the lingering emotions of their human shells was supposed to help enlighten Heaven about humanity. My frustration built as it seemed that Matt and Emily finally figured out their purpose, and alluded to knowing what course of action they had to take (regardless of the consequences for their own souls) but neglected to inform me about their sudden clarity in their mission! My frustration over these unanswered questions kept distracting me from becoming absorbed in the story, and I personally found it took away from my reading experience.
Once you get past the prologue, we enter in to Lignor's absolutely stunning portrayal of Heaven. Doors of silver, gold or pure mahogany appear on a whim, whisking you away through white mist into rooms who's walls change to reflect your emotions. Open one door and you're in the Lightning Room - a dark room full of wands that produce bright colours - open another and enter Saint Francis' lush fields full of exotic animals, picturesque landscapes and peaceful ponds. Angels flit around, on their way to fulfilling their own duties, and everyone is happy - even when faced with the burden of reprimanding two teens using their powers for mischievous ends. Heaven is also where we get to see Gabriel, Mark and Michael in their roles as teacher's and concerned parents. I loved seeing these Archangels as slightly feared, endearing and patient teachers, who also have a lighter side (Emily catches them playing cards for candy bars at one point).
Once in their human shells, Emily/Liz and Matt/Daniel continue to feel their human shells' strong emotional ties to each other, as they were fairly close before their deaths, while also unconsciously feeling their bond as soul mates. Daniel's feelings for Liz are romantically passionate, while Liz is fiercely protective of him as only a friend. It's these feelings that Emily/Liz is trying to sort out, when Jason walks in to her life. She is immediately attracted to him, and finds herself struggling to deal with her newly awakened feelings. Periodically returning to Heaven, Emily seeks guidance about how to overcome her new-found human emotions, and is told repeatedly that her training will help her to make the right decision, and that while she will always be Matt's soulmate, that does not necessarily mean they need (or should) be together romantically.
The confusion Emily/Liz faces over her feelings for both Jason and Matt/Daniel was written in such a way that I didn't realize her hesitation with Jason was because of her fear of making the wrong decision, of not fulfilling her purpose - I actually found myself wondering why Emily-as-Liz was unable to return Jason's affections. I had a nagging feeling in the back of my head for almost the entire book, and towards the end I realized it was because I couldn't understand where the dilemma for Emily/Liz laid. I didn't feel any sexual tension between Emily and Matt - their relationship felt much more like a brother-sister relationship to me. Granted, I didn't really feel much sexual tension between Emily/Liz and Jason either, but it was definitely written like a romantic relationship. I never felt like Emily/Liz was forced in to making a choice, as she never had romantic feelings for Matt/Daniel - her only choice was whether or not to be with Jason. So while Emily/Liz does struggle with whether she's making the right choices while in her human form, she never admits that the thing she is struggling with is choosing to love someone who isn't her soul mate. Especially after her reaction at the end, I thought she was confused and upset over the amount of doubt her human emotions caused in her faith. That being said, I do feel like Lignor accurately captured the emotions that come with the struggle and uncertainty that comes with making the "right" choices, and I love how she was able to humanize angels, showing that maybe even they can feel lost and alone.
I wasn't overly attached to any of the characters, which might explain why I couldn't understand Emily/Liz's anguish over her conflicting emotions. I couldn't relate to Emily because she was struggling with her faith and what it would mean if she were to lose it completely. As someone who has never had a strong connection to faith, while I can understand that it would be frightening to begin questioning your beliefs, it is not something I have dealt with personally. I quite liked Liz in the beginning, as she was fearlessly opinionated and quick witted.
"I've never understood men. You boys long for freedom and then spend the rest of your lives looking for someone to take care of you and give you the things you didn't want in the first place. I hope to never have a son. I would have to hit him over the head, and beg the good Lord to take him back and insert a brain."
But as the book progressed, she became more and more withdrawn, pulling away from those who loved her. I think she started to connect more with Emily, pulling memories from the angel living inside her (which terrified her), but it wasn't articulated clearly. I also didn't understand her blackouts, and why they left her bruised and bleeding. I liked the boys well-enough, but found their ominous foreshadowing of their horrid past to be a bit exaggerated, and it got to be repetitively annoying - so much so that I was tempted to jump forward and find out what their big secret was. Charles was arrogantly funny, but his softer side was kind and intelligent.
"Hiding the person you really are is breaking him, because the person you are is all that he wanted in the first place."
Jason came across as quite desperate, and there were a couple points where I feared he might demand that Liz return his affections before he was forced to do something drastic. I didn't dislike Charles or Jason, I just didn't really care about either of them. The other issues I had with the characters was their dialect and maturity. None of them spoke like 19th century Irishfolk - they all spoke quite modernly - which made it easy to read, but jarring when I was reminded of the setting. I also found myself thinking of these characters as mid-to-late twenty-somethings, as the way they spoke suggested wisdom beyond that found in your average teenager.
My next issue, and this will be completely subjective for each reader, was the amount of religious undertones that saturated this entire novel. My objective side can appreciate the religious teachings that were presented, and I'm not opposed to reading slightly more religious-based material, but it's not really my cup of tea. On one hand, I did like the message that humanity is a learning experience where mistakes will unavoidably be made, and that redemption is never impossible. Meanwhile, on my other, slightly more cynical hand, I was rolling my eyes.
The last issue I have with Until Next Time was that it ended where I feel the story should have started. The prologue shows us a dark and tortured Emily who is running on empty. Her faith has been shattered to its breaking point, and Matt and the archangels are trying desperately to remind her why her lives on Earth are important and how its absolutely imperative that she continue with her journey. The story of Liz and Daniel is the story of her first life spent on Earth. It does nothing to show us why she is now broken, or why her faith is at an all-time low. It does introduce us to Jason, and (apparently) shows us that Emily will choose true love over her soul mate when given the choice (which might be important later on in the series). However, the epilogue shows Emily about to relive her second life on Earth...about to relive her very own judgment day - and that sounds like a story I want to read!
Beautifully written with a message of eternal hope, Until Next Time is a thought-provoking read for those who don't mind a significant amount of religious references/undertones. The characters are easy to read, if not completely relatable, and the mythology is refreshing and original. The summary's claim that Emily is facing a choice between her true love and her soul mate fell flat for me, and the story seemed to end when I felt it should have been beginning. But overall, I did enjoy it and I will most likely be continuing with the series to see what happens next!