Has Anne Rice gone soft?

Perhaps that would explain her new obsession with angels and all things holy.

No matter. Her writing still contains enough tension to keep readers guessing in her latest Songs of the Seraphim book, "Of Love and Evil," and the author's insistence on choosing the exalted over the evil is actually a breath of fresh air.

Besides, when has Rice ever done the expected?

Present, as always, is the author's ability to craft dreamlike prose to lull readers into believing every heavenly scenario she puts forth without a whiff of disbelief. This installment in her latest series follows the journey of New Orleans-born Toby O'Dare, a man who escaped murder at the hands of his own mother to be reborn as a skilled assassin, Lucky the Fox. Now, with an angel, Malchiah, at his side, he's turned over a whole new leaf, er, wing.

If any of this sounds difficult to swallow, it's not.

By page two, readers are willing to follow Rice anywhere, like plodding sleepwalkers staggering along behind her.

After reuniting with his onetime love, Liona -- and meeting the son he never knew he had -- Toby is even more determined to follow the path of righteousness, begging his guiding angel for a new start: "Oh, give me world enough and time to make up for the things I did," he begs Malchiah, in the hopes he can one day live with his ready-made new family.

As it happens, a job has just come up for Toby, so a bit of time travel is in order, and it's off to 16th-century Rome on the wings of an angel.

If this kinder, gentler Rice has you rattled, fear not, for the scenes in the seething cesspool of sin that typify Pope Leo X's Rome prove the author hasn't lost her verve for the seamier side of life.

Toby has been beamed back in time to answer "Jewish prayers" this time out, as he assists a young Hebraic doctor named Vitale de Leone out of a muddle with his beloved host family. Without offering any spoilers, it is this meaty part of the novel where Rice demonstrates her mastery creating richly lived-in scenes that are transporting enough so readers may hear the lulling lilt of lute music in the background. (As it happens, Rice offers music listening recommendations in her author's note at book's end that could transform the reading into a multimedia experience for those wise enough to take her advice.)

Rice loves wordplay and symbolism, and in "Of Love and Evil," she enjoys playing around with the "leonine," especially where naming and "lionizing" her characters come into play.

And with a rushing of wings, a bombshell ending hints that we haven't heard the last of Toby O'Dare -- or Rice.

Andrea Hoag is a writer and critic in Lawrence, Kan.