Make me a shadow on the wall…
I have been curious for a while about Kate Griffin’s Urban Magic series (or Matthew Swift series, as it’s called on Amazon). I’d heard very good things about it, and I also remember a time – years back – when my mum pointed out an article in the paper, saying, ‘Look, Jess, she’s only 14 and she’s getting a novel published!’ ‘She’ was of course Catherine Webb (aka Kate Griffin), and that novel was Mirror Dreams. I still haven’t read that one, but was eager from then on to see what the published writings of someone so near my own age were like.
And ohgosh, Kate Griffin’s A Madness of Angels is better than I ever expected.
The plot starts off with the somewhat clichéd scenario of the protagonist – Matthew Swift, sorcerer – waking up, confused and disorientated. The disorientation arises from the fact that although he seems to be in his own home, it also seems not to be his own home any longer. And the confusion stems from the equally disconcerting fact that he used to be, well, dead – that, and the fact that he no longer seems to be the sole inhabitant of his body and mind… Electric blue angels also gaze out through his eyes.
Griffin pulls us relentlessly through her plot, and through a fantastic, supernatural Londonscape full of warlocks, magicians, necromancers, trash-monsters (aka ‘litterbugs’), graffiti-spells, and lots of dynamic, exciting – and often quite gritty – action. (We quickly forgive the slight cliché of the start.) Matthew Swift, having technically been dead for two years, must find out why he’s been brought back, and by whom. And, of course, revenge the one responsible for his death – and, as it turns out, many others – in the first place. But what will be the cost of his crusade?
This is a great book. Griffin’s London is full of wonderful, chilling surprises, and I enjoyed the urban metaphors that constituted the logic of her magic system. (Jacob of Drying Ink has reviewed the series’ magic system over at Grasping for the Wind.) What’s more, Griffin reveals the magic’s features in a skilful and sophisticated manner, teasing it out gradually in the action sequences, avoiding the pitfall of info-dumps. But what I was probably most impressed with was the sheer quality of the writing that underpinned the novel. Griffin’s prose is consistently fantastic, with some wonderful and original turns of phrase. Her descriptions don’t fall into the trap of focussing on the visual, instead engaging all of the senses and really immersing us in the rush and buzz of her London world. If I was going to be really picky, I might pull her up on some over-verbose sections, but on the whole it was a complete joy to be carried along by her words.
My only real criticism is that I’d have liked some more emotional character development, especially from Matthew. This isn’t to say that the characterisation is bad (it most definitely isn’t) but more that the scenario in which Griffin places her protagonist – lost in the world, with very few friends – means that there aren’t many characters with whom he interacts with on a truly personal and emotive level; she doesn’t give herself much chance to really show Matthew’s inner feelings. There’s a wonderful section when he goes to visit Elizabeth Bakker – and we get tantalising hints at their previous relationship before his death – but I would have liked more moments like these. I wanted to get to know Matthew better through his reactions to others.
Griffin set herself a challenge with Matthew from the start, of course, with the whole possession thing. But she deals with this exceedingly well, letting the vulnerable curiosity of the essentially ‘new-born’ angels seep out of Matthew’s otherwise savvy and quick-witted personality. This does mean that the protagonist’s character is rather elusive, but Griffin uses this to her advantage, drawing us onwards as she gradually reveals more about him and the angels both. As I said above, I think the difficulty is more due to the lack of deep interaction with other characters, than the actual writing of Matthew him(them)self. At any rate, I expect my small complaint will become defunct as I read on through the series – which I thoroughly intend to.
Conclusion: A thrilling, exuberant novel packed full of surprising ideas and sustained by brilliant writing. Doesn’t quite reach the heights of psychedelic awesomeness that characterise China Miéville’s Kraken, but it comes admirably close – and if you enjoyed Miéville’s novel, you should check out Griffin’s. I’d also direct fans of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere to it.