Review: Radiant (Towers Trilogy #1), by Karina Sumner-Smith

RadiantIn the crumbling ruins of a destroyed or decayed high-tech city, plagued after dusk by the once-human night walkers, Xhea lives among the dregs of society in the Lower City, the dwelling of those without enough magic in their bones to claim a place among the prosperous floating Towers above. But even here, she is the lowest of the low, for Xhea seems to be a singular anomaly in that she has no magic at all. She sees the world in shades of grey, and without a magical signature of her own everything from locks to lifts fail to operate for her, unrecognising of her humanity, for bright magic is life. Fortunately, her strange lack does seem to have left her with one gift, the careful employment of which lets her scrounge out a living, and sometimes even a taste of that elusive magic which restores the colour to her vision: She can see and talk to ghosts.

When Xhea strikes a bargain with a client to take the ghost of his daughter from him for a two-day reprieve, transplanting the ghost’s tether from him to herself, she brings an unexpected new friend into her life. Shai, the ghost, is Xhea’s opposite in almost every way, sprung from a wealthy life amidst the Towers, overflowing with bright magic — which is a problem, as ghosts, like Xhea, have no magic. Xhea has seen such a thing only once before, under horrific circumstances. Are the people of the Towers trying to bring back the dead? Or are they trying to do something even worse with these bright ghosts?

I signed up for a buddy read of Radiant months ago, and by the time I got to it, I’d pretty much forgotten what it was meant to be about. I didn’t even reread the blurb before starting, so I went in blind. Given I was a total blank slate, the setting cohered for me so fast, especially given the factors (magical floating towers) that sound like they should be hokey, but in practice really aren’t. Sumner-Smith quickly impresses with her ability to build the world in rich strokes without the crutch of heavy exposition. This feels very different from your average post-apocalyptic YA, not only in being more of a fantasy blend but in, surprisingly given those magical elements, feeling more real. I can believe in this place as a society more readily than many of the dystopias that stick to hard sci-fi.

I’m honestly surprised how this trilogy seems to have flown under the radar when so many readers are looking for YA books that are less focused on love triangles and more on friendship and family, because the female friendship here is the biggest thing to celebrate about Radiant. Xhea and Shai are such fabulous characters. They’re completely different from each other, yet they’re great expressions of two different ways in which to be brave. Xhea has a big, justifiable abandonment complex, and the walls she’s put up around herself have probably been a factor in what’s kept her alive so long in such desperate circumstances, but Shai’s influence shows her that some people are worth hurting for. Shai has been indoctrinated to live a life of agonising self-sacrifice that even death can’t free her from, and Xhea’s refusal to lie down and take it on both their behalves might be just what she needs to learn that it isn’t cowardly to refuse to be others’ tool any longer.

The story is divided into three parts that hold together excellently, never dropping the pace. I’m genuinely surprised to find that Sumner-Smith is a debut novelist whose focus until now has been short stories, because pacing is often one of my complaints when short story writers transition to novel-length fiction, but beginning, middle, and end are woven together perfectly, neither getting short shrift nor overstaying their welcome. I also find it immensely refreshing to read a story of this type in which no one acts stupid for the sake of the plot. Xhea and Shai are put into genuinely hard-pressed situations and they make sensible decisions, the decisions that I’d like to believe I’d make in such a situation rather than ones that leave me all-too-frequently yelling ‘But why wouldn’t you just try this?’ at the page. I also went to some lengths in my buddy read to praise the fact that the author went to some pains to really think through what the physical effects of the things she was putting Xhea through would be, and not to pull punches or resolve them with a convenient deus ex machina, whether it’s the fact that someone who isn’t eating properly does not have an endless supply of energy or the fact that a severe knee injury cannot be powered through with adrenaline and pluck, it needs an actual brace or it’s simply going to collapse. Having suffered a similar knee injury in the not-too-distant past, this level of realism made me almost irrationally happy. (I expect this is the feeling my horse-owning friends get when authors treat horses like actual animals and not slow, stubborn cars.)

And not a drop of romance in sight, much less a love triangle. This is just so solid all-around that I’m genuinely surprised it’s not a Hunger Games-level phenomenon, although I suppose quality has never been the determining point for those. I think this will also have a lot of crossover appeal to readers who don’t typically enjoy YA, because aside from a brief mention of her past which makes her current age explicit, I could’ve easily believed that Xhea was in her twenties.

My first five-star of the year. I can’t wait to see where the Towers trilogy goes next.

5 stars

Posted in Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Review: The Weight of the World (Amaranthine Spectrum #2), by Tom Toner

The Weight of the WorldAs Sotiris ascends to the Firmamental throne, he places himself fully under the thumb of Aaron the Long-Life, but one of his last free acts is to send Lycaste off into the guardianship of his old friend Hugo Maneker, with whom, accompanied by the Vulgar Huerepo, he might be able to unlock the key to the undoing of the Long-Life’s plans — the spirit that was once Perception, the Amaranthine’s perfect AI. Meanwhile, with the disappearance of their commander, Elatine, the Jalan assault on the Lyonothamnine throne has drawn to a stalemate, but the Prism races — the Skylings, to the Old World’s native Melius — take advantage of the openings left by the conflict to bring chaos deeper into Firmamental territory. Through these troubled lands, Pentas and Eranthis follow the ancient immortal Jatropha to the home of Callistemon’s family, with the most precious of cargoes. Their arrival could change the balance of power in the Old World, if they can avoid those out to thwart it.

The Weight of the World expands on the scale of the first book in every possible way. We have more characters to follow, with the story divided into five main threads — Lycaste, travelling with Maneker and Huerepo; Jatropha, Pentas, and Eranthis; Maril and his crew, stranded on one of the moons of Zeliolopos; Ghaldezuel, accompanying the Long-Life; and poor, fading Sotiris, lost in the desperate search for his sister. But we occasionally flick away not only to other POVs, but to other times, stretching from far back into history when the Old World was still our Earth, to shortly before the events that opened The Promise of the Child. We get introduced to more species, further reaches of the galaxy, and more metaphysical oddities (that title is more literal than you might think).

Given how the first book was quite difficult to follow at times, especially in its first quarter, and that was operating on a smaller scale, it probably sounds like this one should be utterly overwhelming. But it’s so skillfully executed that it’s really not. It unfolds at a near-perfect pace, and I was able to get immersed in it to a degree that I couldn’t quite manage with The Promise of the Child as I was too busy trying to keep a mental map of where, what, and who everything was, and how it all intertwined. In The Weight of the World it’s seamless, and it’s nice to be able to bask in its cleverness without having to scramble for the glossary.

What I really love about this setting is how lived-in it feels. I’m willing to suspend a lot of disbelief if a place feels authentic, and I really take that away from these books with the feeling that the Firmament is almost a place I’ve been to, like the different characters of each of the Old World’s Provinces rise off the page unspoken. It’s an immersion that’s definitely aided by the polished prose and rich environmental detail. A lot of science fiction is a compromise — the authors who are good at intricate tangles of plot aren’t always capable of bringing the depth of characterisation and the lush setting detail, or vice versa. Tom Toner has all three gifts.

One of the most compelling characters this time around is, without a doubt, Perception. There are tones of Banks’s wonderfully snarky, idiosyncratic AI here, but Perception also has a hauntingly childlike quality to it at times which makes a lot of sense as its background unfurls. And there’s something about that childlike element and the darkness of its background that never quite lets the reader sit at ease with it; children are, after all, capricious.
I also appreciated the deeper look into the Amaranthine mindset which explains why, beyond the simple attrition of age, their golden age is ending and they are so vulnerable to Aaron’s opportunism.

Essentially my only complaint is that Jatropha and the Melius sisters’ storyline progressed very slowly, and it felt like they were in a bit of a holding pattern to keep them in line with the rest of the threads being juggled. It’s nothing as egregious as Daenerys in the desert, though; there’s progress, it just felt a little jarring sometimes transitioning from the paciness of the rest of the book to their long journey.

I’ve seen comparisons of Toner’s work to Steven Erikson’s, and in The Weight of the World in particular I’d say they’re justified. They definitely share a knack for juggling an immense amount of plates and making long stretches of setting history feel inhabited. Much as I love Malazan, I’d also argue that there’s better characterisation here than in its first few books, at least.

Any doubts I carried over from The Promise of the Child were dissolved by this second book, and if the first one dissuaded you with its overwhelming first quarter, I’d say that The Weight of the World is well worth your persistence. This is some of the finest space opera I’ve read since Banks.

4.5 stars

Posted in Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Review: The Promise of the Child (Amaranthine Spectrum #1), by Tom Toner

The Promise of the ChildIt’s more than 12,000 years in the future, and humanity’s children among the stars are a collective of engineered species divided into the Amaranthine Firmament, ruled by the exceptionally long-lived but fading Amaranthine, and the Prism Investiture of lesser, shorter-lived races at its fringes. The Amaranthine were created by a process that rendered humans effectively immortal, but still vulnerable to accident or injury; the eldest among them are more than 10,000 years old, but at that point they begin to lose their minds, and live out their days in sanctuaries with the other insane elder members of their race. Given this tendency, it’s a little odd that their form of government is selecting the eldest among them to rule, but politics and logic rarely go hand in hand in the present, so there’s no particular reason why they should in the future. Their current Emperor is seemingly walking the path to insanity now, and another, Aaron the Long-Life, has risen to oust him with the claim to be older still. There’s just something not quite right about Aaron, from his appearance in the dreams of other Amaranthine to the nature of his shadow…

Against this backdrop, we follow three primary POVs: Lycaste, one of the giantlike Melius dwelling on the Old World (Earth), who lives an isolated existence in one of its remotest Provinces until the wider world comes knocking on his door; Sotiris, an aged and well-respected Amaranthine being courted by Aaron and his followers, and with a journey to make in memory of his sister; and Corphuso, a Vulgar inventor whose creation, the Soul Engine, could change the nature of mortality and warfare, and vastly alter the balance of power in the galaxy.

Definitely the most developed of these POVs is Lycaste’s, and it’s also the most compelling. When the book first opens, the reader is tossed into a confusing tumult of names, species, places, and events that don’t really mean anything; there’s very little in the way of context at this stage and no sign that things will slow down to let you orientate yourself. It’s when the narrative switches to Lycaste that you get a chance to breathe and look around, because he doesn’t really know all that much more than the reader. His life in the Tenth Province has been a quiet one, and when he’s forced out of it and into contact with the wider world, it’s just as disorientating an experience for him too. Sometimes Lycaste is a frustrating character to share headspace with, because he’s socially graceless and has a discouragingly proprietary attitude towards the woman he loves, but rarely for this type of character, it works well, as not only are we not pushed to view him as anything else, but it’s made quite clear in his interactions with others that he isn’t neurotypical and that they are viewing events in quite a different light from our view through his eyes. I thought the author did a good job capturing his differences in perception and how frustrating an experience that can be from both sides.

Nonetheless, the initially opaque world-building that gives the other story threads their steep learning curve does gradually unfold before the reader in a way that, by the end of the book, makes it feel as intimate and familiar as a well-fitting glove. I suspect that the level of trust in the author required to get through the first quarter of the book may lose some readers, but it’s a trust that I found to be rewarded, as the end result was to build one of the few extremely advanced societies I’ve read about that felt lived-in and authentic.

The extremely layered world-building is balanced out by the relative simplicity of plot at its heart. The majority of Lycaste’s story is a bildungsroman, albeit one in a more creative and nuanced setting than most, and it takes the lion’s share of the page count. Sotiris is the most interesting as a person, but his path in this book is fairly clear from the outset, and the most compelling aspects of his story are setup for the next book. While he is the most minor of the three primary POVs, it’s Corphuso’s story that requires the most attention to detail from the reader, because there are political shenanigans that take careful reading to appreciate. Not unlike Sotiris, however, his destination is unsurprising, but it’s the route he takes to get there that fascinates.

Toner’s descriptive prose is quite lovely, rendering the environments of these exotic worlds in lush detail without getting bogged down in minutiae. It’s more matter-of-fact than a Kay or McKillip work, so those with a dislike for poetic ramblings won’t get lost in the prose, but for a debut author it is notably accomplished.

I have only one substantial criticism, which is that I believe the level of trust required to get through the total lack of context in the beginning of the book is going to alienate a lot of readers, and I think that that could have been addressed without substantially altering the story with a bit of restructuring, perhaps opening with Lycaste and gradually expanding from there once some trust has been established. I got through that section because I finish books regardless for review, and I’m glad I did since my persistence was so richly paid off, but I’ve already had to encourage one friend who was (quite fairly) discouraged by the difficulty of following the initial events to persist. It’s not unfair for a book to require a certain level of faith that things will come to make sense when it starts in medias res, but The Promise of the Child asks for more of it than most.

But with that caution in mind, I otherwise unreservedly recommend this to the patient space opera fan. This is a rich and creative debut, with a baroque and fantastical feel to it, and I think Tom Toner could be a talent to watch out for.

4 stars

Posted in Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Review: The Complete Sherlock Holmes, by Arthur Conan Doyle

The Complete Sherlock HolmesMy first entry of the year in the ‘I can’t believe I haven’t read this yet’ column. I’m usually fairly adamant about reading source material before seeing adaptations of it, but with Sherlock Holmes, the many adaptations are so ubiquitous that it’s difficult to avoid. Holmes and Watson have been on my screen in many forms since I was a child, through to the modern sensation that is Benadryl Cabbagepatch’s take on Sherlock on the BBC, so it’s going to be impossible to talk about my experience of this book without taking into account how that experience has been shaped by films and TV.

One of the first surprises for me was that Arthur Conan Doyle’s Holmes is really charming. It seems to be popular to go with a much more abrasive and socially dysfunctional take on the character in modern adaptations. Bumblebee Crimpysnitch’s Sherlock, and Hugh Laurie’s House (a thinly disguised Holmes), have probably cemented this version of the character in many viewers’ minds, but less contemporary and famous iterations of the character have been pretty rough around the edges as well. I can see the seeds of that personality in the original stories, where Holmes certainly has his snippier moments, but for the most part his social graces are fine, and he can be quite deeply tender. I really like this charming and erudite Holmes, and although I enjoy the BBC show, I find myself wanting to peek into the alternate reality where Bumberstump Crispycream gets to play the gracious original flavour Sherlock.

The other surprise is that the relationship between Holmes and Watson really isn’t all that turbulent. There’s a simple brotherly love here that waxes and wanes as they are separated and brought back together by life events, but never fades, and the occasions they have to be mildly put out at each other (well, usually Watson being mildly put out at Holmes) never seem to erode the easy trust they place in one another. It’s a fine bromance, and honestly, I kind of prefer it to the angst that many adaptations have felt the need to inject.

I thought that reading this many similarly-formatted stories back to back might reduce my enjoyment due to the repetitiveness, but that ended up not being an issue at all. Some of the mysteries are clever, and some are obvious, but few of them are the primary focus of my enjoyment; instead, it’s Doyle’s incredible way with characterisation that made this such a page-turner. Some of my favourite stories were the ones where he wandered entirely off course into an extended interlude on the backgrounds of characters we’d never see again, such as the family that saw the founding of Salt Lake City or the Pinkerton who went undercover in a corrupted Masonic lodge.

While I preferred the original Holmes and Watson to many of their cinematic and literary successors, I was a little disappointed to find that many of the secondary characters who seem so iconic are actually little more than footnotes in the original tales, such as Moriarty, Mycroft, and Irene Adler. Moriarty in particular has developed a legend way beyond anything justified in the book, where he is only even mentioned a couple of times outside of the Reichenbach Falls. It’s hardly the fault of the author that the people who have added to his canvas have left me wanting more from the original work, but nonetheless, I do.

Towards the end, there is a dip in the quality of the tales — after the Hound of the Baskervilles, worth every second of its fame, nothing is quite as compelling because Sherlock seems to become an increasingly erratic character, as though Doyle lost touch with his voice. I closed the book feeling like it was a good time for it to be over before it overstayed its welcome. It will be a while before I can turn to any of the other authors who have continued in his footsteps and furthered Holmes’s story, though, because that voice, while he had it, was inimitable.

4.5 stars

Posted in Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Review: The Glass God (Magicals Anonymous #2), by Kate Griffin

The Glass GodShaman and community support officer to the supernaturally inclined Sharon Li has her hands full enough running London’s first magical support group, Magicals Anonymous, when the Midnight Mayor unhelpfully disappears and leaves her in charge of figuring out why. The clues he leaves behind are challengingly cryptic, too: An umbrella with a missing point and a dose of mystical whammy that only a shaman like Sharon can sense, and a map marking the locations of dozens of recent disappearances connected only by what they leave behind — their shoes. Sharon has the assistance of both the Aldermen and her ragtag group of druids, necromancers, banshees, vampires, and gourmet trolls to call upon in solving the intertwined mysteries, but she’s slamming up against quite the deadline — not only is Matthew Swift running out of time to be rescued, but the disappeared belong to Old Man Bone, and if he doesn’t get what he’s owed, the plague pits of London will open and black death will once more roll through the streets.

I really want to like these books more than I do, because the Matthew Swift series that preceded them was awesome, and Griffin captures her love and knowledge of London on the page so beautifully. Unfortunately, I have a difficult time getting past the awfully flat characterisation. None of our protagonists have grown at all since the first Magicals Anonymous book, Stray Souls — if anything, they’ve doubled down on the annoyingness and the shallowness. Sharon continues to be a vapid, self-absorbed bundle of self-help cliches and management strategies that read like they were pruned from spambots on Twitter, and Rhys continues to have exactly one personality trait, that of ‘kicked puppy’. The other members of Magicals Anonymous barely exist as more than an excuse for punchlines, ones which were made plenty of times in the first book and weren’t that funny to begin with.

This time around, we can add unforgivably stupid to Sharon’s list of oh so endearing qualities, though. She’s a shaman, right, seer of the truth that lies beneath the everyday? Or so several secondary characters will keep on (and on and on) telling us. You would have thought, then, she might possess enough insight to notice things like a highly visible identical detail in every one of several crime scenes she and Rhys visit and photograph without having to have it belatedly pointed out to her by an exposition fairy banshee. Perhaps that it might also have occurred to her that if the Aldermen have the resources to produce military-grade weapons on demand, they might be useful people to ask to put a tail on the extremely suspiciously-acting person they already know is at least peripherally connected to one of their cases, or to trace the numbers on a dead woman’s cell phone. These tasks all seem to be beyond her, though.

The main story thread involving the disappearances and Old Man Bone is genuinely quite compelling, except for the fact that if it had been pursued by characters acting intelligently, it would have taken about half the time to solve. It was what kept me turning the pages quite avidly despite the level to which Sharon was getting on my nerves, though, and I imagine I’d have enjoyed it a lot if it had been pursued by Matthew or Penny or anyone who felt like a real, intellectually engaged person. The thing is that Matthew’s powers have reached the point where the story would need a lot more meat on the bones to actually keep him from bulldozing his way to the denouement so fast, which is why I initially looked forward to the change in protagonist in moving from the Swift novels to the Magicals Anonymous ones, but that was when I imagined that his successor would be as finely characterised as he had been. At this point, I’d love to abandon Sharon and crew entirely and go back to his story, although if Stray Souls was anything to judge by, Griffin has lost a feel for his voice and can’t really write him in-character anymore.

That makes it something of a saving grace, I guess, that in The Glass God he’s a driving force behind the story but not much of an actual presence in it. This was one of the aspects of the novel I did think was well-handled: Swift and the blue electric angels as a force that looms over the story and reminds us of its rapidly ticking clock. Because those blue electric angels remain as terrifying when unleashed as they are beautiful.

It sounds like I hated the book. I didn’t, as my rating will reflect. It’s more that I am profoundly disappointed in it because Kate Griffin was at the pinnacle of her field in books like The Midnight Mayor and The Neon Court, and I don’t really know how we got from that to this. I turned the pages fast enough, even chuckled a few times at the less desperate attempts at humour, and if this were a book by a new urban fantasy author, I wouldn’t be recommending it to anyone, but I’d be keeping an eye on their future releases because of the elegant prose, the beautiful take on London, and the seeds of promise in the story. But Griffin is not a debut author, and given the downward trajectory of the last few books, I’m hoping this is where she lays Magicals Anonymous to rest and moves on to something that brings back the spark she lost after The Neon Court.

2.5 stars

Posted in Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Review: Stray Souls (Magicals Anonymous #1), by Kate Griffin

Stray SoulsStray Souls is the first in the Magicals Anonymous series, which follows on from the Matthew Swift series. It contains spoilers for the Matthew Swift books, and so will this review. If you’ve yet to read any of Kate Griffin’s urban fantasies, I suggest you start with the first Matthew Swift book, A Madness of Angels, instead.

Something has gone missing from the soul of London. More and more pieces of the city’s spiritual landscape are being cut away, while something stalks the night and leaves behind the bloodied remnants of those who have looked upon its anger, and this time it’s a problem that can’t be fixed by a sorcerer like Matthew Swift. He needs a shaman, and the only ones available are Sammy the Elbow, a goblin who has managed to piss off most of the city’s major players, and newly awakened, totally untrained Sharon Li, whose efforts to run a support group for troubled supernaturals have landed her at the head of a dubiously helpful tribe of banshees, giants, vampires, necromancers, almost-druids, and individuals best described as et cetera. Under Sammy’s tutelage, she’ll learn to walk among the hidden truths that lie beneath the city’s surface, and maybe, with the help of a few friends, bring back what’s missing from its ravaged soul.

One of my comments about the last Matthew Swift book, The Minority Council, was that I felt Matthew had come too far from his lowly origins to be the right person to tell the tale anymore. Despite being the kind of person who shies away from the trappings of his office as much as possible, as the Midnight Mayor he is simply too connected for the story to have the urgency of the first couple of books, where the game of survival was such a critical part, and not every threat can be on the scale of Blackout, who taxed all of his resources and then some. Although I love Matthew as a character, I was optimistic about the change in protagonist breathing some fresh new life into Kate Griffin’s sorcerous London. I didn’t quite get what I was hoping for.

There was a bit of farcical humour in The Minority Council (too much, for my tastes), and the author seems to have used the transition into the Magicals Anonymous series to really let that side of her writing run free. Nearly all of the characters here are a bit caricaturish and twee. Sharon is like a cross between a bargain bin self-help book and a freshly graduated management consultant, only she talks like she’s on MTV. Perhaps there are plenty of 22-year-olds that are that annoying — I find almost everyone under the age of 30 annoying by default these days, so I’ll leave that judgement to the less misanthropic — but I read plenty of books with younger protagonists who don’t drive me up the wall that much. Rhys the sneezing almost-druid is every hapless nerd from the last 30 years of sitcoms with a bit of magic slapped on top. Kevin the OCD vampire is another tired excuse to portray a popularly misunderstood mental illness as quirky and funny, which it isn’t. And Matthew? Matthew is so unrecognisable that it feels like reading a fanfic or a tie-in novel, where the author has the broad details of someone else’s creation right but can’t capture the character’s voice. He’s given awkwardly contrived reasons to be cryptic when he’s usually so headstrong, and otherwise largely reduced to limp humour (and since when does he go around greeting people with ‘Wotcha’?).

The actual story being told here is, in the main, pretty good. One thing I’ve always liked about Griffin’s setting is the elements of London’s culture that have fused into archetypal beings. The Beggar King. Fat Rat. The Bag Lady. The blue electric angels, perhaps. I like the idea of exploring what would happen if such a critical piece of the city’s collective soul were ripped away, and with their intimate ties to the city’s spiritual landscape, a shaman is the perfect character to take us on that journey. It’s just a shame that it had to be this shaman. That said, the main villain is under-explored as a character, particularly given the utilisation of a myth that is very far from native to London. London is certainly a deeply multicultural place, but given how intimately connected these books are to the London identity and their deeply felt sense of place, it seems a little jarring to pluck something so major from cultural beliefs that have their home so far from England and yet to not touch upon that culture at all.

On a technical level the writing is still a significant step above the average urban fantasy, and I think that knowing Kate Griffin can do so much better does prompt me to be harsher in my criticisms. I’ve gone a little easy on the rating despite those criticisms, because I think if I let go of any expectations from the Matthew Swift books — which perhaps I should, but the strong connection between the two doesn’t make it easy — then, as urban fantasy goes, it’s certainly entertaining enough. But if I’m really going to enjoy these books, I hope that the author will trim the cast a little and let the remaining characters grow into actual people, because flat cutouts spouting too many slapstick lines won’t do it for me. We know the dial goes to 11. That doesn’t mean it has to.

3 stars

Posted in Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Review: The Minority Council (Matthew Swift #4), by Kate Griffin

The Minority CouncilMatthew Swift, Midnight Mayor, has a tendency to begin his adventures by being dropped in the shit without a paddle; for once, the shit is something he kind of brings into his life of his own accord. After a one-night stand with a sorcerously inclined woman he meets on the Thames, a woman with powers to reach further into the past of the city than anyone ought to go, he gets a call for help and follows her trail right into a war with a drug ring — peddlers of fairy dust, a deadly narcotic made for magicians. At the same time, while settling further into his role as the city’s supernatural protector, he sees a woman turned away by the Aldermen while seeking the Midnight Mayor, and his curiosity takes him into an investigation on a series of soul-stripping attacks against London’s miscreant youth, and on the corruption buried at the heart of the Aldermen.

Kate Griffin’s Matthew Swift novels have rapidly become some of my favourites in the urban fantasy field. The Minority Council is a bit of a change of pace. Matthew began the series as the lone wolf hunting his hunters, and although he’s grown in power and support since then, his solitary nature tends to win through. Here he’s more deeply entrenched in his role as Mayor — he even has an unbelievably perky PA, unbelievable to him most of all — and the structure of the Aldermen, and the nature of the relationship between them and the Midnight Mayor, is an integral part of the story. It was an inevitable direction for the series to take, but the result is a story that feels like it’s having a bit of an identity crisis. Matthew is starting to feel too disconnected from his humble street beginnings to be the right person to keep telling this tale, which it pains me a little to say, because I have really, truly enjoyed Matthew as a character.

In The Neon Court, Griffin did a fabulous job in weaving two very different strands of story together. The Minority Council has the same divided focus, but when the time comes to bring the two parts into a whole, the resultant pacing is very stop-start. One of the book’s most anti-climactic moments is when a significant segment of the story is resolved off-screen, including the death of a major character, and is then related to Matthew in a giant chunk of exposition that doesn’t even properly honour the voice of the character relating it. I’ve always enjoyed the series’ interludes, but they are usually used to provide background detail and additional character development, not to tie up big chunks of plot.

The series has always a high death toll and I’ve never had a problem with that, as I prefer authors who don’t pull their punches, but in this entry it gets excessive enough to be distasteful. Being a woman in Matthew’s world has a pretty high chance of coming with a death penalty. The deaths here don’t feel earned like, say, Dees’ did; one, in particular, is really nothing more than grist for Matthew’s wheel of angst, a lazy way to motivate him to chase the plot hook.

These have always been books with a sense of humour, and much like every other aspect of the series, that sense of humour is wonderfully evocative of London and its people. There are some great moments in The Minority Council that continue to capture that feel — garam masala, anyone? — but at times it’s trying a little too hard. Matthew’s new PA, for instance, is simply too much; she has all of the camp of Dr. Seah, but none of the charm, and far too much page count.

For all my criticisms, the book still has moments of brilliance that elevate it beyond the sea of urban fantasy novels out there and remind me of why this series is so compelling. The best such moment is a tense, masterful revelation of what the blue electric angels look like unchained and unchecked, and why some of Matthew’s opponents may be right that no one should be allowed to wield their power.

If I hadn’t enjoyed the first few books so much, I don’t think I would be quite as hard on this one. Griffin still puts so many of her urban fantasy peers to shame. This is a step down after the magnificence of The Neon Court, though. The fact that the story is hereafter continued in a series with a different main character — briefly hinted at here in a throwaway line — suggests that it may indeed be time to let Matthew Swift go. I hope the Magicals Anonymous books will revitalise Griffin’s sorcerous London.

3.5 stars

Posted in Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Review: The Neon Court (Matthew Swift #3), by Kate Griffin

The Neon CourtSomeone has summoned the Midnight Mayor. Matthew Swift, reluctant holder of the title, finds himself coming to in a burning building, called upon to rescue the sometime-ally with a habit of occasionally calling for his head. But when they escape, something else comes with them, something that nestles in the emptiness of vulnerable souls and tears the light from the skies and the sight from your eyes. Meanwhile, a vague prophecy about a chosen one that can destroy one of the city’s supernatural factions has set the Neon Court, the urban nighttime inheritors of the beautiful and manipulative fae, and the Tribe, self-modified and self-mutilated outcasts who seek to transcend baseline humanity, at each other’s throats. An old treaty with Lady Neon requires that the Aldermen and the Midnight Mayor stand behind the Neon Court, but Matthew doesn’t want to blindly pick a side without reaching into the origins of the conflict — and also, he and Oda might have accidentally murdered one of the Court’s daimyos.

I’ve really been enjoying the Matthew Swift series, but I think that this third book elevates it to a new level. The relatively few complaints I’ve had about the previous two volumes are both solidly addressed here, and the writing finally strikes the perfect balance between the evocative and poetic and the elegant concision needed to keep up the pace. If you found books one and two to be overly waffling, I think that you’ll find The Neon Court a more appealing experience.

The character work here is stellar. Matthew has always been an intriguing protagonist with a lot of depth due to the deft way the author has handled the synthesis between resurrected human side and blue electric angels, but if there’s one thing he’s lacked, it’s people to care about as individuals rather than as a collective. The closest I think he’s really had is Dana Mikeda in book one, but since she spent very little time on the page, to the reader she was more of a motive than a person. This is a side of Matthew that really gets fleshed out here. Penny is a fantastic addition to his life and to his story, someone in whom he has a deep investment since the last book made him literally responsible for her life, there to reflect his remaining humanity back at him with a solid dose of humour. His relationship with Oda is at its most interesting and complex, and I say that as someone who couldn’t stand Oda in the last book — she is thoroughly redeemed here, in a narrative sense if not in a literal one, and plays an integral role in giving the more haunting side of the story some heart. It’s also nice to see Matthew with a cordial working relationship with one of the Aldermen, and Dees, the Alderman in question, shows the cost of balancing your humanity with a job that sometimes devalues the human.

It’s good to get a look into the supernatural factions at play in a city the size of London, and I like that they break out of the mould of simply determining factions by supernatural critter, as though entire species would all think the same; here they are determined by philosophy. The philosophy at the core of the Tribe gets a deeper exploration than that of the Neon Court, but both of them gel into something discrete and believable by the end, which makes their conflict feel more authentic than the usual gang pissing contests. You can see how little it would take to light the fuse that would set two such opposed philosophies off.

But despite the fact that before beginning the book, I was the most excited about seeing more of the Neon Court, it’s actually not the faction war plot that I enjoyed the most. By far the best story strand is that of Blackout, who is a way more chilling antagonist than the death of cities from book two. Perhaps it’s because of the possession angle, the way that its need to entangle itself around the soul of a familiar, vulnerable character makes the threat more intimate. Perhaps it’s the fear of the dark — not the anaemic urban darkness we town and city dwellers get at night, but utter darkness — built as a survival instinct into even those of us who love the night. Perhaps it’s the way the disappearing daylight angle reminded me of Dark City, one of my favourite ever films. Perhaps it’s just because I have a thing about eyes. Whatever it was, I was riveted, and I think Griffin did a great job of adding real suspense to scenarios where you know that the main character has to be in a limited amount of danger since there’s at least one more book. She sure doesn’t pull her punches when it comes to the supporting cast, though.

This is rapidly becoming one of my favourite urban fantasy series. If you’ve read the first two, perhaps you don’t need convincing to try the third — but if you’re on the fence, if the prose and the pacing of the first two wasn’t quite to your tastes, let me suggest to you that the third time’s the charm.

5 stars

Posted in Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Review: The Midnight Mayor (Matthew Swift #2), by Kate Griffin

The Midnight MayorWhen you are half comprised of an entity that began existence as the remnants of voices left in the telephone wires and the emotions they carried, it’s difficult to resist answering the phone. When you are also half comprised of perhaps the only remaining sorcerer alive in London, the former protégé of the man who killed all of the others, there’s a distinct danger that the person on the other end wants to do more than sell you double glazing. Matthew Swift awakens from the shock of a call that leaves a mystical brand carved into his hand with a pack of spectres out for his blood, and figuring out why they are after him leads him down a greater and greater chain of mysteries: Who or what killed London’s Midnight Mayor, why are all of the city’s mystical protections suddenly being broken, and what does any of this have to do with his shoes?

I really enjoyed the first book in this series, and for the most part, The Midnight Mayor is an excellent successor. Although I appreciated the occasionally extravagant descriptive prose in A Madness of Angels, Griffin’s writing here is a bit sharper and more refined, especially in the second half, while still richly evoking the sensory experience of London. The pacing is smoother too, perhaps aided by the fact that she’s juggling a larger number of threads, so the page count is earned and there’s no room for the sagging middle of the first book.

For all that A Madness of Angels felt like a love letter to London, it’s this book which I think really delves into why Matthew is so drawn to this city, not just to the magic in the heart of every urban centre. It takes a lot of love to come back to the place that killed you, and we get to see Matthew examine, claim, and defend that connection. The Matthew we see here is also a less divided one, one who has at least progressed down the path of acceptance that the old Matthew Swift is gone and that the new one is as much blue electric angel as anything, and I think that contributes a little to why the prose seems smoother: There’s less of an internal identity struggle to represent, and a more seamless passage into I am us and we are me.

The central mystery struck just the right tone, keeping enough different pieces in the air that it was difficult to put them all together through guesswork, but without getting convoluted. Towards the end it did beggar belief a little, even for a genre in which it’s almost traditional for the hero to be beaten black and blue by the end of each book, how much someone with serious internal injuries was able to accomplish when they really should have been passing out from them, but I’ll put that down to cinematic pacing, like every television show where it seems as if people are able to have two-minute conversations during a thirty-second countdown.

There were only two things that really bugged me and held me back from giving this book a higher rating than the first. The first was the wonky morality behind Matthew’s decision to save one innocent life at the cost of several others, or rather, the fact that this was presented as a heroic moment. The only difference between the person he wanted to save and the many people who died because of that decision is that the former was of narrative importance and the latter, I guess, weren’t. Whether it’s wrong to let several innocent people die because you don’t want to be responsible for taking one innocent life to save them is a legitimate moral question for a character to ask, but it shouldn’t be presented as a moral victory when it’s just kind of shrugged off.

The other issue was Oda. While Matthew became a more rounded and nuanced character, she went in the opposite direction. In the first book, I kind of liked Oda even though she’s a religious fanatic. She was an interesting one, and she was, if not smart, at least wily. The Oda of The Midnight Mayor must have lost a few brain cells in the transition, because she reacts to every new strange encounter as though she’s experiencing magic for the first time, when she’s not bombarding Matthew with stupid and banal questions in situations where a character with Oda’s experience with the inscrutable ought to know to shut the fuck up and get on with it until the mission is over. I finished the book hoping we aren’t going to hear from her again, but somehow I doubt I’ll be that lucky.

The story finishes in an otherwise promising place for future installments, bringing in a character who I think might help show a side of Matthew I’d very much like to see. Between that and the tantalising hint of the title — The Neon Court — I’m excited for the third book.

4 stars

Posted in Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Review: A Madness of Angels (Matthew Swift #1), by Kate Griffin

A Madness of AngelsMatthew Swift, London sorcerer, died two years ago. Now Matthew Swift walks the streets of London again — but this Matthew has different-coloured eyes, and electric angels in his blood. Something has been eradicating sorcerers in his absence, something with a hunger only Matthew understands, and without his old allies or resources, Matthew has to piece together the means to bring down not only the killer, but the many-headed hydra of the co-operative magical organisation behind it.

The cover tells us that this is Neverwhere for the digital age. In many ways, that’s not a bad description, and certainly more apt than most comparisons of urban fantasy books to Neverwhere. Although Griffin’s prose is florid where Gaiman’s was more reserved, both books read first and foremost as love letters to the London that hides its face from the tourists, and slips shyly out with the foxes at three in the morning. They both linger over the beauty of the bits of life that fall through the cracks unnoticed, and to some degree they both play with the idea that to notice is a magical act. I’m not sure if the similarities can be stretched much further, but still, A Madness of Angels stands in good company.

Griffin’s hidden London is a full sensory assault, and if she wrote a book that did nothing but describe the sounds and smells and tastes of every corner of the city, I’d be lining up to buy it. The level of descriptiveness we each like in our prose is a personal thing, and I can see this pushing too far for many readers’ tastes, but for me, this mostly hit the spot, leaving me with the taste of the exhaust and the smell of the rain without dipping too far into the turgid.

I also really like the different varieties of magic touched upon here. It feels less gimmicky than a lot of magical systems, which are too preoccupied with the external trappings. Griffin’s magic is primarily about differences in mindset. Sorcerers are deeply linked to the cycle of whatever life surrounds them; for the urban sorcerer, it’s the city itself, the rats and cats and pigeons its eyes, the roads and rivers its arteries, the traffic exhaust its breath, and if they’re not too careful, that link can become so deep that they forget their individuality and are subsumed by the city. The magic of the city’s suitably-attuned biker gangs plays with the sometimes illusory seeming nature of place, with those ordinary moments when a road to somewhere you’ve never been before can seem more familiar than your driveway while locations you know like the back of your hand somehow aren’t quite where you thought they were, manipulating those moments into actual shifts in space and time. You get the drift.

Matthew is an interesting change of pace for an urban fantasy hero. He doesn’t have a lot of ties, which is something I usually find irritating in urban fantasy protagonists because the interconnectedness of city life and its supernatural mirror is part of the appeal (to me) of the genre, but with his particular backstory it makes perfect sense. But he is passionate about the one thing that represents a greater character on the page than most of the humans that inhabit it: London. He also has the blue electric angels, and they are fascinating. I thought the author did a very good job with the shifts in perspective that represented the dominant force in Matthew’s thinking at any given time, as well as the gradual progression from Matthew-and-the-angels to Matthew-who-is-the-angels.

So despite its limitations in the social element, it’s close to being the perfect urban fantasy novel, but thanks to the pacing, it doesn’t quite get there. The beginning and end are brilliant, but the middle is sort of muddled and the story loses some of its urgency, never quite to regain it, while we wait for Matthew to pull himself together and progress through his targets. Vengeance is a dish best served cold, but once you start serving it, you can’t wait forever to get past the appetiser.

I also wanted a little more of the background between these people laid out. We get a clear look at the relationships between Matthew, Bakker, and Dana Mikeda, through some excellent flashback interludes, but there are a number of hints about the relationships between other characters that are never explored to my satisfaction. What exactly was Matthew’s relationship with Elizabeth Bakker like? Some of the crimes of which Matthew accused Tower henchmen like Guy Lee — what was the story behind those, when he’d been gone all that time how did he know about them? Perhaps if some of the waffling middle page count had instead been used for a couple more historical interludes, I would have had enough of a sense of the past between these people to get full satisfaction out of watching the conflicts between them play out.

Its flaws don’t stop this from being one of the finer urban fantasy stories I’ve read since the turn of the millennium, and bearing in mind that this is the first book in a series and there was groundwork to be laid, the potential for a powerful and beautifully written series leaves me excited to pick up its next volume.

4 stars

Posted in Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment