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

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