When 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.