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

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