Stray 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.