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

January 31, 2017
Snumpus

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

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

November 21, 2016
Snumpus

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

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

November 16, 2016
Snumpus

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 anticlimactic 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

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

November 10, 2016
Snumpus

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

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

November 5, 2016
Snumpus

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

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

November 1, 2016
Snumpus

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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