Monday, 9 February 2009

‘A Madness of Angels’ – Kate Griffin (Orbit)


It’s hard for me to describe what makes London such a magical place to live in, mainly because there are so many things that make it magic. If I had to pick a couple of things then top of the list would be all the little windy alleyways (I’m talking about the ones off Charing Cross Road) that probably lead to the back of a restaurant but could lead absolutely anywhere... Second on the list are London’s parks, places where you can sometimes almost believe that you’re not in the city at all...
Well, I think I’ve proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that I am not suited to writing an urban fantasy novel about how magical London can be. It’s a good job then that there are authors out there who are doing just that and doing a great job of it at the same time. Kate Griffin is about to join these ranks with her forthcoming novel ‘A Madness of Angels’ (to be released in April) and I reckon it’s well deserved...

There is power in London that ebbs and flows with the rhythms of the city. It’s in the alignments of ancient streets and it’s in the rattle of London transport (although you wouldn’t believe it if you had to commute in every morning...) It takes a special breed of magician to access this power and one such person is Matthew Swift, dead for the last two years and suddenly back in London with a lot of questions that he wants answering. Swift is out for revenge as well, someone made a real mess of him before he died... Revenge and answers will all come together in a journey through a London that we live in but don’t realise. A London where magicians ride the Last Train, soar with the pigeons and listen to blue electric angels that live on the telephone wires...

Although there are moments in ‘A Madness of Angels’ where the firepower is very much in evidence (and people look cool in long dark coats) this isn’t the kind of urban fantasy where feisty women kick ass whilst agonising over a hot looking vampire at the same time. What the reader gets instead is a trip into London’s identity in very much the same way that Neil Gaiman did with ‘Neverwhere’. One of my first thoughts, in fact, was ‘this book is just like Neverwhere’... It’s always a shame when you write a book and someone had the idea for the initial concept first! Luckily for Kate Griffin, ‘A Madness of Angels’ becomes very much its own story both through the concept of ‘Urban Magic’ and it’s examination of what life and identity actually mean. More about that later...

‘A Madness of Angels’ starts off in rather a confusing manner but stick with it for a few pages and it will all start to make a lot more sense. No matter how confused you think you are it’s nothing compared to the confusion that Swift is encountering... From here on in a plot emerges and Swift is propelled along it to a conclusion that really grabbed me by the eyeballs and forced me to read. There are plenty of other moments throughout the course of the book that also have the same effect making it a fast paced affair with moments where things get really explosive!

‘A Madness of Angels’ is a chilling read as well. If you think the litterbug is scary (right at the beginning) then wait until you meet Hunger, a shadow whose whole purpose is to feed... Hunger strikes just when you least expect it (no pun intended!) with a speed that never failed to make me jump! Without giving too much away it’s also interesting to see Hunger’s relationship with one of the main characters (not Swift) and how that develops over the course of the book. It’s also good to see how Griffin sometimes mixes humour into the proceedings, both to make the scary bits even scarier and also to keep things fresh and interesting. Swift’s encounter with the troll is a good example of this...

In some ways the story itself takes second place to the ‘London setting’ that Griffin places it against. Griffin doesn’t hold back with the descriptive prose, painting a picture of London that will be immediately familiar to anyone who has visited (or lives there) and will give those who haven’t a very good idea of the locations in which Swift finds himself. However, I did think there was a little too much over emphasis on the using of place names (and the travel in between these places). I knew that the story was taking place in London; I didn’t need to have it rammed home as much as it was...

Having said that though, there's a point in the book where Swift says what sorcery is and it is just what Griffin has done with this book,

"... that's what sorcery is. The ability to see something wonderful, magical, where other people see just mundane and boring nothing."

Griffin shows us London in a different light and leaves us in no doubt as to what we've been missing all this time.

I really liked the concept of ‘urban magic’, not something that I’d encountered before so it felt really fresh. It was also a good way to keep the concept of ‘the city’ in the foreground and adding that ‘otherworld twist’ to a familiar setting. I also liked the way that this tied into the questions raised over Swift’s true identity. Again, I don’t want to give too much away here but I ended up really feeling for Swift and the questions he had to deal with as he tried to work out what he really was. If that wasn’t bad enough there’s everything else to deal with as well...

If it wasn’t for the fact that Mike Carey has a couple of books coming out this year then I would say that, without a doubt, ‘A Madness of Angels’ could be the best urban fantasy that I read in 2009. As it is, I’m sure it will be high up there.
Highly recommended.

Nine and a Half out of Ten

10 comments:

Liz said...

Awesome review, Graeme - thanks very much. I am looking forward to tucking in myself now!

Dave said...

Very nice review, Graeme, I'm really enjoying the book and I have to say, for a guy who has never set foot in London, I'm enjoying Matthew's trip through it - but that's a South African's prerspective. :-) Will have my review posted soon, and Liz, you will enjoy the book, it's a hell of a read! :-)

Calibandar said...

Intriguing review Graeme, I was looking forward to it. I have some further questions though which do not stray too far into spoiler territory.

1) The synopsis mentioned The Beggar King and The Bag Lady, are these characters encountered in the book as well?

2) It's hard for me to get an idea from this review what Urban Magic is in this book by Griffin. What sort of magic does she have her characters use? Could you give some examples?

3) What sort of character or party is the antagonist of the story? What sort of conflict does the book feature?

Calibandar said...

Oh and fourthly, who are the other main characters ( or POV characters) besides Swift, and could you describe them?

ediFanoB said...

Aaaah Graeme, you have this talent to make people's mouth water!!!!!!

How can I resist....
Fortunately I took part in your giveaway and of course I hope to win. And If I don't win I'll buy the book.

Now I would like to make your mouth water:

In September 2009 THE MIDNIGHT MAYOR by Kate Griffin will be released.
Here is the blurb:
"It's said that if the ravens ever leave the Tower of London, then the Tower will crumble and the kingdom will fall. As it happens, that's not so far from the truth ...One by one, the magical wards that guard the city are falling: the London Wall defiled with cryptic graffiti, the ravens found dead at the Tower, the London Stone destroyed. This is not good news. This array of supernatural defences ? a mix of international tourist attractions and forgotten urban legends ? formed a formidable magical shield. Protection for the City of London against ...well, that's the question, isn't it? What could be so dangerous as to threaten an entire city? Against his better judgement, resurrected sorcerer Matthew Swift is about to find out. And if he's lucky, he might just live long enough to do something about it ..."

Graeme Flory said...

Calibander - I shall try and answer your questions...

1) You get to meet both of them and more than once...

2) Urban Magic is based around the (almost tidal) rhythms of the city. When it's busy there is more power at hand but if you're in the city (financial district) on a Sunday you wouldn't be able to access any power at all as the area is pretty much deserted at that time. Urban Magic can also be found in the rules of passage on London Transport (oyster cards etc). Such rules can be binding in more ways than one.

3) It's difficult to talk about antagonists without straying into spoilers. Identity is fractured and, as a result, it's sometimes hard to tell who is on whose side...

4) Swift is the main character but there are plenty of others on one side or the other. The only thing I can really tell you is that the battle lines aren't as clear as you might think...

ediFanoB - That blurb looks great! I officially cannot wait for September :o)

simon_hyde said...

Sounds very interesting and I for one will get this asap. But the most interesting news was that there are two new Mike Carey books coming :)

Graeme Flory said...

Simon - I know what you mean :o) Although I have been told that one of the Mike Carey books might be pushed back until early next year...

Calibandar said...

Thanks Graeme.

BFilmFan said...

Fritz Leiber's 1977 tale Our Lady of Darkness is another tale of urban magic that you might want to pursue.