A Madness of Angels + The Midnight Mayor by Kate Griffin Review

This book is well-named.  Its title and subtitle are intriguing–they got me to look at its premise.  Which is also intriguing:  Two years after his murder, Matthew Swift wakes up again.  His house is no longer his house, and his closest friends are all dead.  He has no refuge except his wits and his quest for vengeance….

madness of angels

I realized perhaps 20 pages in that I was possibly not the ideal reader for this book.  I have not read a lot of urban fantasy that isn’t close kin to paranormal romance, nor have I read much noir or pulp mystery, and this novel seemed to be leaning into both genres.  However, I might be the best possible reviewer, since I can only evaluate it on its own terms and what it has to recommend itself to general fantasy readers, instead of measuring how it stands up to the rest of its genre(s).

A little more about the story (perhaps some minor spoilers but nothing that will ruin the book or even give away the big plot points):  In the two years Matthew Swift has been MIA, the magical community has changed drastically.  A new organization known cryptically as the Tower has emerged.  People who oppose the Tower end up dead.  People who fail the Tower end up dead.  The Tower’s aim seems to be taking over the magical resources of London (and branching out from there) for its own insidious purposes, and the group that has been hardest-hit by its attacks are the urban sorcerers.  The only ones left are Matthew’s old mentor, Robert Bakker, who is at the heart of the Tower’s lines of power as its founder; Matthew’s old apprentice, who has become Bakker’s new apprentice; and now Matthew himself.

An uneasy alliance of various urban magic-users approach Swift with a plan to bring down the Tower.  The only problems?  One of their members has betrayed them to the Tower.  Another of their members belongs to a fanatical cult intent on eradicating all magic–in this case bonded to the rebels only by the truth of the adage that “an enemy of my enemy is my friend.”  Most of the strongest magic-users have already fallen prey to the Tower’s threats and are either dead or working for the Tower.  And, most worrisome at all, Matthew Swift did not come back from the other side alone…and he has no idea how long he can control the entity that came back with him to share his skin and his life.

A Madness of Angels is a slow read, but very worth it.  I think the book’s strength is its premise.  I didn’t find the writing bad, by any means, but I didn’t find it immediately engaging.  My only real problem, actually, was that the descriptions (and there are a lot of descriptions) consist mostly of lists.  I believe this may be a stylistic device common to certain types of mystery/crime novels (although that could be way off-base), but it was hard for me to read at first.  My thoughts were easily distracted from the litanies of sights and sounds, and therefore from the story, but I stuck with it because the story itself was so interesting and because her conception of a magical world was so fascinating.

I’m very glad I did, because this book was fabulous.

Matthew Swift is the ultimate underdog.  He is undersized, underestimated, underachieving, and, oh yeah, freshly back from the dead.  He has to make sense of the mystery that lies at the heart of the Tower, maintain his alliances, figure out how to beat Bakker’s top minions, and keep himself safe from the mysterious “shadow on the wall” that killed him in the first place and will kill him again…and anyone else who gets in its way.  He is leading a war he doesn’t fully understand and has nothing but his wits and his connection to the city to protect himself and the few individuals he still loves.  And all the while the blue electric angels that share his skin just want to be free….

His vulnerabilities make him a great protagonist.  You feel his confusion and his exhaustion with him.  You fear for him, because even though he keeps coming out on top of the successive fights, you can’t help but notice how close each call is.  You can’t help but wonder if he’ll get inside the Tower only to discover that the only way to bring it down is if he goes with it.  And you fear for the blue electric angels, too.  They are childlike in their joy of simply being alive in the physical world; you worry that they will lose control or that someone will find a way to exploit their power.  You worry that they were brought back with Matthew in the summoning to work against the very aim that Matthew seeks to achieve.

The portrait of a London (and a world) imbued with its own brands of magic also drew me in.  It is a modern city as seen through the eyes of a sorcerer.  The basic idea is that a city has, in a way, a life of its own, and if you have the right perspective you can tap into this life.  And since the idea that “life is magic/magic is life” is a repeated motif in this book, obviously the “life” of the city is magic.  Urban magic.  Some of it is tapped through codes and rules that can be manipulated into spells.  Some of it is tapped through the wild energy that runs through electrical lines and telephone wires.  Some of it creates archetypal figures who are brought to a life–and a magic–of their own, such as the Beggar King and The Bag Lady, symbols for all of their kind and attuned to the sights and whisperings of all of their kind.

Now, I wouldn’t know if these ideas are pretty much standard urban-fantasy world-building, but I haven’t seen anything like it before in my reading.  So for me, this world was unique and wonderful.

The story plays out in three sections, each with a big showdown at the end as Matthew gets closer and closer to the Tower and to Bakker.  And within the story is an examination of life and its purpose…the morality of magic…the necessity of “necessary things” (collateral damage)…individuality and individual choice…love, and what people will do for it or because of it…the intertwining of magic and life.  But none of these themes are presented in a pushy way nor a preachy one.  Merely, we see the characters struggle with these ideas, and our empathy for them makes us consider these ideas, as well.  In all a seamless, fabulous whole.

And you know what?  By the time I finished reading, the listing had endeared itself to me.  It was a consistent style that was carried throughout the whole so that by the end of the book, that style of description feels more like how Matthew views the world than a narrative exposition of setting.

I would recommend this book to anyone who reads urban fantasy, anyone who likes the idea of new intelligences developing in the wires and signals of our technology, and anyone who doesn’t need their epic fantasy to be set in a medieval-style time period or a foreign land.  If the premise grabs you, stick with it-you won’t be disappointed.

 Kate Griffin

In the first book in Kate Griffin’s series that continues to prove to the world how awesome urban fantasy would be if it the genre name had a goddamned thing to do with its content, Matthew Swift is resurrected by a spell, his soul animated with the life of the blue electric angels until they are he and he is them and they are light, they are life, they are fire.  He battles a shadow that is taking over London and killing all the sorcerers, and staggers away from the aftermath without any real direction for his new life.

He gets it, in spades, in The Midnight Mayor, or, the inauguration of Matthew Swift.  As with the first book, the title provides a loose summary of what happens in the story; it comes as no surprise when Matthew takes a telephone call and finds the office of the Midnight Mayor conferred upon him when the previous Mayor breathes his last breath into that telephone receiver.  Matthew isn’t sure whether the previous Mayor was crazy or brilliant to have tapped him, the last sorcerer in London, to be his successor, but what he does know is that the ravens in the Tower of London have died, the city’s defenses are collapsing around him, and the Death of Cities is coming for London…and it’s wearing a pinstripe suit.  Matthew is the last, best, chance of salvation for the city he loves, and he’s racing the clock to solve the mystery of who or what called the Death of Cities to London before it can kill him, too….

First, let me note that I loved the first book.  Absolutely adored it, considered it one of my favorite books of 2009.  But it wasn’t the easiest book to get into, so I was quite pleased to find that I slid into the rhythms of Mathew Swift’s thinking much easier this time around.  I think, in all honesty, it had to do with having read the first one until I hit the tipping point of understanding the cadence and the point of view of the blue electric angels, so that when I opened this book I already had that template in my mind.

As far as the story goes, it’s kind of a slowly unfolding mystery, and manages to keep some shroud of enigma around it until nearly the very end.  Once the cause of the Death of Cities’ arrival is known, however, there are no real surprises in what the situation is or how Matthew handles it.  I still can’t decide whether that is a criticism or just an observation.  I didn’t mind it, exactly, but there was a slight feeling of anticlimax at the very end.

It was very slight, though, and really the story of Matthew Swift is more interesting to me than individual plot threads.

I love the world that Griffin has created in this series.  It is fabulous urban magic, the magic of a city, and it sparks along the subway tracks and buzzes in the lights overhead on a dark autumn night.  When I drive around my own city after having spent time looking at the world through Matthew’s eyes, I see my world differently.  I see the graffiti on the levy wall, and I wonder if it’s a spell.  I hear “end of the line” on a bus route, and I laugh to myself.  Here’s why:

I looked for the signs.

An empty spray-paint can tossed onto the top of a bus shelter.

A painted elephant on the side of a house, playing a large trombone whose nose pointed further south.

A wall with four windows added onto it and a front door, from which a child with a red balloon peered towards the nearest bus stop.

A message scratched into the glass window of the bus—END OF THE LINE.

Griffin also has a knack for distilling modern life into new and unique monsters, summonings, demons…whatever you want to call the things that go bump in the night.  My favorite in this book was the saturate, “the grease-monster, the oil-devil, the demon of fat poured down the drain, of tallow and cookery grime, of burnt-up crispy bits and congealed animal liquids poured down the plughole.”  That’s just—I can’t come up with a superlative for that one.  Just spot-on vivid imagining of the sort of devils the modern world fears, hence that sorcerers could animate and use against us.

The whole book is quotable and filled with incisive commentary on our world.  I find Griffin’s humor to be hilarious, though it’s more subtle and based on viewing the world askance than it is obviously comedic.  If you are someone who loves a city, then you need to read this series.  Hands down.  Also highly recommended to fans of urban fantasy, and to those who want modern fantasy that has no werewolves, vampires, zombies, or fairies.  Just sorcerers and the things that exist because humanity creates a magic all on its own.

Elena Nola is the imperial movie critic and the colder half of the Ladies of Ice and Fire.