~~moved from GR~~
A Madness of Angels (Matthew Swift, #1)
by Kate Griffin
Recommended for: Anyone who loves gloriously imaginative UF and won't mind the writing style.
Two years after bleeding to death in an unfriendly alley, Matthew Swift wakes up in his old apartment, blinking open eyes that have transformed from muddy brown to electric blue. He-- and the entities who possess him--have only one thought in his/their mind: revenge against those who killed him and brought them back. Madness of Angels captures the essence why I keep coming back to urban fantasy. When I read UF, I want to enter a world both alien and familiar, where the mundane touches the sublime, where the everyday rules and patterns and flow of life take on new meaning and shape. For me, Griffin's London exemplifies this delicate balance of wonder and absurdity. It is a world where the ebb and flow of the trains beneath the city creates a rhythmic heartbeat of magic, where familiarity and belief create genius loci: deities of bag ladies and beggars, trains and towers. And then there is the life blood of the city itself, the power from which light and noise and movement and life are born.
The book is not without its flaws; although I personally feel that its merits more than make up for them, tastes differ, so I'll mention a few of the major issues. The style is somewhere between flowery and overblown, but just in case you can't tell from my writing style, (a) elaborate prose doesn't bother me, and (b) any comment from me would be serious pot-kettle territory. The structure of the book rather reminded me of a video game, with a set of "bosses" that each had to be tackled in turn. The plot develops slowly and if you demand constant action, be warned that things bog down a bit in the middle. Certain events lack logical rationale and there's a bit of blatant moralising, but there are lots of entertaining characters and ingenious urban magics, so I really didn't care. The worldbuilding was breathtaking throughout--and not just the magical portions. Griffin's knowledge of London is intimate and affectionate, and the lush detail of her scenes transport the reader to the city that she so clearly loves. Add in the book's unique world, interesting characters, and gentle humour, and I was captivated.
I loved the myriad ways in which Griffin broke the standard MUF (male urban fantasy) structure. Swift may wear a trenchcoat, but instead of the standard tall, rugged, gun-totin' MUF, he's a shrimp who looks like a "starved pigeon," and his weapon of choice is a London Underground oyster card. The Male Gaze ever-present in MUFs is completely absent, and despite one disappointingly distressed damsel, the supporting female characters are as multidimensional as their male counterparts. Not a single female is described in terms of her curves or figure, and the book is free from the tensions of lust ever-present in all forms of UF. I think Griffin creates a reasonable male POV. The book also tries to explore culpability and consequences, themes not usually much considered in salt'em-burn'em-blast'em MUF. I did have some issues with the main conflict. When faced with his own demise, didn't Matthew do precisely what he castigates Bakker for desiring? He chooses immortality among the angels. There is a difference; Swift loses himself within the angels while Bakker sought to possess them, but both want to use them to escape death. And then we have the story's motivation. Personally, I utterly failed to understand why Matthew was so hell-bent to kill Bakker--he seemed to be motivated by pure revenge. If you also found Matthew somewhat morally ambiguous, don't worry--this was intentional, and he is forced to analyse his own motivations two books down the road. I loved the complexities and eccentric perspectives that the angels brought with them--and if you prefer to leave the halos in heaven, don't worry--these are not of the white-clad-harp-toting-Heaven's-messenger variety. Matthew is a rather unique narrator and has a tendency to drop into third-person-plural (my precioussss) to indicate a switch in the entities currently in control. Stylistically, these switches are often accompanied by dramatically broken lines, stream-of-consciousness, and oft-repeated phrases such as the tagline, "We be light, we be life, we be fire! We sing electric flame, we rumble underground wind, we dance heaven! Come be we and be free!" Although this came close to driving me into mockery mode, I cringed my way through, and the effort was worth it. (Six books down the road, I finally realised that the intentionally poor grammar evokes the "bee-bee-beep" of a telephone. Fast on the uptake, that's me.)
I was enchanted by Griffin's world of urban magic. Despite the many and creative flights of fancy, the nuts and bolts of the magic in the world are solid and thoroughly constructed, and several of Griffin's creations, such as "litterbugs" (golems created from street trash), were positively fascinating. There are so many mindblowing and inventive little details, from the use of spraypaint and chewing gum in spellwork to the power of the right coin in a wishing well. It is a wonderful vision of the evolution of magic; as one character notes, the mystical properties of grafitti are only natural:
"Has it ever occurred to you that if in the good old days ladies with bad skin and big hair drew mystic pentagrams and pointed stars on the walls with bits of old chalk, then the invention of spraypaint would only have enhanced this tendency?"
The book also contains one of the most wonderful magical warding scenes I've ever encountered. (You'll know it when you get there.) My favourite aspects of Gaiman's Neverwhere were the eccentric demigods of the city and their birth from beliefs and repetition and symbol, and Griffin's book enlarges upon this theme. In fact, I think your reaction to Neverwhere is probably a reasonable predictor of your reaction to this book. There are a few differences; Griffin is more heavy-handed with imagery and descriptions and her prose lacks Gaiman's terse lyricism. However, Swift is a far more distinctive protagonist: while both Swift and Gaiman's Mayhew are somewhat bumbling ingenues, Swift is definitely not a "beta male." I tend to be fascinated with possession, especially possession that stems from a choice or a bargain, and and Griffin's use of the motif introduces an interesting discussion of identity. I found the bizarrely childlike Swift, with his mix of blazing passion, savage fury, and ingenuous delight in the world around him to be a pleasant change from the standard jaded, world-weary, snarky MUF. Griffin's intimate knowledge and love of her city shines out of every page, and her depiction of London is rich and colorful. To have Swift's boundless enthusiasm for the mundanities around him, to see such potential in every grimy alley, you'd have to be a very young child or on some seriously strong illegal substances. Despite his comfort and experience with the magic of his world, Swift stops to marvel at every new sunrise, every streetlight, every graffiti tag, every train.
If a cross between Sandman Slim and Neverwhere with a touch of Harry Potter thrown in sounds intriguing, then I think this book is worth a closer look. As far as I can tell from the ratings, this isn't a book you'll love or hate--it's a book you'll love or 'meh'. For once, I got to be on the 'love' side of the dichotomy. If, like me, you were captivated by Neverwhere, then put A Madness of Angels on your to-read list. With its tenuous thresholds between life and death, magical and mundane, absurdism and atrocity, it recaptures the liminality that brings such depth to Neverwhere. A Madness of Angels captured my attention with its fantastically quirky and inventive world, bizarre and sympathetic character, and juxtaposition of the weird, wonderful, and ordinary.
"Welcome to telephone banking! To change your credit card details, please press one. To check your current account balance, press two. To dance in fire until the end of days, please press three....To cancel a direct debit, please press the star key. To send your soul across the infinite void faster than the blink of the mind dreaming in the moonlight, please press hash."
 Although I did notice that Matthew Swift goes through the entire novel without shaving or thinking about shaving, a first for the MUFs I've encountered.