The Neon Court (Matthew Swift, #3)
Recommended for: you really have to read Madness of Angels and Midnight Mayor first....
Matthew Swift, partially deceased sorcerer, symbiotic host to the electric blue angels of the wires, Midnight Mayor and protector of the city, is not an entity to be summoned lightly. But when he disappears in a blink and awakens in a conjuring of blood, it looks like someone has taken the chance. One perilous rescue, one fight to the death, and one burning building later, Swift's troubles have only begun. Oda, his sometime-enemy, sometime-ally, has been stabbed through the heart, but she seems determined not to go gentle in that good night. Lady Neon, queen of the newly reinvented urban faeries, and the Tribe, self-mutilating individualists, are calling for one another's blood, a sinister darkness is waiting at the end of every alley, parts of the city are vanishing from reality, and everyone seems to be expecting Matthew to Do Something about the situation.
As always, Griffin's imagination is breathtaking. From the giant eagles that Matthew summons to rescue him from the fiery abysses of Sidcup, to the metal god of the underworld, to medical history reporting magical treatments from the NHS, Griffin's creativity is astounding, This is my fourth book in Griffin's London and I'm still floored by how many quirky, entertaining magics Griffin manages to introduce. One of the most marvellous aspects was the Neon Court:
Once upon a time, in that old time when life was still magic and life was lived in the trees and forests and rivers and hills, in the old time of wild, ivy-tangled, rain-dropped magic, before the lights burnt and the spells flickered with electric fury, there existed the Faerie Court...But alas, the Faerie Court did not move with the times, and did not predict how a steam train could carve the landscape, or how a factory could discolour the sky, and, as the times changed, so did the magic, migrating with the people to the cities and becoming rich with smoke and stone and the sound of metal. And so the Faerie Court declined, and those who sought its blessing dwindled, until there was nothing more than a dusty hollow in the carved-out heart of a wood, crumbling with the fall of autumn leaves..[until] an enterprising princess...declared the founding of a new court: the Neon Court, whose heart was in the heart of the cities...And in time Lady Neon herself became little more than a myth: a figure only ever seen by the shadow of a street light, moving between city after city, forever chasing the night and avoiding the sun, a reveller whose lips could seduce any creature they touched.
Those in the eternal quest for light and music and superficial beauty are contrasted with the Tribe, people who, seeing themselves as different from the rest of the world, seek to accentuate this divide via self-mutilation and self-augmentation until they are no longer recognisably human:
"Once-humans, or humans that had cut away every outward sign of humanity, skin and flesh, in the hope that when they no longer looked human, they'd no longer have to obey human rules."
Griffin explores the themes of self-harm and the very human attempt to reshape the exterior in an attempt to redefine the self. As Matthew notes, both "Thought the key to being perfect was to cut away the bad things." As both the Tribe and the Fey demonstrate, ripping away facets of one's exterior, whether in a quest for beauty or uniqueness, can mutilate and warp the interior as well until all humanity is gone.
The plot follows the pattern of the other books in the series: Swift, aided by an (unfortunately all too disposable) snarky female sidekick, is pursued by an implacable supernatural foe. With the clock ticking and the city at risk if Swift cannot destroy the foe stalking him, he is forced into an alliance with distrustful, threatening, and morally ambiguous supernatural groups. The standard witty banter is still present, as Dees, Swift's Alderman ally, and Penny, his apprentice, are practically slot-in replacements for Oda and Vera. Several characters make their usual cameo appearances, including Sinclair, Charlie, and the inimitable and ever-entertaining Dr Seah. Griffin again tends to interject third-person interludes into the story, but despite the potentially dramatic content, I found these to be exposition-heavy and emotion-lite.
The plot itself is quite twisty and satisfying, and the malevolent magic is genuinely shivery.
Three books in, I'm still fascinated with Swift's character and the conflict between electric angel and dead sorcerer. In Neon Court, Griffin delves even deeper into the darker aspects of this peculiar fusion of personalities. While the brooding, sarcastic, depressive Matthew is reasonably typical for the genre, the electric angels are something else altogether, a heady mixture of wonder and delight and blazing passion and pride and fury. As one character puts it, "Vengeance and retribution...the blue electric angels don't care for the laws of men, or the practicalities of this world, or what should or should not be. They have the moralities of six-year-olds, stripped of all complexity." The electric angels are inherently amoral; they would destroy a city just to watch the dance of flames amongst the ashes. Griffin does a fantastic job in creating these dual aspects; the moments in which the angels take control are palpable, and not only because of the pronoun switch. When Matthew is overcome by strong emotions--pain, weakness, or bewilderment--the angels tend to step in with a ruthless simplicity. As he explains,
I've got two kinds of magics. I've got the nice, sitting-at-home-not-troubling-anyone kinda magics...and we have the magics of fire and death, of destruction with no chance of return, of blood aflame and flesh turns to dust...which of us do you want to meet?
When you're a sorcerer, and Midnight Mayor, and burning fire runs through your veins, you've only really got two modes. You've got diplomatically passive, and you've got apocalyptically destructive. Finding that middle ground--you know, breaking someone's kneecaps without actually causing them to spontaneously combust--can be a delicate business.
There is only one aspect that the two personalities truly share: a tangible affection for the life within the city.
Although dark throughout, the book is sprinkled with Griffin's trademark creativity and wit. Dees, Swift's new assistant, is particularly entertaining, as she manages a riposte in all of her verbal duels with Swift. Take her response to his attempt to angle for a complement: 'Mr Swift, if it's any comfort to you, I can promise you that were I not a happily married woman with a husband I love well,' sighed Dees,'you would definitely be in my top two genders of choice.'
Of course, not all the snark and quixotic imagination in the world can lighten the tone when the blood starts flowing. Almost every named character dies, and by now, this shouldn't be a spoiler. In my opinion, Griffin's bloodbaths have hit saturation point: the deaths have become predictable, an aspect to be expected and endured. In every book, at least one of Matthew's female allies will be spectacularly murdered, conveniently driving Swift over the edge and allowing the angels to take control. As he notes in reference to the death of his friend Madness, "[Her death]..made complex things simple." This trick to send the villains over the Moral Event Horizon does indeed make things simple, at the cost of all the complexity and depth that might otherwise be explored. It takes more courage to keep your characters alive, to let their personalities and relationships develop and grow, to maintain the suspense without resorting to cheap tricks. Yet no matter how inured I was to my favourite characters' deaths, no matter how accurately I predicted their demises, events still left me with an aching throat.(show spoiler)
One unexpected delight of the book was the way in which it re-examined the events of A Madness of Angels. I've had Swift pegged as an antihero for a while, but it was interesting to see him try to reconcile his own motivations for pursuing Bakker.
One of the other subplots of the book, the exploration of the "chosen one" trope, fits neatly into this theme. I have always been fascinated by the struggle between what is right and what is necessary, the extents and limitations of responsibility, and the role of choice and guilt in maintaining humanity. As one character remarks bleakly, "One has to prioritise when it comes to big feelings. One can only feel big feelings for so many people, otherwise one has to feel lots and lots of little feelings for lots of little people, and then frankly you'd stop being the hero." Perhaps this is the ultimate theme of the book: the struggle to define the line between hero and monster when both do what they think must be done.
Overall, I cannot recommend this series too highly. Although I'm not thrilled with Griffin's decision to repeatedly re-isolate her hero and increase character turnover, there are too many wonderful aspects to these books to resist, from Griffin's incredible imagination to her laugh-inducing humour to her vibrant depiction of London. I've seen Griffin's writing aptly described as a "Marmite style", but if you happen to be a fan of her rather quirky, dialectic and dialogue-heavy stream-of-consciousness, please give these books a try.
~~Appendix (because this review just wasn't long enough, right?) ~~
MUSIC: I read at the gym and tend to pair my books with music. This series is vastly more enjoyable with a soundtrack. In the first two books, I gave Matthew and his angels this themesong ("Septimus" from the soundtrack of Stardust). As the plot has become bleaker, my soundtrack has evolved; personally, I found Jablonski's brilliant soundtracks to Transformers, interspersed with Zimmer's Crysis, to be a wonderful accompaniment.
my review of Madness of Angels (Matthew Swift #1)
my review of The Midnight Mayor (Matthew Swift #2)
my review of The Minority Council(Matthew Swift #4)
my review of Stray Souls (Magicals Anonymous #1)
my review of The Glass God (Magicals Anonymous #2)