..and you know, I mean, you seriously know that it won't have just been left down the back of the sofa.”
The Midnight Mayor (Matthew Swift, #2)
by Kate Griffin
Recommended for: fans of fantastically imaginative UF who won't mind the writing style
Something is wrong with the city.
Spectres and Saturates (scum monsters) stalk (or squish) through the streets. There is writing on the walls of London. The ravens of the Tower are dead. And Matthew Swift, somewhat-deceased, partially-possessed sorcerer, has been attacked through the very phone lines from which he draws part of his identity. When he awakens from unconsciousness, wounded and bleeding, it is to the realisation that the Midnight Mayor, mysterious protector of the city, has been murdered. But what with the disturbing entity calling itself the Death of Cities after him, he hardly has time to care about all the people from his own side who suspect him of having a hand in the Mayor's death.
There is no way that I can write a review that adequately captures the world that Kate Griffin creates. (Honestly, I think this song--"Septimus" from the soundtrack of Stardust--with its quixotic uplifting tone and darker undercurrents, captures the story better than any words of mine.) I was floored by the sheer creativity of A Madness of Angels, and Midnight Mayor is just as fantastically inventive. There is one scene in particular...well, put it this way: I didn't think anything could top the London Underground warding scene of the first book, but when Matthew attempts to use the spell again, the results are even more spectacular. Griffin has an incredibly unique vision, and the world of urban magic that she continues to construct is gloriously imaginative and deeply imbued with her love of the city. The writing style continues to be a rather flowery stream-of-consciousness, but I found it far less grating than in the first book. As someone who hears the voices of the characters when I read, I actually found myself quite enjoying the style, and I suspect it will appeal to other readers who subvocalise--Matthew's monologue is both incredibly evocative and generally hilarious.
My book has a blurb from Mike Carey (Felix Castor books), which, on first glance, I considered a rather odd choice. Given the eccentric, fanciful imagination and strong similarities to Neverwhere, I would have plumped for Neil Gaiman. However, the more I thought about it, the more I began to discern the similarities between the two series. Despite the wordplay and snarky humour, both have a dark undertone from the sheer isolation of the protagonists. Matthew and Fix are always treated with distaste and suspicion even by the people they work with, always distrusted, always distrustful, always alone. While most of Fix's problems stem from his own hostility, I don't think that the rather inoffensive Matthew deserves all that ire. I find Matthew himself a fascinating character, and not just because he tops my list for generalized batshit-craziness (yep, he beats Miles Vorkosigan). Matthew perceives himself as the combination of the human personality of the late sorcerer Matthew Swift and the collection of lost voices that identify themselves as the blue electric angels, the spirits of the wires. His syntax itself is indicative--when his personal pronouns go plural, watch out, as the angels are ruthlessly and terrifyingly careless of consequences. Personally, I don't think there is anything human left, and the first-person-singular is an echo that the angels have constructed and believe to be truth.
"We burn the things we touch..it is a fire that mortals cannot sustain. I will burn one day..my blood will fall..it will be blue electric fire and all that is human and mortal in me will dissolve in fire and speed and fury and delight and not even notice that it has died."
The book's dark mood of isolation makes for an interesting contrast with the humorous dialogue and whimsical creativity of Matthew's London. The angels may be easily distracted by the wonders of the universe (and pancakes), but Matthew himself seems desperately unhappy and alone. The bleak tone is exacerbated by Griffin's willingness to kill her characters to a point that the deaths begin to feel like devices to generate shock value.(show spoiler)
Griffin's side characters, especially the female ones, have an impressively short life expectancy.(show spoiler)
I have to admit that I resent bloodbaths, especially when I feel that I'm more affected by the deaths than the in-universe characters. While I personally want the character deaths to either happen less or matter more, I suspect the high mortality rate is intended to imbue a more serious tone to Griffin's moral message. (If you can't guess it, don't worry--she will tell you outright. Many, many times.) Despite my distaste for platitudes, Griffin's message is passionate and heartfelt.(show spoiler)
One of the many aspects I love about these books is that the human villains are so ordinary, so morally grey. Like the Felix Castor series, there is a strong human element to the tragedy, but in Griffin's case, it is careless, unintentional cruelty that is most deadly. Griffin has a wonderful ability to combine terrifying supernatural entities with villains that are, in the end, rather pitiful.
Despite the darkness of tone and isolation, this book made me smile--literally. Several times while reading, I only noticed I was grinning only when my cheek muscles started feeling the strain. This happens quite rarely--I think the last time (other than Madness) was Ghost Story. Despite the contentious nature of their relationship, I love the interactions between Matthew and the violent religious nutcase Oda. One of their many running gags is Oda's tendency to denounce just about everything:
"'You've seen Star Wars?'
'Seen it and denounced it.'
'You've denounced Star Wars?'
She looked me straight in the eye and said, 'Hollywood should not glorify witches.'
'I think you've missed the point...'
'I also denounced Harry Potter.'
'...because literature, especially children's literature, should not glorify witches.'
'Oda, what do you do for fun?'
She thought about it, then said, without a jot of humour, 'I denounce things.'"
[a few hundred pages later]
"'Did you denounce Alien?'
'It's just a film.'"
I love Matthew's unique turn of phrase, from meditations on the zen of washing machines to characterisations the city ("London is a dragon. New York is probably King Kong") to rating terror on a scale of one to ten ("where one is 'so doo-lally-happy I could jump off a cliff and whistle numbers from The Sound of Music on the way down' and ten is 'can't open the window in case the air eats me' scared.") The sheer creativity of the world is delightful: conjuring with ASBOs is largely ineffective, spectres can be trapped in beer bottles (you can drown anything in the bottom), and Tesco's receipts can be deadly. In the end, the darker mood was far outweighed by dry wit and extravagant imagination. This book made me smile, and that is too rare and wonderful to resist.
I later realized they had the same agent. Mystery solved. But my point still stands.