I've finished the series.
I'm kind of tempted to start over with the first book now.
Yes, they're that good.
How? Well, they're the literary equivalent of Steve Jablonsky's glorious soundtrack to Transformers, especially Optimus and Bumblebee. (I highly recommend listening to the soundtrack while reading the books.)
I cannot capture the magic of these books in words, but I'm going to give it a whirl anyway--and, for once in my life, without including any spoilers of events in previous books.
The Matthew Swift series involves one of the most fantastical and whimsically creative worlds I've encountered, one of the most fascinatingly broken protagonists that I follow, and a style that sucks me into the narrative. I accept that this series is not for everyone; it's written in lush stream-of-consciousness, and there are certain tropes utilized again and again which may be a turnoff for some readers. But if you haven't at least tried the books, you don't know what you're missing.
So why is this series so very addictive?
Part of it is the world that Griffin creates. This is my fifth book in this world and she still has the power to surprise, to delight, to horrify me with her creativity and the richness of her imagination. Throughout the series, one theme is constant: that "Life is magic." Griffin's delight and wonder in the life of the city makes the magic of her world nearly tangible:
"In all things that live there is not just power, but wonder and possibility, shadows and time,... magic is a reflection of layer upon layer upon layer of life plastered across this world like air."
From women who crumble into dust to imps who colonize vacuum cleaner bags and take vacations in the dumpsters,Griffin's world is extraordinary and yet familiar. Her London is detailed with something deeper than mere affection; when Griffin's characters speak of souls rooted in the stones at the heart of London, I think she speaks from experience.
Part of it is the writing style. I know I originally complained about it, and I'm not sure if it has grown more elegant or simply grown on me, but I find all of it--the stream-of-consciousness, the heavily dialectic speech, the lush descriptions--oddly compelling. It draws me into the narrative so deeply that I can hear each character's unique voice and cadence. Even in the darkest moments, Griffin inserts insanely wacky little tidbits that you can't help but laugh at. Take this little scene:
"'You know how vampires are allergic to garlic?'
'And werewolves to silver?'
'And banshees to ginger?'
'You're making this up.'
'I'm sorry, seven years medical training,' she replied, 'and you're just some git with fractured ribs, so whatever. Only, you see, bloodhounds...'
'You are kidding me.'
'Bloodhounds just can't take their garam masala.'"
Or a tense moment where Matthew and his gang are waiting to be attacked:
'We could play I-spy,' suggested Nabeela. We stared at her. 'I'm just saying.'
'You don't think,' remarked Penny, 'that would undermine this amazing aura of impending doom that we've got going here?'
I was scanning the low courtyard, half listening to them both.
'Okay-I spy with my little eye, something beginning with "s."'
Watching hooded creatures circle the fire.
'I'm not gonna play with you if you're like that,' grumbled Penny.
At the same time, one issue I discuss in all of my other reviews still hold: I can't think of a single series in which the average sidekick lifespan is this short. Do not get attached to characters; they most likely won't make it past the first chapter of the next book. Honestly, at some point, the cheap shocks stop working, even on me. There are only so many horrific deaths of important named characters, only so many times the female sidekick can dissolve into a melting pool of paint-- or crumble into dust-- or die screaming with black pits for eyes-- or be gutted by steel blades-- before it becomes predictable. Again, I think the cardinal sin is not just this facile attempt to tug at the emotions of the readers, but the fact that the high death count means that very few characters' personalities are allowed to develop, to grow, adapt, change, mature. Worse still, the characters die in a TV-show style, with no one left in permanent grief, no real thought given to friends and families and lovers left behind. In each book, we restart with a similar set of stock characters, often easy slot-in replacements for the all-too-recently deceased. If the deaths meant more to the other characters--if Matthew was more haunted by their absence--then I think I could forgive the deaths more.(show spoiler)
As you might have guessed, I don't handle character deaths well. So why am I so very addicted to these books? Maybe it's the protagonist. Matthew Swift, partially-deceased and somewhat-possessed urban sorcerer, makes for a highly original narrator. I love his wonder at the world around him, his tendency to see symbolism in the most mundane of objects (For example, his coat: "This is the coat of infinite pockets, which hold not things but thoughts, memories and dreams tied away like knots in a string.") his wry voice ("I had some time to kill, before time came round to try to kill me.") But my fascination with the character goes deeper than affection and empathy for yet another self-destructive, broken, sarcastic antihero. Matthew Swift is a character with two very distinct but constantly interchanging personalities. These two cadences, the contrast and layering and unison between two entities, reminds me strongly of a childhood favourite: A Joyful Noise: Poems for Two Voices. One minute he's sarcastic, depressive, but also timorous and self-effacing. It says something that at least half of his super-badass battles end with him triumphantly running away from the villain. But when strong emotions grip him, the angels take over. The angels, which normally bring a sort of wonder and ingenuity to Matthew's narration, are frightening in their fury, absolutely uncaring of consequences, glorying in destruction, reveling in death and violence. (Incidentally, he also starts burning with blue fire and I rather suspect his voice fractures into all the fragments lost in the telephone wires.) Yet even discounting the influence of the angels, there is something colder and darker in Swift's core, something that allows him to sacrifice his allies again and again and yet still walk away unbroken. His grief is not so much for the people as for his own loss of innocence; his own suffering. To quote the Beggar King,
"You feel guilt because you think you're a good man, and good men feel guilt. But I'm gonna tell you, good men don't have to burn their clothes regularly because there's too much blood in them to wash out. [...] Matthew, as a guy who's in the know, I'm here to tell you, you're not a good guy. [...] Don't think that just because you're beating yourself up about it now, you won't do it again. You will."
Once wounded, Swift cloaks his vulnerability in anger, in rage, in a self-righteous quest for vengeance. And when he succumbs to the madness of angels, their fury erupts into something more pure and elemental, without conscience and without control. I find Matthew and the angels fascinating and disconcerting and occasionally horrifying. I have real difficulties when the guilt begins to condense into fury, into hatred, into outward destruction. It is a testament to Ms. Griffin's skill as a writer that I have been dragged, protesting all the way, down Matthew Swift's ever-accelerating spiral of destruction. I have felt shock and anger for every character who has died, even when I predicted their deaths at the moment of meeting them. Despite grief and helpless anger for his blind decisions, I still empathise with Matthew.
Part of my acceptance of Matthew's character is the fact that the major theme of the book--of the series, in fact-- is the tension between the greater good and the needs of the few. Most of the villains are sympathetic, because they tend to be people who went too far in their quest to improve the world. As Matthew notes,
"Spend enough time concentrating on the big picture and, sooner or later, you'll forget about being human."
For me, this aspect of the story is troubling and thought-provoking, because I often find myself more closely aligned with the antagonists' perspectives, at least in the abstract. As one comments,
"We all want to defeat evil, Matthew, all of us. But too often the greater good asks us to let a little evil live, for the good of us all."
All to often, it seems that Matthew's Right Thing is to protect the things that are important to him personally, however arbitrary his definition of importance might be. He saves the individual at the cost of the many, and because they are a nameless grey multitude to him, their lives do not weigh heavily on his shoulders. This type of quest-- to Save The Child, to Rescue the Princess, to Avenge The Family, to Bring Justice, to achieve this at all costs and with any sacrifice necessary-- is one of the most central tropes in the fantasy genre. I think it captures the world that we want to live in, a world where, truly, no one is ever left behind, where the daring rescue risks everything yet costs nothing. Griffin subverts the trope; personal is apparently the same thing as important, but the sacrifice is not an empty one. As one character tells Matthew,
"'You've survived a lot of things that most wouldn't have; I respect that. But how'd you survive?'
'You let others die for you.'
In the end, the destruction wrought by both Matthew and his antagonists demonstrate that the distinction between personal and important must remain a tenuous one, a liminal space in which humanity resides. It is all to easy to become "forward-thinking," to act "proactively", to dehumanize the world into a machine to be optimized, to lose the people in the process.
The section titles-- from "You can't be everything to everyone" through "You can't save those who don't want to be saved", and finally, to "...but you might as well try"--create a fitting end to Matthew Swift's tale. Like these phrases, repeated over and over within the narrative, Matthew is trapped in a cycle of destruction; the harder he tries to hold onto his humanity, the faster it is subsumed into the madness of the angels. He is a powerful character, a gloriously imperfect one, yet one of his tragedies is his inherently static nature, his inability to pull himself out of the abyss. It is fitting, then, that the story of Matthew's world is continued by another narrator in the next book, Stray Souls. It provides a new potential for hope, for change. Matthew Swift's story may no longer take centre stage, but Urban Magic lives on.
Thank you, Ms. Griffin.
It has been a glorious ride.
my review of Madness of Angels (Matthew Swift #1)
my review of The Midnight Mayor (Matthew Swift #2)
my review of The Neon Court(Matthew Swift #3)
my book updates for The Minority Council (Matthew Swift #4, aka this book), which contain a bunch of quotes, spoilertagged for your convenience.
my review of Stray Souls (Magicals Anonymous #1)
my review of The Glass God (Magicals Anonymous #2)