Stray Souls - Kate Griffin

~~Sort of moved from GR, sort of rewritten due to a reread. So I dunno. Also, don't worry, there's only one left in the series and then I'll stop gushing.~~


Stray Souls (Magicals Anonymous #1)

by Kate Griffin


Recommended for: Fans of light, creative, and hilarious UF who won't mind the style.


In a sudden, overwhelming rush of light and noise and music and emotion and knowledge, Sharon Li becomes an urban shaman. And just like that, it's gone again. But Sharon Li isn't one to wait on the universe; as a yoga-deep-breathing, self-help-reading, blue-haired optimist, she decides to take her problems to the internet. She sets up a Facebook group ("Weird Shit Keeps Happening to me and I Don't Know Why But I Figure I Need Help,"), which quickly becomes the Magicals Anonymous self-help meeting. Once a week, misunderstood necromancers, hypochondriac vampires, gourmand trolls, and hay-fever-hindered druids gather in a circle of creaky folding chairs and introduce themselves to a chorus of "hello's", then tell their stories to a sympathetic, tea-drinking audience. But Sharon and her motley crew aren't left to talk out their problems in peace. Souls are being stolen from the city, the Midnight Mayor can do nothing, and only an urban shaman can bring back balance. It would be a lot easier if all those supernatural monsters weren't after her, though...

Hi, I'm Carly (Hello Carly) and I'm addicted to urban fantasy.
So, yeah, I know there are worse things I could be addicted to--Starbucks coffee habits take a bigger bite of your budget--but it's becoming a real problem. See, I crave the stuff with originality and creativity and whimsy and imagination, and they're increasingly hard to find. Fortunately, Kate Griffin is here to feed my habit with stories chock full of urban magic, ninja builders, and banshees with artistic inspirations. The light-hearted, quirky character of the book is reflected in its structure. Short chapters give Sharon's story in third person and are each emblazoned with a vapid self-help platitude ("One Door Closes, Another Opens","Reflect But Do Not Dwell Upon the Past", etc). These are liberally interleaved with mini-chapters in which the characters introduce themselves in extremely colloquial first person. I really enjoyed the structure; it might be a bit gimmicky, but the choppy chapters fit the mood of the book and do a wonderful job in tempering Griffin's rather elaborate stream-of-consciousness prose. As someone who hears character voices in my head, I found that the conversational style and slang brought the characters to life.

Like the Matthew Swift (MS) books, Griffin's previous series, Stray Souls takes place within the hidden world of urban magic in contemporary London. While the worlds are the same, the protagonists are distinct. Unlike the desperately unhappy Matthew Swift, Sharon Li is a very cheerful person, as she should be--she certainly works hard at it. Sharon is an inveterate self-actualiser; she repeats a catechism of self-encouragement to herself in times of trial, has a tendency towards evening classes and the self-help section of the library, and almost always attempts to be "nice." While Swift is always isolated and lonely, Sharon is indeed a people person, and quickly collects a coterie of quirky sidekicks who may or may not be more trouble than they are worth. But Sharon's never one to let reality get her down.  As she says,
"I figure we'll be okay, yeah, because we've got a troll and a druid and a vampire and a necromancer and a sorcerer and a high priestess and a dog and shit on our side, whereas [X] are only like this mega-evil banking corporation led by a psychopathic [monster] and all his forces of darkness, so we'll be totally fine. Oh, and Gretel's made sandwiches."
While the MS books have a tendency to leverage tragedies within the plot to delve earnestly into moral issues, Stray Souls focuses more on eccentric characters and farcical scenes. While it seems to be a minority opinion, I preferred the lighter tone. The book still involves a relentless killer stalking the streets, but for once, the adventure isn't littered with the bodies of dead comrades (dead yes, comrades no). I strongly dislike reading about the deaths of the characters I have invested in emotionally, so if someone has to die, I prefer the redshirts. Personally, I think Griffin has hit her stride: the less intense human tragedy better matches the whimsicality and creativity of the world that she creates.
Assuming that the MS books were not a prerequisite to the new series, I first read Stray Souls while I was still halfway through the MS books. As it turns out, I was quite wrong: without understanding his story arc, Matthew Swift himself seemed impressively incompetent, inconsistent, rude, cryptic, and illogically hands-off. In fact, for me, the major flaw in the book [1] was this jarring alteration in personality.  Part of my sense of alienation was probably due to the change from first- to third-person viewpoint, and I think the dehumanizing effect was only accentuated by Griffin's tendency to refer to him by his title, position, or occupation rather than his name.  I considered Swift's refusal to storm in with his own powers and allies to be utterly out-of-character, and, given the events of #2, irritatingly hypocritical--in short, merely a lame plot device to relegate him to the background. However, now that I've finished the MS series, I've changed my mind. Put it this way: given that the full title of #3 is  "The Neon Court: Or The Betrayal of Matthew Swift," Matthew's avoidance of his allies is reasonable. In #4, Swift does impetuously "storm in"-- to catastrophic results. Stray Souls takes place in the immediate aftermath of #4, so given his disastrous decisions, it is reasonable that Swift would try his hand at the Chessmaster role--and of course, he makes an absolute dog's breakfast of it. I still think Swift comes off as an utter pillock in this book[2], and his sidelining is still a bit contrived, but it's far more in-character than I had thought.  On that note, I think Stray Souls is entirely readable as a standalone, but as Griffin provides little to no explanation of who (or what) Swift is, you might want to get a recap of some aspects of MS.[3] Swift has a hilarious, almost Miles-Vorkosigan-like tendency to "happen to" people. Take, for example, his conversation with a little old lady and a surly goblin: 
"'Is that something to do with us, Mr Swift?'
'You know, Mrs Rafaat, I think it might be.'
'But all that glass! That's going to cost a fortune to replace.'
'That's what makes me think it might be something to do with us.'
'Do you think everyone is all right?'
'Well, personally I find massive symptoms of architectural destruction a rather positive indication.'
[Goblin] 'That's because you're incompetent, sorcerer.'"
All of the characters, including Matthew, fall somewhere between engaging and disturbing, but I warmed to almost all of them.  I quite liked Sharon; outwardly rather ditsy, she is fiercely determined to "be the best she can be," which most definitely does not involve acting as a damsel in distress. Take her attitude on the subject of brow-mopping:
"You know that thing where the guy gets injured, heroically fighting off monsters and that? And then he gets all romantically feverish and kind of sexily sweaty and stuff? And then there's this girl who sits by him and mops his brow with cold water? I can't be having any of that. I just don't see how it makes any sense, because you know how the girl is usually 'Do I care?' at the start, and by the end is 'Wow I love this guy, he's needy?' I've never seen why I should come over all vapid for needy. Or, in fact, why sweaty is sexy. Sweaty smells."
My favourite Sharon moments were the scenes where she manipulates her bemused victims with torrents of self-actualization jargon. Some of the characters felt rather stereotyped, like the hypochondriac vampire Kevin (he asks you to fill out a blood-drive questionnaire before he'll drink your blood), but I liked most of Sharon's gang, from Rhys the tech support druid ("practically the chosen one", but failed druiding due to allergies) to Chris the new-age exorcist ("exorcise with love") to the gentle troll Gretel. Not all of the magical misfits are exactly pleasant people--the necromancer is a dubious character at best, and I found Sammy the goblin more irritating than entertaining--but their flaws serve to make them more interesting. Even the bigots were amusing:
"'Fucking vampires, bloodsucking sponges on the fucking state.'
'Get back to Transylvania!' agreed another.
'Come over here...'
'...drinking our blood..'
'I'm from Liverpool, actually.'"
As usual, I felt quite a bit of unwilling sympathy for the villains, although in this case, I felt far more sorry for the least human of the antagonists.[4]  Overall, I think the book's character mini-chapters proved to be a very effective way of (literally) giving each character a distinctive voice. 
Yet again, the crazy antics creative worldbuilding plastered a smile on my face throughout. Although the book does have a few flaws, Griffin's fantastic imagination makes up for them.  When I finished, I was wavering between 4 and 4.5, but the incident with the magical swarm of plastic bags flapping around like malignant jellyfish made up my mind: a 4.5 it is.

So, anyway, yeah, my name is Carly.
I'm naff at tea but I can brew a fair coffee.
So, um, I guess I was just wondering--can I join Magicals Anonymous? 
I can bring the mugs.
~~I LOVE FOOTNOTES! (can you tell?)~~
[*] The post title's actually from this. Sorry, I just had to. I couldn't think up a punny title, and the book quotes are too long.  So I had to go with utter irrelevance.

 [other than the contrived ending--seriously, weren't there better ways to get Edna killed rather than an ever-so-convenient afterthought during the villain's escape?]

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The most problematic aspect, for me, was his use of the evil sorcerers as bait for the dog, and his complete insensitivity to their demise.]

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[3]If you choose to read this before the Matthew Swift books, Griffin really, really doesn't provide recaps, so here are my Cliff Notes, which hopefully provide sufficient background for this book without spoiling the previous ones. I'll spoiler-tag them just in case, though.
Matthew Swift is a sorcerer--that means he draws magic from a deep understanding of and connection to the city. (Why doesn't that help with the situation in Stray Souls? Never really explained. Just roll with it.) Swift also had a special connection with the lost voices of the telephone wires, spirits which call themselves the electric blue angels.  When Swift refuses to help his mentor, Robert Bakker, use the angels to extend his life, Bakker murders him. With his last dying breath, Swift sends his spirit down the phone wires to dance eternally with the electric blue angels. Bakker goes on to construct an organization called the Tower (it gets mentioned a couple of times in Stray Souls) and murder every magical practitioner he can find within the city.  Two years after his death, Swift is brought back to life, but because the electric blue angels come along for the ride, he's now a strange medley of personalities and has a tendency to refer to himself in the third person. He rounds up a mini-army of magical allies, kills Bakker, and takes down the Tower.
Midnight Mayor (#2)
The Midnight Mayor, protector of the city, is murdered by a supernatural being called the Death of Cities; the Midnight Mayor landed the job on Swift, possibly with the goal of getting Swift killed. The Aldermen, the servants of the Mayor, were not thrilled--hence the birth of Swift's issues with his underlings. 
Swift's Aldermen are still not thrilled with him when a war threatens to break out between the Tribe--a bunch of self-mutilating individualists-- and the Neon Court--the new reincarnation of the fey.  Swift is forced to work against the Aldermen, who instead want to follow their laws and treaties. Because of Swift's actions, lots and lots of people die. Again.  Mentions of "Blackout" in Stray Souls are references to a supernatural being that starts stalking Swift at this point.
Swift is alerted to a bizarre drug, "fairy dust," which appears to increase magical powers but is always fatal.  After a woman he cares about dies from the drug, he decides to go after the organization that creates and deals it.  He again is forced to work against the Alderman, and is again betrayed by the people he trusts.  At several points within the novel, he utilizes his full magical powers, and tragedy is the inevitable result.  Yet again, he is betrayed by the Aldermen.  He also is forced to recognize that when he and the Aldermen do not agree, they will act directly against him and attempt to execute him.
Several comments within the MS#4 and MA#1 indicate that Stray Souls occurs concomitantly and directly after MS#4, which goes some way to explaining Swift's subsequent inaction during Stray Souls.

And now you're up to date on Matthew's un-life!
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For fellow non-British readers, yes, Mr Ruislip's name is significant.  I initially surmised it must be an anagram and spent a bit of time trying to figure out what it could be  (Slurpii, if you're curious, which is rather fortuitously apt) before I took my search to the Internet and discovered that Ruislip is a place.  I don't know precisely what the name signifies to Ms Griffin, and I must admit to a slight disappointment that the slurpii thing was not intentional.

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~~Other links~~

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 review of The Minority Council(Matthew Swift #4)

my review of The Glass God (Magicals Anonymous #2)