Sunday, 12 October 2014

Don't you just hate when real life gets in the way of book-related woolgathering?

And you thought you had problems.

Matthew Swift, urban sorcerer, fragrant vagrant (but he took his A-levels, so cut him some slack!), has been dead for two years. Generally, most people tend to stay that way, or at least come back with an insatiable craving for brains and sporting a few spots of decay here and there. However, when he comes back to life (of course he does, otherwise there'd be no story. Come on, keep up guys), he brings something else back with him: the electric blue angels. He is possessed by the spirits of all the words whispered into the phone lines, the echo of all things said and feelings unanswered, brought to life by hundreds of years of humans pouring themselves into the wires. On top of his already impressive (if sloppy) urban sorcery, the power of a million immortal angels bubbling around in his blood makes him something of a formidable force, despite the lingering smell of garbage and sewer that follows him around. No seriously, he has Sebastian St. Cyr's track record of clothing destruction, but cares half as much.

Normally, having a million screaming voices of human empathy and suffering riding piggyback is kind of a lot to deal with, but on top of that Swift needs to deal being three years dead and waking into a world where it seems like everything is trying to kill him.

But you know, that's no excuse for bad hygiene.

The book was rapidly losing me -- Griffin's prose tends to wind in on itself in interesting but ultimately exhausting stream-of-consciousness styles -- until the scene where Swift and a woman named Oda are chased into the Underground. Swift is oddly insistent they properly swipe their Oysters into the turnstiles, despite the urgency of the situation and the small matter of their imminent demise. And here we witness one of the greatest scenes in the whole book.

Big scary monster Hunger, who killed Matthew once and yearns to do it again, tears into the tunnel after them and is repelled by an invisible force field -- all because Matthew Swift is invoking that most sacred of London Magics: no ticket, no entry.

And I was hooked.

The London which Griffin introduces us to is unapologetically filthy and ripe with the stenches of a million rotting garbage bags (as is Swift himself), bursting with the noises of screeching metal and clacking trains, and gusting with the smoke from a million exhaust pipes. It's the London you don't see in the postcards, the real urban landscape that is as much alive as anyone there. This is the magic of the city, which Matthew Swift taps into as easily as breathing.

It's been a really long time since magic in a story really amazed me. After J.K. Rowling hit the scene, most feats of fictional magic have just been flashes in the pan, and equally exciting. Griffin's urban magic the most inventive kind of wizardry I've read in ages, and the most exciting -- every time someone starts working magic, my metaphorical ears prick up because it's always something new. Who would have thought a Sudoku book and a trashy romance novel can serve as appropriate sacrifices to the spirits of commuters? Or that a guardian spirit of London would take the form of a dragon made of faded and forgotten street signs? 

Griffin's imagination is absolutely bursting with exciting new ways to look at the world around you, and this, if anything, is the core concept of the book. Griffin's villains are all men and women who see magic as something to be exploited for power and money. Except they've got a very limited view of it, as Swift soon shows them. Magic isn't life -- life is magic, if you only bothered to look at it.

A Madness of Angels is an exhilarating romp through the magical underbelly of London among the dregs, the bikers, the zealots, the vandals, the vermin, and the one man to bring them all together in an astounding conclusion, one electric blue-eyed Matthew Swift. 

Read if you don't mind magic that's far less squeaky clean than your average Hogwarts textbook or heroes who really need a bath.


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