The OF Blog: Kate Griffin, A Madness of Angels, The Midnight Mayor

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Kate Griffin, A Madness of Angels, The Midnight Mayor

Not how it should have been.

Too long, this awakening, floor warm beneath my fingers, itchy carpet, thick, a prickling across my skin, turning rapidly into the red-hot feeling of burrowing ants, too long without sensation, everything weak, like the legs of a baby.  I said twitch, and my toes twitched, and the rest of my body shuddered at the effort.  I said blink, and my eyes were like two half-sucked toffees, uneven, sticky, heavy, pushing back against the passage of my eyelids like I was trying to lift weights before a marathon. (p. 3)

A Madness of Angels is the first non-YA novel that acclaimed British writer Catherine Webb (under the pseudonym of Kate Griffin for this series) has written.  It is an urban fantasy set in contemporary London.  Before continuing with the description of the novel's plot, it should be noted that the term "urban fantasy" can mean very different things.  In this review, "urban fantasy" refers to a situation that involves some supernatural agencies that is set in an actual, recognizable urban center.  The thrust of this series, now that the first two volumes has been published, is to follow the explorations and troubles of the resurrected sorcerer Matthew Swift.  In A Madness of Angels, Matthew must solve the mystery of why he was brought back to at least the semblance of life two years after a brutal attack left him with a gaping hole in his chest.  Over the course of over 500 pages, Swift and a motley crew of apprentices, mentors, and anti-magic vigilantes also struggle to understand what is transpiring in London, as mysterious events have been to occur.

In reading this novel, it took a very long time for me to get accustomed to the story.  Griffin/Webb is a native Londoner and it is obvious that her knowledge of the city and its locales plays a major role in shaping the narrative.  The City, more or less, is the real protagonist of this series, sometimes to the detriment of those characters who flit about within its confines.  One problem that I had with this novel was the rather bland character of Matthew Swift.  As evidenced by the opening scene quoted above, the narrative is told via a first-person point of view.  The problem I had with this approach, at least for this series opener, is that Matthew Swift comes across as rather bland and passive.  While Griffin does try to give him a strong, sarcastic personality, too often in this book Matthew takes a passive, observational role that does little to further the mystery surrounding his reappearance and what dangers he and his companions face.  While this does improve in the final, action-packed third of the novel, it did put a damper on any enjoyment that I might have received from reading this story.

This blandness was compounded by the overly descriptive passages that Griffin was wont to use.  Instead of embellishing and complementing the characters and the scenes, passages such as the one below gave too much description and not enough development of plot and character:

The last to come was the biker, and he certainly wasn't alone.  He came with two others, one of whom could have been three men.  When he turned sideways he just about managed to fit through the door, and when he sat down, the chair, creaking and moaning, just about managed to support his weight.  It wasn't that he was fat - not the traditional saggy-belly, drooping chin sense of fat.  He was pure and simple big:  his thighs bulged in their black leather trousers, his shoulders strained the edges of his studded, extra-large black jacket, his chest threatened to burst through his black t-shirt, his beard ruptured off his face like curling smoke from a volcano, his hands were the size of the plate from which Vera ate her salad, his fingers were thick and raw, his every breath was like the rising and falling of a glassmaker's bellows, his expressions stretched from ear to ear and twitched over the end of his expansive, Roman nose.  I had never seen such a man; and more.  There was a slippery power about him, more than just the bulk of his presence, a flash of orange and golden fire on the senses, visible out of the corner of the eye, impossible to pin down.  He smelt of dirt and car oil and the road, and uncontrolled, risky power.  He looked at us and said, "Fucking hell.  Who hit you lot with a fucking haddock and hung you out to dry?" (pp. 280-281)

It is just too much.  In providing such a vivid description for what amounts to be a minor character, Griffin disrupts the flow of the narrative, creating a herky-jerkiness that is repeated several times throughout the course of the novel; this cited passage is but one of many.  This tendency to describe too much, combined with a protagonist whose personality was sometimes too bland to fit the needs for a first-person narrative to be interesting, made what could have been a very exciting series opener into a flawed, vaguely interesting but in a more distant fashion, sort of story.

The second novel, The Midnight Mayor, however was a much better-paced novel than was A Madness of Angels.  Matthew Swift, after the mystery of why/how he was resurrected was resolved, is a much more interesting character due to the internal tension he bears within his recreated body.  Although Griffin still displays a tendency to elaborate too much on occasion, the frequency of this is much less than it was in the first novel.  Griffin also further develops the connections between City and characters, particularly Matthew.

One of the more well-done aspects of this novel is its further development of the idea of there being a nested City within the city of London.  From shadow equivalents to aldermen and headed by the mysterious Midnight Mayor, this more magical, shrouded London feels much more inventive than several other attempts by other authors to develop cities as quasi-characters.  The menacing threat this time is much more palpable than in the first volume and its metaphoric qualities add a secondary interpretative layer to the text that did not exist before.  Griffin sets up well the clashes between this nefarious outside agencies, its allies, Matthew, and the nebulous forces that serve to protect the city.  There is a much more even pace to this novel and the climax is done fairly well.

Although The Midnight Mayor is far from a flawless novel, it is at least a novel that corrects most of the shortcomings of its predecessor.  The setting is superb, the characterizations improve to the point of being more than just ciphers masquerading as realized fictional characters, and the plot conflicts are more concise and easily executed than was the case in the first volume.  Due to the strength of this second volume, the Matthew Swift  may be one of the better urban fantasies to be published in the past year or so.  Mildly recommended.

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