I read a lot of great books in any given year, but I have hit a particularly lucky streak in the past month, for the one I just finished, Kate Griffin’s A Madness of Angels, or The Resurrection of Matthew Swift, published in the US by Orbit Books, is the third I read in a row (along with Gail Carriger’s Changeless and Blake Charlton’s Spellwright) that is not only great but is fantastically, awe-inspiringly, shout-it-to-the-rooftops-ingly so. A Madness of Angels is the sort of novel that makes you want to grab everyone you know and convince them to read it but also at a loss for how to describe why they should read it, for fear of giving away and thereby lessening its secrets and delights.
As with Spellwright, Griffin is working with a rather unique system of magic here that in many ways is very literal and deceptively simple. Often, urban fantasy means that magical and supernatural creatures associated with nature and the wild–such as faeries, sprites, werewolves, vampires, etc.–have been transplanted into a modern-day city setting. We see this in series such as Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files and Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter. In Matthew Swift’s world, however, the fantasy springs from the urban setting, rather than simply hiding within it. Griffin’s definition of urban magic is that the pulse, the rhythm, the heartbeat of the city and the millions of people living, working, traveling, eating, drinking, dancing, fucking within it becomes a palpable form of magic itself. A sorcerer is someone who can tap into these forces–which are every bit as primal as those found in nature–and manipulate them by working within their rules. For example, a potent spell can be cast in the London Underground by reciting the disclaimer text typed on the back of an Oyster card. And, yes, the city has within it trolls and demons and faeries and all the usual fantasy suspects, but it also has its own spirits–The Bag Lady, The Beggar King–formed from the hopes, dreams, fears, thoughts, and lives of the millions of people existing within it, and hideous monsters such as litterbugs, made from the trash and detritus they leave behind.
A Madness of Angel‘s plot can be summed up succinctly by its alternate title, The Resurrection of Matthew Swift. Matthew Swift is a powerful sorcerer who, two years after his grisly murder–which seemed to occur at the behest of his former master, Robert Bakker–finds himself very much alive again and seemingly merged with another mysterious entity referred to as the blue electric angels. Swift soon begins a quest to bring down Bakker and his dangerous network of magicians, necromancers, apprentices, and more, an arc that passingly resembles Quentin Tarrantino’s Kill Bill, with a recently resurrected protagonist weakening his enemy’s defenses by pursuing and stopping the man’s underlings one by one.
More than that, however, A Madness of Angels is a fascinating sojourn into the mind of a thoroughly unique protagonist, written in an evocative, searingly poetic style that manages to capture the stream-of-consciousness of a man who has become much more. And Swift is not just the sum of himself and the blue electric angels, but of the entirety of London. He can view and feel the city from the perspective of the pigeons flying above, the rats crawling below, and can peer into the stuff that makes up the city–not just the buildings, but the air, the light, the shadows, the emotions swirling within and around each person. When he speaks, he uses “I” and “we” seemingly interchangeably. I are we, and we are he, and he is Matthew Swift and the blue electric angels and the city, all rolled up into one. Kate Griffin has a strong command of character and a beautiful command of the English language. We aren’t just reading about the city and its magic–we hear it, we smell it, we taste it.
A Madness of Angels is a magical meditation on what it is to be human, the impact that we have on our environments and that our environments have on us, on how our shared histories and lives can create ripples in time and space, and of the consequences of becoming lost in all-enveloping power. It is also a remarkably clever, exceedingly entertaining trip through the magical underside of London, seen through a truly singular pair of eyes. The second book in the series, The Midnight Mayor, or The Inauguration of Matthew Swift was just released this month, and I plan on diving right into it as soon as humanly possible. Which will most likely be mere seconds after I click “Publish” on this post. Click.