A Madness of Angels

When someone in my book group mooted Kate Griffin’s A Madness of Angels, my immediate reaction was skepticism. “Didn’t we already read something by her?” I thought, “and wasn’t it terrible?”. It turned out that, no, what we’d read was Cold Magic by a different Kate (Elliott). While glad to have been mistaken I suspect that, on some autonomic level, that skepticism persisted — I was unconsciously primed not to like this book.

I suppose the most notable thing about this book is its genre — (London-based) urban fantasy. It’s no Neverwhere, but it sits very comfortably amongst the books of the more successful practitioners of the genre. I would probably rate it on a par with the (ingenious but flawed) London-based urban fantasy of China Miéville and the (likable but pedestrian) books of Ben Aaronovitch. I liked it a good bit more than the one Jim Butcher book I read. If you’d never read an urban fantasy book before you would probably be blown away. If you’ve read a few, then you’ll see much that is familiar. You’ll also know that the low-hanging fruit of the genre has already been picked. Authors have to work a bit harder to come up with interesting urban myths and magics to weave into their stories. How does Griffin do? Well enough I suppose. The starting point for the book involves a mysteriously-killed sorcerer (the protagonist — Matthew Swift) being brought back to life by the intervention of the blue electric angels. These angels, synthesised bits of anima snatched from electronic communications, are pretty good. They seem like a perfect fit for an urban fantasy universe and have great character — fey, innocent, violent, and hedonistic. The fact that they share Matthew’s post-resurrection body, his psyche and theirs imperfectly integrated, gives Griffin an opportunity to engage in some rather ingenious pronoun play too — sentences that start in first person singular imperceptibly shift to plural by the end. Other little world building gimmicks are less successful. For example, I disliked the taxonomy of magic users Griffin uses: wizard, sorcerer, warlock, necromancer. These are well-worn terms, and their use here seemed dull and artificial.

Another notable feature of the book: in short, its long. Too long. I guess world-building takes some time, and there are rather a lot of factions that become embroiled in the action, all of whom need their own bit of time in the sun. However, there really isn’t very much to the plot. Swift comes back to life with a thirst for resolution and revenge. He quickly pins the act on his old teacher, and must then make his way through a series of sub-bosses to get to him. On the plus side, these fights, when they eventually arrive, are vigorous, exciting, and rather cleverly put together (I particularly liked the tattoo stuff in the first big fight). However, I’m not sure that the story overall quite warranted the leisurely half-a-thousand pages it was given.

Griffin’s use of language is also notable. The prose is often on the poetical side of things, and she has a keen sense for descriptive metaphors. Sometimes this works well, but other times things get out of hand. For example, I started off rather liking this description of the magical vibe of different cities:

“In New York, the air is so full of static you almost spark when you move; in Madrid the shadows are waiting at every corner to whisper their histories in your ear when you walk at night. In Berlin the power is clean, silken, like walking through an invisible, body-temperature waterfall in a dark cave; in Beijing the sense of it was a pricking heat on the skin, like the wind had been broken down into a thousand pieces, and each part carried some warmth from another place and brushed against your skin, like a furry cat calling for your attention.”

Really? The magic aura of Beijing is like a furry cat? There were other problems, too — even on the first page: “I said blink, and my eyes were 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”. Okay — it’s a bit overwrought, but I get it — your eyelids felt sticky and hard to open. But why should it be harder to lift weights before a marathon than any other time? It makes no sense! If anything, people who are fit enough to run a marathon would probably find it easier to lift weights. I can only assume she meant “after a marathon”, but the fact that this fairly obvious mistake is happening on just the eighth line of the book doesn’t say much for the rigour of the editing process. There were some other editing slip ups too — clumsy repetitions of words or phrases.

So. Did I enjoy it? Yes! (unexpectedly). Is it great? Umm, not really. I often use the sequel test to think about how much I rate the books I read. Can I be bothered to go on reading a series based on its first book. Here we have a borderline pass — the sequels are not high on my agenda, but I think I could be persuaded.

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