Kate Griffin’s love letters to a magical London

Kate Griffin. A Madness of Angels (Orbitbooks 2009).
Kate Griffin. The Midnight Mayor (Orbitbooks 2010).

I don’t keep up with all the reviews & commentary on SF&F the way I should, & so I don’t know the work of YA author Catherine Webb, nor had I heard about her two novels under her pseudonym Kate Griffin. Now that I’ve read them, all I can say is that she has created a terrific series about the sorcerer Matthew Swift, in which she constructs a magical London every bit as fancy as anything Neil Gaiman has done, suggested some new ways of looking at magic, & provided a multiple POV protagonist whose narration takes her readers into high modernist territory. This is ’urban fantasy’ with real pizzazz.

Subtitled ‘Or, the Resurrection of Matthew Swift,’ A Madness of Angels begins with that terrifying, visceral resurrection. Matthew, & the ‘electric blue angels’ cohabiting his body narrate – that first person narration itself not the usual thing for fantasy, although it also works perfectly for Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse novels – in a delightfully schizoid manner, Griffin shifting from ‘I’ to ‘we’ with great finesse throughout. This aspect of the novel signals its willingness to push the genre boundaries, & provides a good part of its narrative energy.

As Swift slowly finds his way back into life, two years after he apparently ‘died,’ he gets mixed up with a wildly diverse group of groups both magical & mundane (indeed, one of his allied groups, the ‘fundamentalist’ Order, dedicates itself to wiping out all magic & magicians in the world). They, & he, are fighting ‘the Tower,’ a powerful, & criminal, operation attempting to control all the magic (& money attached) in London (& eventually the rest of Britain); it may also be responsible for Swift’s murder. Its leader is Swift’s old mentor, a powerful sorcerer (& we learn that sorcerers are different from magicians, & more powerful), who has become ill, & is seeking some way to preserve his life, perhaps forever – that old story, with its always attached dark evil, here a shadow whose killing hunger is illimitable.

Griffin has constructed a wild & complex tale, in which many strange alliances are formed, many base betrayals occur, & some awesome magic battles are fought. During his adventures, Swift travels across a London fully realized as both what everyone can see, & the hidden world only adepts know. Griffin imagines this London with verve & great specificity; how she does so is one of the major delights of A Madness of Angels. Another is her rendering of Swift’s new multiplied identity. Finally, she structures her complex plot (with all the plotting of the various forces at work therein) with terrific intelligence: the reader never knows what’s coming next, as Swift rushes into one dangerous situation after another, partly because he operates as an intense & delighted improviser.

So A Madness of Angels develops as a finely tuned magical thriller. But it tops so many other urban fantasies (Sturgeon’s 95%; I don’t include Gaiman or Harris, or a very few others) in its style: Griffin can write: compound/complex sentences that do their proper jobs; imagery that always serves the unfolding story; a sense of metaphor that metaphysically grounds all the ‘magic’ in her tale. All in all, A Madness of Angels provides everything a fan of urban fantasy could ask for, & immediately puts its author among the very best writers in the field.

And The Midnight Mayor amply confirms that A Madness of Angels was no fluke. Griffin clearly has more in store for her London-based sorcerer. This, too, has a subtitle, ‘Or, The Inauguration of Matthew Swift,’ & as its complex plot unwinds Swift, & we, begin to comprehend just how magical this ancient city is & just how powerfully it binds those who love & therefore serve it.

Swift, still a doubled person, electric blue angels & resurrected sorcerer, narrates his adventures once more; as The Midnight Mayor begins, he is just living a quiet life, wandering the city, & trying to stay out of trouble. He also discovers that he may be the only sorcerer left in London, due to the depredations of the Tower. Then things begin to go wrong with his city. It all starts with his being unable to resist picking up a pay phone receiver when it rings; something hurts his hand & then he’s suddenly under attack by a group of spectres, which usually can’t be found within the city.

Seeking help from the Long White City clan, he finds that he seems to be inbvolved in something much larger: the sudden disappearance of the 9 Ravens protecting the Tower of London; the destruction of other mythical or legendary protectors of the city; the sudden & savage murder of the Midnight Mayor, a figure Swift has never really believed existed.

With both a new cast of characters, including the Aldermen, & the Midnight Mayor (now deceased, & it seems he chose Matthew, against all the ancient rules, to replace him as he died), & many of the figures who helped Swift in A Madness of Angels, The Midnight Mayor is just as complex & richly inhabited a fiction as the first novel in this engrossing series. And once again, Swift forms some strange alliances, is basely betrayed, & fights more than a few awesome magic battles. There’s a young, untutored sorcerer, who doesn’t even know she has that power, &, under the stress of insults to her person, she has cursed London (why & how are part of the slowly developed fun of the narrative); there’s Mr Pinner, ‘the death of cities,’ whom she’s called & who has been systematically destroying the famous protections, like The London Stone, & who appears to be unstoppable. But then there’s also Matthew Swift, weak human, powerful angels, body about to suffer many physical indignities before it’s all over. Good stuff.

I just want to add a few notes on Griffin’s writing in these novels. I have not read any of Catherine Webb’s YA fiction, but as Kate Griffin she clearly practices her craft carefully & hard. This is urban fantasy with a sharp modernist edge combined with a fine sense of literary history. In terms of the inheritance from epic, one of the devices she continually uses is the List as a form of description & commentary, as in this depiction of a scrap yard:

Every possible kind of decay had been placed within the boundaries of SEAL’S SCRAP, as if iron and steel might, after ten thousand years’ compression, have mulched down into rich black oil to be tapped. Dead cars, shattered and crushed in the vices of lingering, sleepy cranes, dead washing machines, dead fridges, pipes broken and the chemicals spilled onto earth and air, broken baths, old shattered trolleys, torn-up pipes, ruined engines with plugs pulled out, tumbled old tiles shattered and cracked, skips of twisted plywood blackened in some flame, bricks turned to dust and piled upon bin bags split into shreds, shattered glass and cracked plastic, white polystyrene spilt across the tarmac, cardboard boxes in which the weeds had begun to grow. It seemed to stretch for miles, oozing into every corner between the railway lines, locked away behind its see-through fence and a small cabin for delivery men to sit in and have their tea. (TMM 321)

Often, as here, these Lists are slyly satiric, but also lovingly compiled at great length. There’s a kind of super realism in them that when carried this far descriptively surges beyond the ‘real’ of ‘realism’ into something of the phantasmagoric. Griffin also uses an urban kind of epic simile in which, as in so much of the narration (& that is deliberately manifest as Swift’s thinking/telling), a delighted black humour plays its part, as in another one, a brilliant take on a contemporary magician’s requirements:

The longest wall was covered with all the alchemical ingredients an urban magician might ever require – feather of albino pigeon, leg of rat drowned in a burst of raw sewage, fat from the bottom of the basin in the chip shop, buddleia from the derelict mansion on the corner of the high street, burnt tyre carved carefully off the base of a burnt-out bus, tail of squirrel that found the winter too warm to sleep through, dribble of oil from the bicycle that skidded into the cement truck, black tar scraped up from the street that started to melt in the summer’s sun, ground ballast from the furthest platforms of Paddington station, kebab feasted on by King Fox, vodka bottle still bearing the red lipstick-kiss of Lady Neon, found left behind the bar at a club in Soho. No longer did young apprentices to the great alchemist seek silver buried at the bottom of enchanted mines. The time was of tar and plastics, of synthetic compounds and decaying reactive products in a jar. (TMM 385)

It’s clear that Griffin has put an immense amount of research into constructing such a ‘thick’ narrative. She then insists on spending a good portion of the story on these thick descriptions, often in the middle of some violent encounter, doing so in a sneakily ‘literary’ manner that slows our reading down, pulling us into a more analytic & meditational relation to the plot, & its thriller/horror overtones. Sometimes these descriptive lists describe a figure of the contemporary urban-mythic landscape, a monster rebuilt in terms of the detritus of our cityscapes.

If a city is a living thing, especially a city as old & large & legendary as London, then it’s safe to fantastically theorize that it will have invested its powers widely & in many different figures throughout its more than 2000 years, often those of minor authority as well as those who apparently rule there. A traffic warden may be as important as a mayor or a dragon. Griffin’s acknowledgement of this hidden truth powers the stories of both these novels, & will, I suspect, continue to power the further sequels; & I have little doubt there will be at least one more tale of the sorcerer Matthew Swift.

It strikes me, that if Iain Sinclair were going to write urban fantasy, this is what he’d write (as the take on the 2012 Olympics, another of those delightful asides from the dangerous doings of our narrator, their magic implied even there, demonstrates:

It was an easy hop from Bethnal Green towards Hackney Marshes, made only less so by the cordon of signs warning “Olympic Site Development – Road Closed”. I got off the bus at the edge of the marshes, and the shadows were thick, crawling up from the pavements, gnawing at our feet, aching in our fingers. The old was dying, they whispered, glaring at the Olympic signs, all going to be knocked down, washed away. East End, end of the east, place where things ended, rejects and slums, squalid history of neglect, all being washed away behind gleaming steel and glass. Wipe away the history; wipe away the shame; forget the shadows that were once alive. (TMM 393)

This is as angry as anything Sinclair has written on the subject.)

Aside from their narrative drive, imaginative reach, & high style, A Madness of Angels & The Midnight Mayor make up an extended love letter to the City of London. High entertainment doesn’t get much better than this.

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