Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Kate Griffin's Urban Magic

A Madness of Angels, by Kate Griffin, Orbit Books (2009). ISBN 978-1-841-49733-4 (UK). US edition here.

The Midnight Mayor, by Kate Griffin, Orbit Books (2010). ISBN 978-1-841-49734-1 (UK). US edition.

Rating: Very good.

These intensely London-centred fantasies feature a peculiar protagonist, Matthew Swift the urban sorcerer. In Griffin's world, magic is more an enchanting point of view on life than any sort of external force. The forces it can evoke are no less gaudily monstrous for that - and Matthew's point of view is far more peculiar than most. From the moment we first meet him, he is/they are already a fusion of a deeply human sorcerer, and the mysterious beings called the blue electric angels, who arise from the bits of ourselves we leave behind in the telephone wires. Beyond this, things get rapidly weirder and scarier.

The book's blurb inevitably invokes Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere for comparison, and is less hopelessly wrong than most such puffs are. Whereas Gaiman's approach is mythic, Griffin's is down-and-dirty, and its deliria more seamlessly integrated into the daily world. Her neon-lit, gaffer-taped sorceries recall the surreal black humours not only of Gaiman but of Simon R Green, and more resemble the latter in their tendency to pyrotechnic intrusions into the alleys we know.

Matthew (and his fire) make a complex, engaging protagonist, whose shifting and ambiguous identity is nonetheless convincingly consistent in its essence. Feckless, childish, and frankly a bit of a tosser, he is also warm-hearted, stubbornly humane, and to his eerie selves true. Brilliant and fantastically dangerous when on a roll, full of magical grace and in passionate lust with life, he dances and drowses with corresponding ardour and regularity into deadly pratfalls of naked shame and pain. The utterly un-morbid vulnerability of her hero is probably Griffin's best achievement in these books.

Another strength is the usually bang-on characterization of London as well as its oft-neglected purlieus. Willesden, White City, Acton, Centre Point, the City, the Borough, and out all the way to the world's end at Morden - these are books of and about London, by somebody who sees and tells it as a Londoner knows it.

She does not have it, to my way of thinking, perfect. Her (extremely funny) description of the character and mystical significance of the primal Willesden casts its net over-wide, even unto the fields of my own rather different manor, and misses the thoroughly independent genius of Harlesden altogether. It appears to be based on the boundaries of the long-defunct Borough of Willesden, which like its present fusion-product Brent had various paper pretensions not corresponding to any real district or community. Also, some of the other inner-ring loci are treated rather interchangeably and dismissively. But these are mostly quibbles: the overall sense of place is excellent.

As with much urban fantasy, Griffin occasionally strains a bit for her grotesquerie and shades of noir. Not, however, as much as most - even much of the good stuff. In her further favour, she conspicuously refrains from whitewashing my city (in any sense of the term), and both the main cast and the extras are really familiar in their local array of origins, attitudes, and predicaments. This is truly set here, and it is set amongst us Londoners. It is possible that some of the creaking is actually caused by Griffin's straining beyond her authorial comfort zone, and if so, I am happy to accept the creak in exchange for the reach.

The prose structure gets a little fancier at times than it needs to be, even given its unusual and variably integrated point of view. In plainer moments, the words 'rather' and 'suspicious' are used with rather suspicious frequency to adjust the tone dial. Otherwise, the writing is vigorous and workmanlike.

The two novels, despite sharing a number of motifs and series-arcs in common, are very different ones, with radically different villains and challenges. Their sequence turns out to be a logical one. A sequel is implicitly demanded, and on inquiry, The Neon Court turns out already to be scheduled for March 2011. It seems to me that, if it is to succeed, it will have to move further and faster into new ground rather than doubling down on its existing achievements. Although these books are not (so far) right up there for me with Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files or the best of Charles de Lindt, I wouldn’t be wholly surprised if Griffin were to move into that league in the sequel.

Kate Griffin is a pen-name taken by the YA author Catherine Webb, for her venture into adult urban fantasy. Graeme Flory has an interview with her and a review of A Madness of Angels at Graeme’s Fantasy Book Review. Here’s another review by Simon Appleby at Bookgeeks. gav at Nextread offers a different reviewerly take and a particularly entertaining interview.

Very much a name to watch.

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