Following the resounding success of my Locus Quest, I faced a dilemma: which reading list to follow it up with? Variety is the spice of life, so I’ve decided to diversify and pursue six different lists simultaneously. This book falls into my FINISHING THE SERIES! list.
I loves me a good series! But I'm terrible for starting a new series before finishing my last - so this reading list is all about trying to close out those series I've got on the go.
My wife and I found our way to A Madness of Angels through Mike Carey’s Felix Castor books. In the blurb at the back is the publisher’s spiel, “if you liked this you’ll love Kate Griffin…” In our house, Castor is up in silver medal position on the Urban-Fantasy podium, second only to the great Harry Dresden (with Peter Grant currently picking up the bronze). So we went hunting for a copy of the book.
My wife started reading it, put it down, whinged about it, picked it up, put it down, whinged about being pregnant, etc – and it took her several months to actually finish the damn thing, by which time I would have been happy to never to have to hear about it again, let alone read it myself!
Her main complaints were:
- self-indulgent, stream-of-consciousness prose
- found it hard/impossible to connect with the main character
- the style of urban magic was too ‘contrived/cute’
My wife and I have similar taste in books –something which drew us together when we met – but every now and again we disagree completely. There are some pretty mixed reviews of A Madness of Angels here on Goodreads. More than a few people agree with my darling wife, but those who praise the book said enough to make me give it a chance.
It took me while to get into, but by the end I was convinced – I’m a Matthew Swift fan!
Kate Griffin goes about her Urban-Fantazy business a little differently to her peers. For one, her hero starts the story dead – kind of (let’s say disincarnated?). For two he’s possessed – kind of (it’s a symbiotic relationship?). For three, Swift is a sorcerer not a wizard (like Dresden or Grant).
Those first two points are strongly connected – and lead directly to the first two complaints my wife had with the book.
Swift is an urban sorcerer, but he was murdered a couple of years ago by forces unknown. With his last breath Swift poured his dwindling life-force into the telephone lines where his spirit was sheltered by the equivalent of an urban elemental-spirit – the electric angels (born of telephone conversations). When someone summons Swift back to the mortal plane the angels come along, tangled up with him.
Because the story is told first-person, the narrative voice is… odd. Mathew Swift himself is disorientated from death and reincarnation – the electric angels have never been corporeal before, and take a childlike delight in every fresh sensory revelation. Because every sight and sound his hitting the angels so hard, and Mathew is in such a mental muddle, the first couple of chapters are vivid and intense, but also a little tricky to get a handle on. It seems like some readers who don’t gel with this beginning, never really click with the book and don’t enjoy it. I was a little sceptical, but some of the prose is delightful so I was willing to give it the benefit of the doubt.
Next, we move onto the fact that Swift is a sorcerer not a wizard – these two words may seem interchangeable (if you’re not a fantasy aficionado) but they represent two very different mind-sets. Wizards (like Harry Potter, Harry Dresden, Peter Grant, Gandalf the Grey, etc) increase their power and abilities through study, they come from a schools and traditions with systems of magic. Their magic is rule bound, often using set tools and techniques (wands, staffs, broomsticks, spell books, potions, etc). Sorcerers are a very different kettle of fish – to steal a Discworld definition – a sorcerer is a source of magic. Sorcerers fly by the seat of their pants, taking inspiration from their surroundings to create their magic on the spur of the moment. To compare magic and music - wizards are like orchestra musicians, working with others to learn and perform famous compositions, but sorcerers are like jazz artists, improvising on their own. Or maybe wizardry is the science of magic, sorcery the art.
A good sorcerer needs to be aware of his surroundings. A good sorcerer needs to see the potential in the world before him. These qualities give Swifts narration a strongly lyrical quality, a somewhat tangential train of thought and stream of consciousness – again, I can see why some readers didn’t gel, but I found the positives outweighed the negatives comfortably.
Matt Swift is an urban sorcerer, so the powers he’s tapping into are the ebb and flow of city life. Graffiti. Cash machines. Wheelie bins. Tube stations. Pigeons. I love London and found it all delightfully evocative, there are some wonderfully imaginative scenes and concepts. Because Matt is now twinned with the electric angels, he’s now regarded by the magical big wigs of the city as something of a power-player, opening some interesting doors.
My only complaint really, is that come the end, the final antagonist is a little underwhelming. It’s a gradual build up – Matt has to figure out what’s happened while he’s been dead, why he’s been brought back (and by who) and then work his way up through various henchmen to fight the big-bad. I was right there, every step of the way, until the final showdown, which left me all ‘meh’. I loved the dragon though!
Overall, I enjoyed A Madness of Angels a great deal and I’m very much looking forward to the next in (and the rest of) the Matthew Swift series.
After this I read: The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents