The Souls of Cities

A Madness of Angels, Kate Griffin/Orbit Fantasy, 2009

“Life is magic.” 

“And the dragon of broken and disobeyed signs was, in the end, an urban creature, summoned out of the city itself; and the city’s dragon, the lord of the city’s gates, did so very much like to lead, and to be obeyed, and have its own rules that could, it was rumored, stop the king or queen entering the city, if it felt that Londoners didn’t need them inside their walls.  Hunger had told me the key himself; time, law, humility; a recognition that in the eyes of the city, we were nothing, and the dragon was the lord.”

A Madness of Angels

I think maybe I love this book. It’s a mature love, too, not just a crush, because I can see the faults in the thing and I love it anyway. It’s a hard book to write about without spoiling the fun for everyone, so I will focus on why I love it.

I love Griffin’s view of magic.  Reviewers compare the book to Gaiman’s Neverwhere, and those comparisons are apt. This is a book, first and foremost, about London, a magical London that is as close to our London as the next bus kiosk, the Tube or that pigeon waddling toward you looking for a handout. Matthew Swift was a sorcerer, able to harness the magic of the city in a holistic, intuitive way.  Two years ago, Matthew was murdered.  Now he’s back, and he’s not sure why.  And he’s different.  I don’t want to give away too much, but here’s one tidbit.  Matthew used to have puppy-dog-brown eyes.  Now they’re blue.

Griffin imagines magic as a current of power, fed by the energy of living things, all living things.  Countrysides have their magic, the traditional elf-and-fey-folk magic of British folklore, but cities, especially old cities, are magical stockpiles.  Matthew is an urban magician, dealing with the dazzling, churning, seductive and overwhelming power of London.  Many sorcerers, we are told, succumb to the pulse of the city and become half-mad vagrants and wanderers, unable to tell if they are a human or a rat, or a crow, or the 9:15 train. And cities, like the ocean, like forests and caves, create their own mythology and their own pantheon of new gods– the Beggar King, the Bag Lady, the Midnight Mayor and even the Last Train on the Circle Line. This is where Griffin is the most like Gaiman.

Griffin’s definition of “life” is fluid.  Is light alive? Is music? Is fire?  Is electricity?  A thing with a purpose, when that purpose has been honored by thousands of people, can become an object of power for a sorcerer.  One of the most charming things about Matthew is his respect for things; locks, trains and doors that have assumed power because of the integrity of their purpose. He also knows when to bring the metaphysical brass knuckles.

Before Matthew can figure out what who brought him back, he has to face down a powerful enemy who is threatening all of London’s sorcerers.  Matthew assembles a most unlikely group of allies.  These are plausible characters from all walks of magical life, including the narrow-minded, viciously anti-magic Order. They don’t like each other, they don’t trust each other, but they will work together, because they are all being threatened.

Griffin’s dialogue is crisp, perfectly timed, laugh-out-loud funny.  Her descriptions are vivid, exquisite, gory, grotesque, poignant, sweet and quirky.  I said this was a mature love, and that I saw the book’s flaws, and I will mention one now.  She has a writing tic that forces her characters to “hiss” bits of dialogue, even bits that have no sibilants at all.  “ ‘Go away,’ he hissed.” I began to develop an allergic reaction to the verb.  At the end of the book, when a character actually “hissed, almost like a snake,” which would have been a great description, it just made me annoyed.  “Said” works fine, Kate.  Trust me.  Better yet, trust yourself.

For reasons I can’t go into, voice is very important in this book, and Griffin manages this with the grace of a champion surfer on a twenty-foot wave.

This is a long, well-plotted book, except for one loose end that is an annoying as getting that scrap of dental floss caught in your back teeth.  The characters are convincing and memorable, the action sequences suspenseful, but what I take away from the book is Matthew’s—and Griffin’s—love for the magical soul of London.

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One Response to The Souls of Cities

  1. Chad Hull says:

    “Reviewers compare the book to Gaiman’s Neverwhere, and those comparisons are apt.”

    I stopped reading after that sentence. I’m sold.

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