Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Kate Griffin - A Madness of Angels

"We be light, we be life, we be fire! We sing electric flame, we rumble underground wind, we dance heaven! Come be we and be free! We be blue electric angels!"

Fantasy’s a genre that yearns for the past, and your standard sources of magic include long forgotten ancient deities, long forgotten languages, and long lost artifacts, all generally found while escaping the dreary, wonderless, soul crushing nature of the modern world. A Madness of Angels doesn’t do any of that. The otherworldly setting in which we are immersed is nothing but everyday London, and sorcerers summon piping from the walls instead of chains of celestial energy. Kate Griffin doesn’t use reality as something to be escaped; she has, instead, found the wonder in every street corner of our everyday lives.

London is omnipresent in the narrative. We are told that the lifeblood of sorcery is the feeling and movement of the city itself, and the story pulsates with the rhythms of the city. The oddities and intricacies of urban life are perfectly rendered here, yet so bizarre as to be almost unrecognizable, while the magic flows from every pore of the landscape around it and feels like such a part of city life that you’ll probably find yourself looking for it next time you’re on the bus.

Griffin’s prose is well suited to the tale and to the city that surrounds it. This is a book of little things, and atmosphere is built with a menagerie of details:

The lift was clear glass, on the outer wall of the building, so I could see the city drop away beneath me. As on the London Eye that night, I was astounded by the beauty of its multicolored spectrum: not just the sodium orange of the suburban sprawl, but the white interiors of office blocks, green traffic lights, red aircraft beacons on the taller towers, purple floodlights washing over high walls, pooling beams of silver on enclosed courtyards, shimmering blues on fountains, or in the doors of clubs, the moving snakes of traffic, defined only by headlights, brakes, or indicators flashing on and off like an endless slithering column of eyes, and the reflected pinkish glare across the ceiling of the sky, except for where an aircraft’s guiding light sent out a cone of brightness, through the black scudding clouds heavy with rain as the wind carried them toward the sea. (p. 134)

The worldbuilding, and our grasp of it, is well balanced throughout the novel, something all the more remarkable because it’s the first in a longer series. This falls more to the wondrous side of the magical spectrum, rather than the heavily rule based, and the occasional explanation does take the form of: “Are you really going to ask such inane questions all the time? Mystic bloody forces, just accept them and cope!” (p. 283) All the same, magic is never used cheaply or incomprehensibly here, and, though we never know the true intricacies of the system, we soon know enough to understand the mechanics of the supernatural duels and confrontations and can even try to predict the character’s tricks, rather than just being along for a flashy but incomprehensible ride.

The opening scenes here are similar to your standard gosh, it’s a magic world! introduction…with the slight exception that the main character is not only aware of the world, not only knowledgeable about how it works, but just so happens to be ferociously competent in it. That character’s head – Mathew Swift’s, to be precise – is a very interesting place to be, in large part because it’s such a confused one. As the book begins, Swift is resurrected, after being deceased for two years. Swift isn’t the only thing that comes back, though. The electric blue angels of the telephone wires come too, and their myriad, flamboyant, and innocent consciousness is great when it is – quite literally – splitting headspace and narrative duties with Swift. The angel’s naivety, and their lack of knowledge as to what it means to be, well, human, leads to some of the novel’s best moments:

We were not exactly surprised; nevertheless I didn’t know what to do, what to say, how, exactly, I should behave. So we did nothing, waited to see if an emotion would strike, curious how we would respond to such news, whether we cry, or shouted or became angry or felt nothing at all. We hoped we would cry; it was the most human response. My eyes remained firmly dry, my mouth empty of any words. (p. 51)

Mathew Swift’s mind is a logical one, so his war against the Tower takes the form of individual acts of destabilization. Instead of going for the agency as a whole, he targets the Tower’s four lieutenants, planning to leave Bakker, the leader, defenseless and alone. Each of these mini quests is fully realized and engrossing. The lieutenants are menacing and interesting enough to function as great villains, and Griffin uses the one-thing-at-a-time nature of Swift’s plot to explore the world of her creation, from magical gladiators, to graffiti-guarded and bomb proof installations, and to phantom subway cars. The battles between Swift and his adversaries, particularly San Khay, were gripping and, most of all, ingenious in their use of the magic system.

And yet, the lieutenants alone never quite add up to a convincing Tower. When compared with the organizations that it’s trying to destroy, or the rest of the city, or even its own sub agencies, the Tower is woefully underdeveloped. Now, it could be argued that the entire novel is an exercise in using the parts to illustrate the whole (magical creatures are, after all, described by their ordinary building blocks), but the Tower fundamentally doesn’t fit into that system, because it’s standing in direct opposition to it. The Tower is all about centralizing magic, uniting all those disparate magicians and warlocks and sorcerers into one system, but the Tower itself feels as loose as anything it’s trying to destroy, just a collection of seemingly redundant agencies with an absolutely clueless figurehead on top.

The Tower’s leader, Bakker, is decently fleshed out as a character, but why he established the Tower, how he did it, why he believes it’s a force for good…none of these things are ever mentioned. The Tower is simply there, and it simply needs to be destroyed. Because. So, while the quest for that end is filled with interesting events, it’s hard to really throw yourself behind the journey without really caring a whit about the Tower itself and without ever seeing the characters really question the rightness of their actions.

Everything leaps into a sharper, more immediate focus when Hunger, a malevolent creature made of shadow that stalks Swift and is obsessed with experiencing life at all costs, comes on stage. The contrast between Hunger and the angels is a very interesting one. Hunger perpetually yearns for life and tries to learn and live by cataloging and consuming the blood and the chemistry of the living, attempting to build a whole out of the details of treasured possessions. The angels, on the other hand, live in a state of never ending joy, insatiable in their desire for media and new experiences, but strangely uninterested in the generalities of humanity or interaction, leading to a Swift that views all of his relationships with a degree of na├»ve perplexity. Unfortunately, Hunger’s strengths are dulled with repetition, and he’s lost some of his impact by the novel’s conclusion. The revelations about his identity and creation, slowly doled out throughout the climax, are also far easier to piece together dozens of pages before they’re given than they should be.

Getting into the home stretch of A Madness of Angels, I’ll admit that I was distinctly worried. As part one of a series, the book seemed poised to have the major villain dash off into the night so we could repeat the entire exercise again. I needn’t have worried. This is, as far as I’m concerned, exactly how book one of a series should end. The world is more than interesting enough that I want to go back to it, but there’s no missing crucial plot point that makes me think I’ve only gotten half the book.

The prose that is so good at describing the city at large occasionally runs into problems with action. The more supernatural confrontations flow very well, often, but when more traditional combat begins, wordiness can sap the urgency of the events:

“Duck!”

I ducked. I can respect formidable magical talent when I see it, and Old Madam Dorie, the old lady who smelt of curry powder and car fumes, had it in spades. She exuded skillful manipulation of primal forces just like her bags gave off the smell of mold, and if she’d said hop, I would have hopped. She, like my gran, had the look of a woman who talked to pigeons; and in the city, no one sees more than the pigeons.

I ducked, which is why the bullet from the sniper rifle…
(p. 84-85)

It is, after all, hard to really get your blood up while you’re musing on exactly why you bothered to duck the sniper’s bullet.

A Madness of Angels’s flaws are all significant, and they prevent me from hailing the book itself as truly great. What was good about it, however, was more than enough to convince me that Kate Griffin was an absolute must read author. A Madness of Angels alternates between an engrossing gallop and a stuttering walk, but the book’s strengths carry it over the finish line with ease. I went into New York City a few days ago (London, sadly, was a bit too far) and walked around. As I did, I felt like I was viewing the same blocks through different eyes, the crushes of people and the roaring of the subways and the towering buildings infused with new life, all a change of perspective away. Are you interested in seeing the same sights, just with a tad more dazzle and quite a bit more jaw dropping magic coursing through them?

FURTHER READING

Breaking New Ground: A Madness of Angels

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