Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Kate Griffin - The Midnight Mayor

Druids say there is no greater wand of power than a unicorn's horn given willingly to the supplicant. In the city, there is no greater wand of power than a Zone 1-6 travelcard (p. 25).

In The Midnight Mayor, Kate Griffin returns to the magical London she established in A Madness of Angels - and what a glorious return it is. The Midnight Mayor is an exemplary sequel; it is at once bigger, badder, and more fun than the original, while also delving deeper into the why and into the very fabric of the city.

In the opening bits, we come to learn that the Midnight Mayor not only exists but was just killed; that our dear narrator, protagonist, sorcerer, and bearer of the blue electric angels, Mathew Swift, might be involved; that, whatever the truth of all that is, Mathew Swift is under deadly attack; the mythical Death of Cities is coming; and London is prophesized to fall. Whew, that's a fair bit of stuff for setup. And we don't slow down from there. To the stew, Griffin adds the Midnight Mayor's servants and the city's protectors, the Aldermen, and the story of a missing boy. Then there's Oda, a member of a sorcerer hating order who is, once again, forced to work with Swift. Needless to say, there is banter between them. Needless to say, it's damn witty.

With all that in it, The Midnight Mayor is an incredibly disorienting book. Reading, you almost never have your feet properly under you. Generally, it's more of a head-first tumble down a mineshaft. A part of that is the pacing. The Midnight Mayor starts in media res, and, when I say that, I don't mean it in the sense of, say, Brandon Sanderson's The Way of Kings, where you get an action scene or two in the beginning and then things slow down to a steady build in which the reader and character can get oriented. London has better things to do than to let Mathew Swift find his footing. He, like the reader, is forced to piece together the puzzle of London's oncoming fall while struggling to survive every step of the way. And while we are on the subject of that puzzle, do you really think he is going to be handed all the pieces on a platter?

That brings us to the novel's world building and, with it, the novel's magic, for the two are rather inseparable. Some years ago, Brandon Sanderson (who, for an author that had absolutely nothing to do with this book, is really coming up rather a lot in its review) attempted to sit down and come up with how and why magic systems worked. Among other things, he got Sanderson's First Law of Magic. In his words: An author's ability to solve conflict with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the reader understands said magic.

Griffin takes Sanderson's law and smashes it to pieces over her sorcerous knee. Though the reader is certainly given enough of the pieces to understand each scene, they are never able to actually understand the magic of London. Likely because it, like the city itself, is simply too large, too varied, and too complex for something so pat as comprehension. Some parts, of course, are easy; this is urban sorcery, a magic of brick and neon (p. 26). Still, the reader never knows the exact limit of Swift's capabilities, and there is always the possibility of some previously unpredictable, new magical solution or element coming into play to save the day or alter the course of events. This could, obviously, be a recipe for rampant deus ex machina, but that's not the way things turn out at all.

The first part of why it all works is Griffin's imagination. Even knowing the vague ground rules – the interplay between the city and magic, the usage of the things just out of sight, and all that – there is a ton here that you'll just never see coming. But it all has a logic to it nonetheless, and when Griffin takes some wholly unexpected aspect of modernity and brings it to electric life, it makes far too much impossible sense for it to feel like a cheap shot. Her inventiveness is, needless to say, not simply relegated to plot twists and close scrapes. Many of the settings here, the minor as well as the major, are simply awesome, such as the night club run off the rhythm of the titanic heartbeat of its Executive Officer or the Heavy Metal Specters we meet in the prelude.

Then there's the matter of Griffin's prose. The first, admittedly rather nonsensical, description of it that comes to mind is simply FLASHBANGWOW. That mass of capitals isn't, I think, wholly off base. While Griffin is never quite overexcited, her prose is nonetheless supercharged with energy, and her attitude to description is anything but sparing. Griffin's writing is somewhat like looking at a photograph of a street crowded with people, buildings, cars, objects, and refuse. There's too much to take in at once, but you are going to take it in anyway, because Griffin picks up each and every one of those items and slams them into you until you have no choice but to try and grasp the entire city at once. This is not, mind you, just a when-it's-calm style that fades to more traditional and more transparent narrative in action scenes or climaxes. No, as the tension ratchets up, the prose does too, and the most exciting scenes are the ones that are the densest in terms of imagery. An example from a confrontation near the book's end:

[W]e pushed sideways, backwards, down, closed our eyes and twisted our fingers towards the great piles of discarded junk, remembering the smell of it, the rusted touch, the slime, the rot, the stink, the decay, the dead cat in its cardboard box, the fungus oozing over rotted things, the torn stuffing, the biting wire, the razored shattered edges, the tumbled glass, the melted plastic, the burnt steel, the everything. Everything we didn't want to see and didn't want to know, thrown aside; didn't care, didn't think, didn't need, didn't use, didn't work tossed and discarded and abandoned and forgotten and alone (p. 333).

This style of description via intentional excess, through what can frequently amount to genuine lists of detail, serves to first awe the reader and then overawe them. But while it is obviously far too much, it is gloriously too much. Griffin's verbosity doesn't serve to blur the picture but rather enhance it; London, here, doesn't become indistinct but rather a kind of blinding hyper-vivid that is hard to bear and hard to look at with one's eyes open but is endlessly rewarding once one grasps the trick of being born along by the flow of the words.

It is important, as well, to realize that, while Griffin certainly has a massive quantity of descriptions, she does not go for quantity over quality; she simply has a great, great deal of both. Instead of giving us one, as a writing instructor I've had would call it, surprising and significant detail, Griffin gives us ten, but each one is no less well chosen because of it. It's just that Griffin sees a dozen fascinating things about each scene, and she will not rest until we see them too. The reader that pauses and breaks down her lists into their component parts will see the craftsmanship that went into each link in the descriptive chain, and there are moments when Griffin does manage simple statements of understated and restrained poetry, such as when the day's end is described thus: Evening asked night if it was free for coffee (p. 284). She is also capable of humor and wit: Cynics call it fate, romantics call it destiny, lawyers call it malign intent. No one uses the word "coincidence." (p. 8)

And then there's the fact, though her exuberant style is just about the exact opposite of a restrained ghost story writer like Algernon Blackwood (who did, lest we forget, have a psychic detective of his own) or a noir writer like Raymond Chandler (whose Philip Marlowe is referenced on page 148), Griffin nonetheless does manage to give birth to a city dripping in fiery atmosphere and with myths that come to life. The Death of Cities is a character whose every action and approach is filled with an almost incalculable amount of dread and malice, and the hushed tales of his coming have a horrifying beauty to them, for, as Griffin says we all know and will not admit, a bomb going off [is] secretly, obscenely, immorally, indefinably, beautiful. (p. 405) To give just one example of these rumors about the Death of Cities:

Your hear stories. Stuff like… when the atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, there was a house right in the middle of the blast, at its very heart, untouched while the rest of the city was leveled. They say that there was a man in the house, who had his face turned towards the sky as the bomb fell and who just smiled and smiled and didn't even close his eyes. (p. 228)

Urban sorcery is not just a clever magic system.  As Griffin says, [Magic is]a way of seeing things differently (p. 163), and her magic is a way of bringing to life the fabric of our cities and times. A Madness of Angels, distilled into one sentence, would be "magic is life." The Midnight Mayor does not simply wallow in the ground covered by its predecessor but rather subsumes A Madness of Angel's truths into it and then delves deeper, reversing the equation into life is magic (p. 151) and then discovering why.

The Midnight Mayor looks at what makes a city a city, at how people shape each other, and at whether it is the inanimate city that shapes its citizens or its citizens that shape the city. It is fascinating stuff, and the pages in which it is discussed in concentrated form towards the book's end manage to be both philosophical and to never break from the character or narrative established; these big questions are woven into the fabric of the story. Eventually, there comes forth the idea of the city –and, by extension, its denizens – as itself/themselves forming a "higher power" (p. 298).

The Midnight Mayor is the very blueprint of how to do a sequel. It is bigger and better than its predecessor, deeper in its explorations of genuine questions, more exciting, not only maintaining the first book's mystery but adding to it, and genuinely dripping with intoxicating flash and atmosphere. It's damn great.

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