Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Kate Griffin - The Neon Court

We destroy the enemies of the city, drive back unstoppable darknesses and purge the night of the things that would make us fear (pp. 40-1)

If anyone is looking for a blueprint for how to do a sequel properly, Kate Griffin’s The Midnight Mayor might suffice. It makes the first book, A Madness of Angels, bigger and more explosive without making it silly. Moreover, it covers the same thematic ground as the first book (Magic is life…) but does it from the other direction (Life is magic…) and so manages to both expand on a theme and cover new ground. Of course, a year after The Midnight Mayor, it was time for book three. The Neon Court has many things going for it, not the least of which are Griffin’s prose and another slice of London’s magic. But it is not quite the perfect sequel (to a sequel).

Having looked from both directions at the relationship between magic and life, Griffin here decides to take a closer look at what form that relationship takes in the various magical groups that make up the city. This is a book about community and about isolation. The conflict that it begins with is a looming war between the Neon Court and the Tribe. The Court is society’s crystallization, humans twisted into nothing but what is expected of them by others, life turned into high theater: We imagined that he was what the times called beautiful, a work of art, not a human at all, assuming there was anything of the human left in him (p. 315). That beauty is, needless to say, a mask (p. 349). The Tribe, already down beaten by society and outside its embrace, have decided to flee and fight civilization: the lost, the young, the scarred, the angry, the old, the lonely, anyone and everyone who wasn’t one of them, transformed in this place into one of us, the outcast, united by being outcasts (p. 241). This, they say, makes us free […] Not good n bad – just free. (p. 253) At first glance, the Tribe and the Court seem opposites, but both are twisted in reaction to expectations, even if one is embracing and the other battling.

Blackout is another byproduct of society. It is kicked out from society like the Tribe, but its exile has nothing of choice about it. It’s not whole humans but rather their fears, their shame. It is not a counterculture but isolation. Griffin conveys this through streams of anonymity and despair: no one need ever know what happened here just you and me just you and me and it’s not like anyone cares not here not now we can do anything because no one will ever know anything at all what can you imagine at all it doesn’t matter no one will see no one will judge us now the sun’s gone down (p. 374).

The conflict between those three – and, of course, Swift and the aldermen – shape the novel. The beginning has Swift trying to stop the war between the Tribe and Court while all whisper about a chosen one’s coming. Oh, and there’s the matter of Swift’s friend and/or mortal enemy Oda, now warped nearly out of recognition, both begging and monstrous. But all of this story is not as successful as it might have been. Like each Mathew Swift novel so far, we start with chaos and Swift struggling to figure out what’s going on as it all spirals further out of control. Here, however, much of that chaos comes to feel rather perfunctory. Swift’s premonitions of a greater evil don’t seem so much tied to anything concrete as they do the product of that just being how these stories go, so it must be around here somewhere. Furthermore, the politicking of the Court and the Tribe is not quite as deep as it is portrayed. The idea of magical diplomacy, complete with defensive alliances signed in 1959, is quite amusing, but any machination that can be exposed by simple arithmetic (Lady Neon arrived too soon, she had to be in the air by the time all this was happening (p. 74)) is simply not a masterful plot.

Then there’s the inevitable problem that results from this being the third book about the same sorcerer battling off supernatural apocalypses by the skin of his teeth. The Mathew Swift novels don’t build on each other. There isn’t one overarching story. Instead, a new ultimate evil appears each time, unrelated to the one before it. After a while, the reader starts wondering how many ultimate evils there could possibly be, why they don’t ever bump into each other, and how the world could possibly be here if there’s a yearly enactment of the Book of Revelations whenever a new novel’s about to hit the shelves. Before long, Griffin is lampshading the improbability of all this with statements like: “You’re not the guy who keeps on getting beaten up by inexplicable mystic darknesses, are you?” (p. 131) As Griffin is a damn clever writer, those almost always get a chuckle. But they also remind the reader that we’ve been here and seen this, even if we had a different villain that year.

All of the problems I’ve listed primarily bother me because the novel lacked the emotional heart I kept desiring. Mathew Swift books have always had the pyrotechnics in the front and center, but I got the feeling from the first that there were real people here and that we could get to know them if the action ever took a breath. By now, I think I’m realizing that it’s not about to. At the end of The Midnight Mayor, Swift gained an apprentice, but everything is too busy exploding in this one for us to see more of their interaction than clever banter on the way to rescues. Moreover, the relationship between Swift and Oda is central to The Neon Court’s conflict. But we never really see it. Though ostensibly bitter enemies, it’s clear that they do care about each other. But we never see more than those glimpses, and the two don’t get much time together at all between the fiery opening and the climax. As a result, Oda’s being at the center of the threat is not nearly as heart-wrenching as one might wish.

Despite all those chunky paragraphs full of flaws I just penned, I still finished The Neon Court in two days and enjoyed it quite a bit. The first reason is that, though she may have something of a surplus of them, Kate Griffin is incredibly good at evoking inexplicable mystic darknesses. As Blackout nears, night goes on unceasing, and the passage of time falls to pieces. Griffin rams this home with a mixture of dramatics and by knocking the most mundane of things slightly out of whack until they make no sense at all: It was like all these people were compressed, time-compressed, like it was school-leaving time and rush hour and party hour and happy hour and lunch hour and all hours all at once, packed in together (p. 153). That’s nothing to Blackout itself. As the power comes, it’s not just that the world disintegrates. Oh no, for to even look at Blackout is to bleed from the eyes and to soon go blind. Desperate fight scenes against a foe that you can’t even look at turn out to be nothing short of pulse pounding.

London, too, is on excellent display. Griffin manages to both make the city always feel like a place lived in and to awe us with its scale and oddities. In part, that comes from how many groups and peoples are settled within that one city and from how long they have all been there: Thing about building a modern city on a Victorian one on a Tudor one on a medieval one on a Saxon one on a Roman one, is you can guarantee there’s always going to be more down there than you bargained for (p. 223). Other descriptions have the city flexing its muscles on the plot, and they are some of Griffin’s most striking: Kayle ran, but the city no longer wanted him, the streets themselves cracked beneath his feet, the lights went out ahead of him, the buses wouldn’t brake a the shelters, the trains wouldn’t open their doors (p. 164). Many of my favorite parts of the book, though, have more to do with London’s little corners than they do with the big bangs happening in its battlegrounds. Often, on entering some new area, Griffin will dish out some little mention of a sorcerer’s strange antics there, and these glimpses of a wider world give the novel life.

Finally, Griffin’s prose is as good as it’s ever been. Her long, sensory-overload style of description is still present here and used to good effect, but I’ve no doubt covered that sufficiently in previous reviews. What I may not have made enough of us is how witty she can be: He stretched himself out further over the seat, achieving that posture seen on any form of public transport whereby one man and his testicles, by the simple act of sitting back and spreading his knees, can occupy enough space for five (p. 335). That skill enters into the dialogue. Though the Tribe’s misspelled speech can grow grating, Griffin is generally adept at not only differentiating her characters but making them feel witty and alive with each line.

The Neon Court did not strike me with the same force as The Midnight Mayor, but it is still quite a strong read. It boasts a terrifying foe, a masterfully shown city, and damn good writing. Admittedly, many of the problems on the other side of the ledger from those positives are not unique to this novel. They are, for the most part, things that were present all along in Mathew Swift but that I needed time to breathe to notice. Still, I hope that Griffin can straighten them out in The Minority Council, because I enjoy these books far too much to want to see them get stale. 

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