This week I’m recommending Kate Griffin’s `A Madness of Angels’, the first in a series of novels about urban sorcerer, Matthew Swift. In America this book has the more intriguing title `A Madness of Angels: Or The Resurrection of Matthew Swift’.  Under either title, you can get the  book in paperback or on Kindle. It was first published in 2009 and there are currently four novels in the series. I apologize for choosing yet another story set in London but it seems to be a focus for modern Fantasy writers of  all nationalities. In the sort of fiction I read, you can’t walk down a London street without bumping into wizards, witches or vampires, gods, ghosts or Shadowhunters.  In real life, you are more likely to encounter beggars and pigeons, but both of these feature significantly in `A Madness of Angels’.

At the start of the story, Matthew Swift wakes up in his bedroom. The trouble is, he’s been dead for two years and it’s not his house any more. Someone has brought Matthew back to life but  he’s not the same. He is now sharing his body with the blue electric angels, spirits who have evolved from the life flowing through `telephone conversations, radio broadcasts, internet, email’.  Matthew is immediately  attacked by a litterbug, a monster made from garbage, and soon discovers that most of his sorcerer  friends have been murdered.  A prime suspect is Robert Bakker, the man who taught Matthew how to control magic. Bakker now leads an organization  of `magicians, wizards, warlocks, witches and other practitioners of the art’ called the Tower. Matthew meets a diverse group of magic-users who oppose the Tower `Because what they cannot get, they take…and they kill when they are not obeyed’.

After a meeting of the anti-Tower group is brutally attacked, Matthew  goes on the run, pursued by a monstrous shadow known as the Hunger. No-one seems to know how to find Bakker himself, so Matthew starts by attacking Bakker’s lieutenants, one of whom is the woman Matthew used to love. He seeks help from London’s ancient spirits, such as the Beggar King and the terrifying Bag Lady, and allies among magic-using clans like the bikers who derive their power from speed and the `Whites’ who can do alarming things with spray-paint. Matthew soon fears that there is a traitor among the magicians fighting the Tower, and one of his allies, grim gun-toting Oda, will probably shoot  him as soon as he’s no longer useful. Matthew is able to use the power of the angels to heal or kill, but are they taking him over? Can Matthew track down his own murderer, defeat the Tower and stay human?

`A Madness of Angels’ has been described as a `Neverwhere’ for the digital age’. Both books explore a hidden magical London but Griffin doesn’t imitate Neil Gaiman’s brevity or playfulness. She never uses just one word when she can think of twenty-five and while Matthew faces his afterlife with grim humour there aren’t a lot of laughs in `A Madness of Angels’.  Griffin seems determined that no-one should confuse this series with the lively children’s books she writes under the name of  Catherine Webb. `A Madness of Angels’ is spattered with bad language and contains much  graphically described and nastily inventive violence. It isn’t a story for the fastidious or the faint-hearted.

If you do decide to walk the mean streets of Griffin’s London, you will have the company of a remarkable two-for-the-price-of-one hero.  At first it is confusing when Matthew sometimes refers to himself as I and sometimes as we. The wild and free blue electric angels have never taken corporeal form before. They are eager for new experiences but they don’t understand human emotions or human rules.  Some of the characters in the book  fear that Matthew will lose control of the fire within; others think he’ll survive because he’s smart enough to stay afraid of what he might become. Matthew’s struggle to keep his sanity and retain some individuality made me think about what it means to be human in an age when so much of life is lived in intangible on-line realms.

What makes `A Madness of Angels’ a truly Urban Fantasy is that Griffin’s sorcerers draw their power from aspects of contemporary city life, such as the sounds and smells of traffic, which leaves them almost helpless in the countryside. Matthew  taps into the energy created by the rush of people in a busy railway station or the buzz of conversation on thousands of phones.  He  prevents a demon from passing a barrier with an Oyster card, he knows how to appease the ghosts on a very special Underground train,  and he can  even summon `the dragon of broken and disobeyed signs’.  Aluminium-winged fairies attack computers and other magic-users defeat  their opponents by mobilizing the vermin which swarm in London’s streets and sewers or by animating killer-graffiti. This is magic reimagined for the 21st century.

I was  amused to find familiar landmarks, such as the hideous skyscraper known as Centre Point,  given sinister new uses but you don’t have to know London to enjoy this book. It could be a story about any great modern city. Griffin’s rapturous writing caused even a country girl like me to appreciate the neon beauty of a night-time cityscape. The gap between the rich and poor, the powerful and the powerless is also the same in most cities. This is clearly something that Griffin feels strongly about. When Matthew needs to consult the legendary Beggar King – `the one you offer your prayers to when your jacket is too thin and the stones are too hard’ – he has to endure a humiliating day as a London beggar. After reading this chapter I vowed to stop being one of the many who walk past beggars without seeing them as people. Happy Easter.

Geraldine

http://www.chalcedon.demon.co.uk

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