This week I’m looking again at two Fantasy series which have expanded since I first recommended them. They are both about practitioners of magic in modern London. Lovers of Urban Fantasy should find plenty to relish in each of these series.
In December 2012 I wrote about “Rivers of London” a first novel by Ben Aaronovitch which described how a young black policeman called Peter Grant became a trainee wizard. There are now six Peter Grant novels (“Rivers of London”, “Moon Over Soho”, “Whispers Under Ground”, “Broken Homes”, “Foxglove Summer” and “The Hanging Tree”) with a seventh (“The Furthest Station”) due out this September. A number of subsidiary stories have been told in Comics/Graphic Novels. Sadly the latter won’t work on my Kindle but you don’t need to have read the Comics to follow the plots of the main sequence. The adventures of Police Constable Grant are funny and frightening “Police Procedural” stories with a supernatural twist. If you like Christopher Fowler’s entertaining “Bryant & May” books about London’s Peculiar Crimes Unit, you will probably enjoy the “Rivers of London” Series.
After he manages to interview a ghost, PC Grant is taken on as an apprentice by formidable wizard, Chief Inspector Thomas Nightingale, and goes to live at The Folly – “the official home of English magic since 1775”. Grant has to learn on the job as he battles crime and unauthorized magic. There are several long-running plot lines in this series, including the search for a group of illegally-trained magicians known as the Little Crocodiles and the struggle to discover the true identity of the evil Faceless Man. Aaronovitch generally treats dark events in a light-hearted way but there are plot developments in the final chapters of Volumes One and Four which have a powerful emotional impact. Grant’s personal story arc features an on and off romance with a river goddess, a frustrating relationship with his jazz musician father and a bond with a brilliant colleague which survives mutilation and betrayal.
A realistically portrayed modern London is the setting for this series – except in “Foxglove Summer” (2016) which sends Grant on a post-traumatic trip to the countryside which, thanks to some sinister local fairies, proves far from restful. I’ve learned a lot about London’s architecture, underground rivers, police force and jazz scene from these books. Handsome PC Grant makes a dashing hero while as a narrator he has a nice line in self-deprecating humour. He tries to drag The Folly into the 21st century by using both magic and technology but with limited success since spell-working apparently does awful things to phones and computers. There are so many maverick detectives in fiction that it’s refreshing to come across a policeman who strives to do things by the book however bizarre the circumstances. In “The Hanging Tree” (2017) for example one of his murder suspects is a haughty river goddess and another has been dead for centuries. Grant’s latest sidekick is a tough-minded headscarf-wearing Muslim policewoman. This series could be seen as an example of tick-box diversity but it doesn’t read that way because Aaronovitch writes about all his regular characters with such warmth and affection. I find myself caring about the fate of the people in these books, so I’m keen to read the continuing adventures of PC Grant.
In March 2013 I recommended “A Madness of Angels” by Kate Griffin, a prolific SF and Fantasy author who also writes under the names of Catherine Webb and Claire North. “A Madness of Angels” is the first of a quartet of novels about Matthew Swift, a murdered Urban Sorcerer who comes back to life when he fuses with the Blue Electric Angels who embody all the life and energy in London’s telephone network. During Volume One he encounters a horror known as The Shadow and tries to track down and defeat his own killer. At the start of Volume Two, “The Midnight Mayor”, Swift unexpectedly inherits the office of Midnight Mayor, the protector of London from supernatural dangers – such as the terrible “Destroyer of Cities”. In Volume Three, “The Neon Court”, Swift and his new apprentice, an ex-Traffic Warden called Penny, have to deal with an angry underground tribe, some furious fairies, a lost “chosen one” and a night that refuses to end. “The Minority Council” sees Swift investigating a drug-dealer known as “The Fairy Godmother”, a monster which is attacking hooligans and possible treachery among the Aldermen who are supposed to assist the Midnight Mayor.
In 2012, Griffin launched a new London-based series called “Magicals Anonymous”. Matthew Swift is still Midnight Mayor but he is no longer the narrator. The central character is young woman called Sharon Li. At the start of “Stray Souls”, Sharon is working in a coffee-shop and worrying about the fact that she can walk through walls. She has founded a Facebook Group for those with weird powers and some very strange people turn up at the first meeting of “Magicals Anonymous” to discuss their problems. Afterwards, Sharon is approached by the Midnight Mayor who tells her that she is a shaman and sends her to an irascible goblin for training. Swift also sets Sharon the task of looking for the protective spirits who have gone missing from parts of London. Sharon learns how to walk herself invisible and into a world of danger. In the sequel, “The Glass God”, it is the Midnight Mayor himself who goes missing, so it is up to Sharon and her fellow members of “Magicals Anonymous” to save London from a new threat.
It wouldn’t matter very much if you read this double series out of sequence because the plots of the novels are all rather similar and there isn’t very much character development. In each book there is a mystery to be solved, a monster to be slain and a conspiracy to be defeated. I warned in my initial review that these stories are not “for the fastidious or the faint-hearted”. All the books contain extremely graphic violence and far too much bad language for my taste. However, the tone of the novels has become less grim than in “A Madness of Angels”. Griffin has introduced more humour and given Swift some cheerful companions including my favourite character, the Midnight Mayor’s relentlessly upbeat PA, Kelly. She knows how bleak the world can be but is determined to face horror with a smile and make sure that fighters against unspeakable evils at least get decent coffee and sandwiches.
An outstanding feature of the first four novels is the strange but compelling narrative voice of the composite being that is Matthew Swift and the Blue Electric Angels. You can tell which is dominant at any given point in the story by whether the pronoun used is I or we. Fallible Swift is a “man of sorrows” who suffers injury, betrayal and every kind of loss but remains generous and compassionate. The Blue Electric Angels have never had corporeal form before and are keen to share all the varied experiences of a human body – which means they’ll eat anything. The merciless angels give Swift supercharged magical power and the ability to wreak terrible fiery revenge on his enemies when he loses his temper. “A Madness of Angels” tests whether Swift can retain his sanity and humanity, but then Griffin seems to lose interest in this question. The later books are more about what is likely to happen when an anti-authority loner is put in charge of a large organization with pragmatic values. I missed Swift’s consistent narrative voice in the “Magicals Anonymous” books, which are told from multiple viewpoints, but it is good to glimpse the Midnight Mayor as others see him – a shabby dark-haired man with impossibly blue eyes and sometimes a pair of flaming wings.
There are two particular reasons for recommending Griffin’s books. Firstly, she is a wonderful observer and recorder of modern city life and secondly she’s the best there is at inventing forms of truly Urban Magic. In the course of these novels you get detailed tours of numerous districts of London, which each generate their own distinctive magics. For example, the Brutalist concrete architecture of the Barbican is “a place where the laws of space and time are put through the wringer” and sorcerers can pass through apparently solid structures. Even the seediest parts of London are lovingly described. Griffin finds terror and beauty in urban landscapes that most of us have stopped noticing. In Willesden, spectres take the form of gangs of hoodies loitering in bus shelters, which Swift defeats with bottles of beer, cigarettes and Sellotape bought from the nearest corner shop. London is a scary place but thanks to the Midnight Mayor if I’m ever attacked by a demon while travelling on the Underground I now know how to defend myself with my Oyster Card. Until next time….