Archives for posts with tag: Best Fantasy Series

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….






This week I’m looking at some Fantasy series which have been continued or completed since I first recommended them. There have been a few disappointments. I have mixed feelings about Rachel Hartman’s  “Shadow Scale”, the follow-up to her much praised “Seraphina” (see my post of January 2013) and the promised sequel to Saladin Ahmed’s “Throne of the Crescent Moon” (see April 2013) hasn’t yet appeared. In Catch Up Week (Part One) I’m going to concentrate on four series that have kept up a consistently high standard.

I’ll begin with P.C.Hodgell’s long-running God Stalker Chronicles which follow the fate of the three peoples of the Kencyrath who are trapped on an alien world and face an ultimate battle against the chaotic force known as Perimal Darkling. The first novel, “God Stalk” (see my post of July 2012) was published in 1982 and the series currently includes seven novels and a number of short stories. The leading characters are Torison, the haunted Highlord of the Kencyrath and his much younger twin sister, Jame (you will have to read the books to find out how that can happen). Warrior and thief, Jame, remains one of my most admired Fantasy heroines. The main story-line about the promised rise of the three who will lead the fight against encroaching darkness is progressing extremely slowly but that’s fine by me. I’m happy in the company of rule-breaking Jame with her stupendously dysfunctional family and her dazzling leadership qualities. The most recent novel, “The Sea of Time” (2014), has all the qualities I enjoy in Hodgell’s work – a complex time-twisting plot, extraordinary places and fascinating cultures, and a pantheon of peculiar deities who interact with mortals in very surprising ways. Long may this imaginative series continue.

In October 2012 I recommended Benedict Jacka’s “Fated”, a contemporary Urban Fantasy about a mage whose special power is seeing possible futures. There are now seven novels in the Alex Verus series and an eighth is due out next year. In this fictional universe, magic-users are rigidly divided into Dark and Light mages who maintain an uneasy truce. Diviner Verus was once apprenticed to a Dark Mage but he rebelled against his cruel Master. He runs a magic shop in London and tries to be independent of both the Dark and Light Councils. In all the novels, Verus tells his own story, so we get to know him really well. Many Fantasy series have heroes or heroines who don’t develop much during their adventures. Jacka’s books stand out because Verus’ situation and character change dramatically as it becomes harder and harder for him to shake off his past and stay neutral. He tries to find better ways of training the magically gifted and, partly to protect his own apprentices, throws in his lot with the Keepers – the police force of the Light Council. Even this isn’t enough to save him from those who believe that a former Dark Mage can never change. The latest novel, “Burned” (2016), starts with terrible news for Verus and ends with a shocking turn of events. This increasingly dark series asks whether someone who is treated as a villain is doomed to become one. I really don’t know what the answer is going to be but I shall keep reading to find out.

Later the same month (October 2012) I recommended Catherine Fisher’s “The Obsidian Mirror”, which was then called the first novel in the Chronoptika Sequence. There are now three more novels in this sequence (“The Box of Red Brocade”, “The Door in the Moon” and “The Speed of Darkness”), which has been renamed The Shakespeare Quartet. Even more confusingly, in some editions Volume Two has the alternative title of  “The Slanted Worlds”. Don’t let this put you off a truly exciting read. The series is made up from diverse elements such as a haunted English manor house (Wintercombe Abbey), a wood ruled by the Shee (fairies), a mirror that enables time travel to any historical period, a magician from the past and a messenger from a Dystopian future. It shouldn’t work but it does. Among the well-drawn central characters are a man determined to bring his wife back from the dead, a boy searching for his lost father, a changeling desperate to escape from the Shee and a girl trying to save her entire world from destruction. The plot is extremely tense because they cannot all succeed. One person’s triumph will be another person’s tragedy. The concluding volume, “The Speed of Darkness” (2016), begins with a mighty tempest and never lets  up. Only start reading Fisher’s series when you have plenty of time to spare because you probably won’t want to stop until you’ve found out what happens to all the troubled people (and spirits) gathered at Wintercombe Abbey.

In November of 2012 one of my choices was Jasper Fforde’s Young Adult Fantasy “The Last Dragonslayer”, the first of The Chronicles of Kazam. This novel is set in one of the Ununited Kingdoms of Britain at a time when magic is at a low ebb. It introduces a most appealing heroine – sensible foundling, Jennifer Strange, who struggles to organize the “sorcerers, movers, soothsayers, shifters, weathermongers and carpeteers” employed by Kazam Mystical Arts Management. During an eventful week, Jennifer appears in a vision and on TV, is threatened with prison and death, becomes famous and discovers her destiny as a Dragonslayer. It’s a destiny she is determined to avoid, especially after she meets the last of the dragons. This is one of the funniest Fantasy novels I know. It is stuffed with eccentic characters and extraordinary creatures, such as the Transient Moose and Jennifer’s fearsome pet, the Quarkbeast who looks “like an open knife drawer on legs”. The sequel, “The Song of the Quarkbeast” (2011) is equally amusing and inventive but in the third volume, “The Eye of Zothar” (2014), both the heroine and the series grow up with a vengeance during an action-packed journey through the hideously dangerous Cambrian Empire (Wales). I’ve always hoped that someone would dramatize Fforde’s novels and now my wish has come true. Sky Television has made a film of “The Last Dragonslayer” and is going to show it over Christmas. It should be one of the highlights of the Holiday Season for Fantasy readers. Until next time….