Thursday, October 4, 2012

A Madness of Angels

This one is another recommendation from Longshanks and Misanthrope. I read it maybe two years ago and didn't see the appeal, for whatever reason, but this time around it grabbed my attention and only rarely let go.

Rating: 4 stars
Length: Expansive (640 pages)
Publication: April 6, 2009 from Orbit
Premise: Two years ago, Matthew Shift died in a telephone box and didn't leave a body behind. Now he's alive again, with something extra along for the ride in his mind, and he's determined to take his revenge on both his killer and on the one who brought him back into mortal flesh.
Warnings: Some fairly nasty gore (described in moderate detail, we're not talking Saw here)
Recommendation: If you have the patience to wait for answers to show up, give this one a try. It's creative, dreamy, intensely dangerous, and unusual in a way that not many things I've read recently are.

Why this one feels like it really understands cities: 

Many books lay claim to the genre title of urban fantasy, but this one is tied up in the heartbeat of a city in a way that I don't think I've seen done in quite this way before. One of the book's refrains is that magic is life, and we're shown that magic comes from the glow of neon, the busy hum of commuters, and even the pattern of the way that people choose to ignore beggars. Sorcerers are exhilarated at the height of rush hour, comfortable with the rhythm of their cities in the way their ancestors were comfortable with slower druidic power drawn from the natural world. The people and monsters of the piece reflect that sensibility, with everything from a golem made of garbage to the glorious capping spectacle of an urban dragon. The magic itself is quirky and often beautiful; Griffin knows how to make even the grittiest moments lovely. Throwing a handful of gathered electricity is predictable enough, but calling on the god of lonely travelers or following spray-painted eyes that open before the last train helps build on the sense of being in a city and knowing that there are thousands of people, all living their lives in quietly interconnected ways and doing things that you will never have the time to investigate of understand.

The magic flourishes because it's entwined with a sense of mystery and tradition that reinforces how very ancient London is. Matthew may use some powers for his own benefit, but beneath that is the realization that the city is bigger than he is, and that ancient forces deserve his humility and sometimes his reverence. It goes a long way towards creating a sense of balance-- sorcerers have powers that most people can't comprehend, but the ebb and flow of the city's rhythms don't let anyone stand in a position of omnipotence. It's especially poignant when he calls out to the spirit of neglected railway lines, or other abandoned sites that used to carry thousands of lives and now languish forgotten beneath the city. It creates that aura that really excellent magical systems have, the impression that if they were real, they would blend with life in such an organic way that they would make life richer and more real than our reality-- it's hard to do, but when it works, it makes books stand out like beacons. The imagery of the city itself, of its tourist traps and lights in the night and the flow of the tide in the Thames, just works in a way that makes you want around the city with the book in hand and try to see that extra spark of life.

The resurrected Matthew Swift blazes back into this life by waking up in his old bedroom, which is no longer his because he's been gone for two years after being shot in front of a phone booth and being assumed dead, although his body was never found. The opening sentence, "Not how it should have been," sets the tone for the frustrated disorientation that dogs Matthew until quite late in the book. He has to run almost immediately and is can't even sleep on his first night back in the world of the living because he's too busy running and fighting with his (or their) racing thoughts. Their thoughts--because when Matthew vanished, he went to the speeding world of the blue electric angels, creatures who live in the wires and in the floating transfer of information. He came back as himself, but also as their "we," and this makes him an inseparable blend of paranoid skittering sorcerer and powerful-but-young entities who are delighted and terrified by every sensory experience of the world they've entered. Between the shock of his resurrection and their unfamiliarity with even the basics of having the body, every sensation and emotion in his early flight burns off the page with almost painful rawness.

He has to pick up new things on the fly, and soon learns the Robert Bakker, his former master in the art of sorcery, is in charge of a group called the Tower. They claim to unify magical practitioners of all stripes, but since their rise to power over London, magicians who oppose them have died brutally and under mysterious circumstances. Since he and Bakker quarreled over immortality and magic on the day of his death, Matthew is only too glad to take on the challenge of damaging the Tower, and he starts with the lieutenants who keep the organization functioning. Each one has different strengths and spheres of influence, and it's a genuine pleasure to watch Matthew use some scruffy assembly of tools and focused power to take down the well-oiled machinery that holds things together. Bakker seems to see himself as a benevolent figure and to not know what's going on, and the early joviality confuses Matthew, who is already so lost in his own city and his own mind. He and the angels share experiences, but that sometimes serves to put both of them at a disadvantage because Matthew's instincts are mostly good, but he edges close to danger and the angels can't stop him, or even realize that they should.

The red pen: 

The very beginning of the book is so intensely raw and real that it's hard to stay so engaged once Matthew starts to get his bearings. When he meets with representatives of groups that are opposed to the Tower, they feel a bit like argumentative cardboard cutouts of competing interests that only later grow personalities. We get just enough information to know who has what sort of powers, and some of them are relevant later, but on the whole, it's a slightly dead sequence that exists to provide an opportunity for a traitor in the group to tip off the Tower that a meeting is happening. Several interesting plot points spiral from there, but when characters exist mainly as a long-form game of Clue, with clues dropped at convenient intervals, it's hard to find most of them compelling or memorable. In some ways, this may also be a function of how sharp Matthew's sensations are-- he's so caught up in feeling and running and managing his crowded mind that there's almost not room for anyone else to edge onto center stage for long.

The blandness of some of the secondary characters does fade, but in Oda's case it slides into an obnoxious persona that I could do without ever seeing again. Oda is a member of an organization devoted to wiping all magic from the world to keep it from harming ordinary people with its inevitable corruption; they'll reluctantly take on magic-using allies who they see as less evil in order to take out major magical threats, but they're not overly picky about targets. The group as a whole has its good and bad points, but Oda is deeply uninteresting-- she's in the struggle because her brother took up magic and went bad in his teens, so she distrusts all magic users on an ethical and personal level but has (surprise) been assigned to watch Matthew and make sure he doesn't try anything funny. She spends most of her time glaring, threatening him, and demanding that he explain what sort of magic he's doing this time. Matthew needles her by providing half-answers, and that's fun to watch, but it seems like she's there to force him to provide exposition and to protect him from physical threats. He was already doing the first well enough and other characters could have done the second, so Oda serves mainly to drag out tension and dull animosity; she can't even manage a proper zealous hatred in the way that the head of her Order can, and only her flashes of starting to waver in her purpose make her remotely tolerable.

Dana Mikeda, Matthew's former apprentice, unfortunately falls flat in a different way. For three-quarters of the book we know nothing about her except that Matthew valued her and doesn't want her harmed, and she enters the stage so later that her arc feels compressed. There was certainly potential there; she wields magic with more finesse than Matthew does, and after his death she became Bakker's apprentice, which has made her a target of groups opposed to the Tower even though she would honestly like to leave. When she does finally appear, it's great to see how her power overwhelmed her at first in a flashback, but her arc is focused entirely on Matthew: how to free him from captivity and danger, what to think about his disappearance, how to handle his short, her emotions are front and center, and most of them that aren't her dread of Hunger revolve around Matthew. That focus could have worked well as part of a longer arc, or the narrative could have focused more on how very much she'd changed without her teacher around, but as it is....she feels rushed, and the long buildup of the mystery surrounding her fate and past deserved more. 

The true villain of the piece is nicely enigmatic, but the main threat and stalking-monster takes too long to become properly menacing. When the Hunger approaches, shadows start flowing toward their sources instead of away, and that part is always spooky, but when he starts talking....less so. He says a lot of "hello, Matthew's fire" and "so hungry," but it leans towards a loop of catchphrases in a way that doesn't quite work; encounters with someone this frightening should induce terror, and his methods get repetitive, which takes the edge off the fear. Matthew's ways of dodging and confronting him certainly don't disappoint, but writing Hunger as such a threat and then not showing him as much of one except in Matthew's dread leaves him falling a touch flat as a source of terror.

All in all, this one has some flat and slow spots, partly as the result of slowing down after masterfully done sequences of frantic activity, but it layers worldbuilding and blurred character identity in a way that makes the book feel deeply satisfying. It could have done with a little trimming, but for length and to trim away at some unnecessary side characters, but the whole magic system more than makes up for that.

Prospects: There are now four books in the Matthew Swift series; the fourth and most recent is The Minority Council, which came out in March. I have plans to borrow the rest soon, though I hear that they lack something of the luster of the first one; we'll see how it goes. There are also (tentative) plans to make the book into a movie, but the author is heavily involved, so I will try to stay optimistic.

Enjoyed this? Try: 
~Neverwhere, by Neil Gaiman. It's absolutely gorgeous and shares a lot of this one's quirky darkness, but it also draws a firmer line between the magical London Below and the city we see every day.
~Some of this book's weird manipulating of identities and tenses reminds me a lot of The Gypsy by Steven Brust and Megan Lindholm. The thing is an absolute treat from start to finish, and it'll be making an appearance on the blog after I retrieve my copy from Georgia.

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