Friday, 21 January 2011

A Madness of Angels by Kate Griffin

When Neil Gaiman wrote London into Neverwhere it made my toes curl with delight. This really was a novel with a sense of place, every greasy, gritty inch of it. A Madness of Angels does it too – as in Neverwhere you’ll find yourself on a disused underground station, or seeing a familiar building from a slightly different perspective. And it is only slightly different – Matthew Swift, sorceror and erstwhile corpse (except that his body was never found) is urban, contemporary, and could easily be someone you know. Like Harry Dresden, he’s a magic user who’s firmly rooted in the everyday world.

To be honest, this was my second go at the book, I’d picked it up once before and started it, and been put off by the use of “I” and “we” interchangeably in the opening pages. Just not in the mood at the time, perhaps, but since then I’d seen it mentioned a couple of times as something original and not-to-be-missed. And I’ll admit that even now, I found the beginning just a tad fey - the reader adrift with the newly-revived Swift, uncertain even whose head it is you are in - so that I fervently hoped that it would get down to something a little more concrete soon. Well, that concrete turned out to be the streets of London, dirty, familiar, infested with pigeons, reverberating to the distant thud of the underground, at once joyous and sinister in its squalor.

When Swift returns from death, somewhat augmented, to the discovery that all his friends have died horribly, he’s bent on revenge and prepared to make allegiances wherever he can find them. Recruiting an ad hoc army of bikers, religious fanatics and characters from the city’s own mythology, he starts picking off the henchmen of the man he holds responsible, a fight which escalates so rapidly that he fears there must be a traitor amongst his allies. But despite his resurrection, Swift knows that he’s not really hero material and his confidence in his magic is undermined by what he fears must be the eventual outcome. It’s this humility which makes him so attractive to the reader:
I felt that it should have been drizzling, perhaps with a thundercloud or two overhead; it would have suited my mood. As it was, the day was crisp and clean, a thing of bright light and cold, empty blue skies, big and pale. I sat with my arms curled around as much of my aching body as I could comfortably achieve, and tried not to wobble a newly loosened tooth. There was probably, I knew, some spell or other that could repair the damage, but I wasn’t about to try mystical dentistry and somehow felt the whole thing was beneath me. James Bond never had to go for emergency dental treatment; Jackie Chan never smiled a smile of gold crowns; Bruce Lee didn’t spend the final credits of any kung fu film sitting with his arms wrapped round his belly like he had food poisoning, feeling sorry for himself – therefore, neither should I. Besides, from what little we knew and what we could guess, dentists were a species we wished to avoid.
Swift is not the only appealing character. I was rather sad that Jeremy the troll made such a fleeting appearance, but there were others I liked too, including the slightly daunting Mrs Mikeda. People and events are described in a dense and lyrical prose which crackles with the electricity of the blue angels in Matthew's mind. Here, too, magic usage has a logical connection to the surrounding world - even down to power of the humble Oyster card - with an individualism which feels natural and right, and carries with it some striking images. It's a worthy successor to Neverwhere and, since the magic of a place is a creation of its locality, history, architecture, mythology and even its inhabitants, I wonder if Griffin can do this with other cities as well as London? That would be truly wonderful.


  1. Sounds worth reading. Neverwhere is already in my TBR pile though, so I expect I'll read that first.

  2. Thank you for reminding me of Neverwhere - I think that's a book I want to re-read; it's been many years and I can not remember all that much about it except for that it truly was a most delightful read. And should I happen to come across "A Madness of Angels", I will read that, too.

  3. Neither a book nor author I've come across, GC. Is this one that I could pass on to our teenage reading group, or is it written more with an adult audience in mind?

  4. Um, toe curling - my kind of book. I loved Neverwhere so I know I will give A Madness of Angels a try. But thanks for the warning abou the beginning - I could put it down, too, if I didn't know it would get better.
    Thanks for the insightful, well done review.

  5. Funny, I left a comment on this book yesterday, but it isn't here. I was attracted to your review because it started off talking about Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere, one of my favorites.
    Since you say A Madness of Angels is a worthy successor to that book, it sounds like one I will definitely read.
    Thanks for this informative review.

  6. Ok you are not going to believe this, but I have this on my shelf to read! Yours is the first review I've read of it. Lovely review too, by the way, especially as I loved Neverwhere so much, so now I am anxious to read this one. Thank you! I wish we lived closer so we could see exactly how similar our TBR shelves are! lol

  7. Oh, this sounds great. I loved Neverwhere like crazy, in large part because of how heavily London featured in it. A Neverwhere readalike could be fantastic!

  8. Gaskella, yes, Gaiman first for preference!

    Librarian, a definite re-read, it's so good. Have you read Stardust?

    Annie, I think it would be an excellent choice for older teenagers, and maybe even for confident younger readers, but it might be a little demanding for some. Neverwhere might be a better choice? Or Stoneheart, which I'm pretty sure you know? For older teenagers the book I'm reading at the moment, Rivers of London, is great fun!

    Alex, sorry, I was too slow in moderating comments - work does intrude so on blogging! Yes, the beginning is slow, but then you're caught up in the story.

    Susan, that's wonderful, I can't wait to hear what you think of it. Re TBR shelves, I've got the new Elly Griffiths book waiting at the library :)

    Jenny, you'll like Rivers of London (Ben Aaronovitch), too!