Published by Orbit
Urban Fantasy has evolved over the years from novels with city settings and hidden magic (think Charles de Lint and early Neil Gaiman) to vampire hunters and wizards for hire more influenced by Laurell K.Hamilton and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Along comes Kate Griffin’s A Madness of Angels and Urban Fantasy reaches back to those de Lintian and Gaimanistic roots from the early 80s/90s with a vengeance, one might even say resurrected.
Matthew Swift is a sorcerer who wakes up two years after being murdered, with a need to find his killer. Like many Urban Fantasies of today, Griffin utilizes first person narrative as Swift tells us his story as he experiences it. Early on; however, it becomes clear that Matthew Swift isn’t the only entity telling the reader the story of this novel. References to “we” and/or “us” are in spots that one would expect to see “me” or “I” making the true identity of this revived sorcerer hazy.
On one hand, the story can be seen as essentially a revenge story. Man dies, comes back to life and wants to payback the man who killed him. It’s the backdrop and inventive sense of mundane magic Griffin injects that sets it apart. Not that the magic is boring, but rather that things a non-sorcerer would consider mundane like telephone lines, a Bag Lady, rats, or subways can contain immense amounts of magic. This is what Griffin, by proxy of Swift, calls Urban Magic.
The Madness in the title can refer to many things, not the least of which are the seemingly multiple voices in Swift’s head which he and his mentor Bakker call angels. Matthew was able to hear the voices in the phone lines since he was a young child, which in turn drove him to become a sorcerer. These ambiguity of the angels, and much of the power of Griffin‘s urban magic and who it ultimately serves is handled very well. The blurred line between good and evil can be seen in the reactions other characters to Swift as many see him as something short of an abomination.
Swift is enigmatic and the London in which he inhabits could very easily fit into China Miéville’s King Rat or Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere though slightly less sinister. Behind each corner or face, is something magical. As Swift the sorcerer often says “Magic is Life.”
I had to make a few hour-plus long train trips while I was reading the book and was hoping the train rides would last longer while reading A Madness of Angels. Swift’s voice is engaging and evocative, and often leaves enough out of what he is telling the reader to keep the pages turning in a very compulsive fashion.
I also liked how Griffin constructed the novel because in some respects it shouldn’t work. We are introduced to Swift with little to no knowledge of exactly who or what he is. He (or they) have a conscious knowledge of many things about himself (themselves), but doesn’t quite share it with the reader. When other characters talk to him, hints begin to leak out about his true nature. All these percolating bits of information really make the chapters where Swift reveals his all the more enjoyable and ultimately satisfying.
Again, this novel epitomizes more of an earlier (think 80s & early 90s) definition of Urban Fantasy – street magician/sorcerer, magical monsters made of trash, the Bag Lady as a prophetess/seer. No vampire fighting chicks in leather to be seen here (and that isn’t a slight), just the magic of life. A Madness of Angels is a solid, entertaining, and compulsively readable novel.
© 2009 Rob H. Bedford