Last winter I happened to be in my local library checking out something or another to do with the local MP and, as is usually the case, I stopped by the Sci-Fi/Fantasy section. This is only ever a good idea if I have nothing else to do that day as my library has a pretty impressive collection in that section.
I thumbed a few things and put them back down, and feeling pushed for time I was about to run off when a particular title caught my eye – ‘A Madness of Angels’.
I’d never heard of angels referred to collectively as ‘a madness’ before, so I picked it up, had a quick look at the blurb, and checked it out. I’m glad I did.
A Madness of Angels is the tale of an urban sorcerer, Matthew Swift, who, having thought himself dead, finds himself unexpectedly alive and no longer the sole inhabitant of his body.
The story progresses with Matthew’s quest to discover who killed him, and why, drawing him deeper into London’s urban magic underworld, all the while he is pursued by a grotesque and bloodthirsty living shadow named Hunger.
As his investigations lead him to magical Biker Clans, The Beggar King, The Bag Lady, Warlocks and even a secret militant wing of the Christian church, he discovers that a mysterious organisation called The Tower has been terrorising the magical inhabitants of London.
Matthew Swift must decide who he can and cannot trust.
This is Kate Griffin’s first adult novel, but she is no stranger to the world of fantasy fiction. She has had a steady stream of novels for children published since 2002 and is well loved by many under the name of Catherine Webb.
A Madness of Angels is not the first urban fantasy to hit the GEEKchocolate bookshelves, and comparisons to Neil Gaiman and China Mieville are at once obvious and unavoidable – but also unfair. The notion of a magical world unseen by every day Londoners is the subject of Gaiman’s Neverwhere, but at no point do you feel like anything Griffin has written is a direct lift or influence.
The use of magic by the various characters is not uniform, nor does it consist of the standard fantasy fare of wands, hand gestures and nonsensical incantations. Swift draws his power from the predominant energy of the world around him, using electricity as a sort of mana to charge his spells. When he finds himself in the middle of the countryside surrounded by armed and angry Chrtistian church agents, he begins to get a little desperate. No electricity means no magic – you’d think he would carry batteries…
The Bikers, The Whites, the Warlocks, and the shapeshifters, the beggars and the Bag Lady, all use magic in different ways and for different reasons – the one uniting factor is that they all seem to distrust the sorcerers. The reason for their distrust becomes clear when Swift learns that The Tower is led by his old teacher, Robert Bakker.
The odd thing about A Madness of Angels is the way the plot unfolds – for Swift things just seem to go right and according to plan until the last quarter when things start to heat up a bit.
Much of the story centres around the plans he makes and his relationship with Oda – a minder assigned by the militant church who has promised to kill him when it’s all over – and his one-time apprentice Dana Mikeda, whom we mostly meet in flashback, and his internal struggle to understand and control the entity sharing his existence.
The lack of twists in the early plot are perhaps the singular weak point to the novel. A Madness of Angels may not be the most mentally taxing of novels in the way of Mieville’s The City and The City or Neil Gaiman’s American Gods but it is no less of an engaging and engrossing tale for it, and far from simplistic.
Griffin has masterfully conjured vivid images of meetings with the Beggar King, a magical dual in the centre of London and even an amusing encounter with a troll called Jeremy (although, if you ask him he’ll tell you his name is The Mighty Raaaarrrgghh!) among other memorable scenes.
Griffin’s love of London is well known, and I can only speculate that if you know the city her affectionate descriptions of Swift’s surroundings will enhance the experience.
I loved this book, and bought my own copy soon after returning it to the Library. The sequel, The Midnight Mayor is available now.