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Warning: this review contains spoilers
What if every surface of the London as you know it is impregnated with magic? What if the urban legends about the Bag Lady, the Litterbugs with a purpose, direction and intent, and the Seven Sisters are not legends at all? And what if you’re a powerful sorcerer, whose power comes from the magic of urban life such as tube stations and graffiti, and who just happens to be dead?
Except you are, apparently, not.
Matthew Swift wakes up one morning in his bedroom in London. Nothing wrong with that picture, right? Except Matthew Swift has been murdered two years ago. And as far as he is concerned, Matthew Swift has always been the only thing inside his body. Until now. Thousands, if not millions of beings are the “we” now. We are me and I am us. Who are they?
The answer is, that they are angels. Except they are as far removed from Gabriel, Michael and other Biblical entities as can be. They are the thoughts we leave behind after we hang up the phone. They are the feelings we forget, the voices lost in interference, the surplus of magic lost across the wires and cables across the world. They are the product of humanity that began as a rogue piece of static and over the years, fed on all the life being thrown at them – telephone conversations, radio broadcasts, e-mails – that unique magic made them take a life of its own as blue electric angels. And now, all those angels are trapped in Matthew Swift’s body.
Swift has been murdered by an unknown horror known as The Shadow, which just happens to have a face of his old mentor Robert Bakker, a broken man who’s been looking for a way to get to the angels for a very long time. When Swift is resurrected, there is only one thing on his mind – revenge. Fortunately (or unfortunately), there are certain concerned citizens who want Bakker dead and his organisation, The Tower, destroyed. To do so, this group of warlocks, wizards, magicians, weremen and other magical beings recruits Swift and tasks him with killing Bakker. The pursuit of his revenge involves pranking large corporations, fighting shadows, recruiting The Beggar King and the Whites, an underground clan, and entering into a very reluctant alliance with a religious order that hates the angels. What exactly happened the night Matthew Swift died? Who or what exactly is The Shadow? And how is Matthew Swift alive?
Urban fantasy can make a traveller squeal when describing the magic of places they have been to. I am certain that London is one of my favourite places on Earth, which is a big reason why I loved Gaiman’s “Neverwhere”. “A Madness of Angels” treats London the same way – except in the Matthew Swift ‘verse, the city is literally the source of all kinds of magic. And there are so many ways magic can be drawn from it. The deepest, darkest secrets of London are the magic that is pulsing all over the place. The abandoned tube stations, the graffiti that can tell you the way to an entrace to a secret society and of course, the surplus of electric impulses infused with essence of humans that makes an angel are only a few of many aspects of the book that would make any urban fantasy lover’s heart swell. Really, the descriptions of magic in different cities, some of which I’ve been to, were one of my favourite bits of the novel – “In Madrid, the shadows are waiting at every corner to whisper their histories in your ear when you walk at night. In Beijing the sense of it was a prickling heat on the skin, like the wind had been broken down into a thousand pieces, and each part carried some warmth from another place, and brushed against your skin, like a furry cat calling for your attention”. Mrs Griffin, you’re making me nostalgic!
The main character, Matthew Swift, died while on the phone and as a result, the angels entered into a symbiotic relationship with him. They are reluctant to call it “possession” because it’s “more complicated than that”. Since this is the first time angels are experiencing life as a non-celestial, corporeal entity, they are overwhelmed, confused and fascinated. For them, life is magic in a “more mundane sense of the word; the act of living being magic all of its own”. Swift and the angels are written as one and the same, but there are constant switches between first person singular and first person plural narrator – at first, it is unclear as to why this is done, but if a reader is immersed and invested, it makes for an interesting literary device. Obviously, as Swift approaches the end of his pursuit, an internal conflict begins to form. It wasn’t prominent before because both Swift and the angels were too overwhelmed by the sudden issue of… well, being alive, but the reader begins to see a type of cognitive dissonance between the narrators. The sassy English nurse (not unlike Claire Beuchamp of Outlander) begins to bring that out in him – “Mr Swift, did you bother to consider some of the medical implications of being injured by a creature of pure darkness before you rashly engaged it in mortal combat? I doubt it. Young people never do.” This is where the lines established by the narrators between themselves arguably begin to blur and he begins to realise that “life is magic and magic is not life”. This phrase can be suggested to be the primary lesson/theme/idea of the novel, or perhaps even the entire series (I’ll start reading the next book ASAP by the way), and is the source of many conflicts in the novel – the internal conflict of Swift and the angels, as well as his conflict with Bakker and some others.
Swift’s backstory is revealed in an interlude while he is interrogated by a religious order. The entire novel is split into three parts and two interludes, no chapters. Admittedly, that does make it harder to follow. And to be fair, this is not the book that can be just “consumed” or read while you’re doing something else. This novel requires concentration and full immersion into the magical London. That wasn’t an issue for me, but I can see how it would be for some people. Griffin’s writing did sometimes feel like an attempt at “purple prose” – and for me, it worked (and the book is very quotable as a result), but only when she was elaborating on the atmosphere and the setting. Some pages were just one lengthy paragraph, which was a bit of a turn-off. However, with the exception of the very beginning and just before the ending, it wasn’t a problem. Nevertheless, if I were the author, I wouldn’t have started this book with a lengthy description and an info-dump – it can be rather off-putting. None of the faults with the writing and/or the story prevent me, however, from giving “A Madness of Angels” a rating of 8/10.
It can honestly be said that London is the central character of the novel. This sort of thing has been done with “Sherlock”, but unlike “Matthew Swift”, the story in the TV series revolves primarily around characters. In this book, however, the capital of the United Kingdom steals the glory – Kate Griffin (also known as Catherine Webb) is clearly a London aficionado like myself and is not afraid to show it. The plot is not too complex – revenge stories are rather common, as are the tropes of religious fanatics and several rivals banding together to overthrow a villain – and the side characters have more potential than explored in this installment of the series, so it is fair to say that the city (including The City) of London is both a setting and a player in the novel. This book does have many traces of typical “Englishness”, including the emotionless, deadpan reactions and pure sass in the dialogue. I do love that kind of thing!
“To send your soul across the infinite void faster than the blink of the mind dreaming in the moonlight, please press hash now”.
“Some ideas are more than just random moments of good inspiration. Some ideas become real whether you mean them or not”.
“Men in bandages feel so righteous it’s almost unbearable. Not having period pains every month gives them a whole superiority complex, but when they’re in bandages they just want to be loved”.
Matthew Swift – Benedict Cumberbatch. And I’m not being serendipitous because of Neverwhere – he literally has the perfect eyes for the part. And honestly – this cover really reminds me of Khan!
Robert Bakker – Derek Jacobi
Sinclair – Geoffrey Rush
Oda – Freema Agyeman
Dana – Lucy Fry
The Matthew Swift series are for you if you enjoyed:
“Rivers of London” by Ben Aaronovitch
“Supernatural”, “Doctor Who” and “Sherlock” – also known as “Superwholock”