Book Review: The Neon Court (Matthew Swift Book 3) by Kate Griffin

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Warning: this review contains spoilers.

My reviews of the first two Matthew Swift books can be found here and here.

Two months have passed since Matthew Swift, against everyone’s wishes, became the Midnight Mayor of London. The job basically means that he has to guard and protect the city at all costs. Obviously, he is a busy man, what with London’s enemies to destroy, unstoppable darkness to drive back, the night of scary things to purge, and an apprentice, Penny, to train. So why would someone decide to summon him into an Inferno that is a burning building in the middle of Sidcup, South London? The answer is, as Oda very well knows, is that impending death has always produced Swift’s very best work. Yes, Oda was so desperate, and so afraid, that she summoned the very thing she considers to be an abomination. Somehow, against all odds, Matthew Swift believes that he managed to save her. What he doesn’t know, is that he’s just made things worse for everyone, most of all her. For one, a daimyo of an elite clan, The Neon Court, was murdered in the fire. Swift is obviously a suspect (what else is new) but The Aldermen have more pressing things to worry about than prosecute him. They need The Midnight Mayor because The Neon Court believes that another clan, The Tribe, had murdered the daimyo. And Lady Neon is coming to town. Which means war between the clans. And that wouldn’t end well for anybody involved.

Ah, if only the war were the only thing Swift had to deal with… It’s actually the least strange thing about this night. Yes, night. Because the sun is not coming up, and the boroughs of London are disappearing one by one, starting with Cockfosters, and nobody seems to remember them. The city is a mess – people’s schedules are confused, they’ve no idea what to do and they just end up falling asleep. London is immersed by one huge blackout. Well, Blackout with a capital B if Swift’s colleague Leslie Dees is to be believed. The spirit of Blackout is “the shadow at the end of the alley, the footsteps half heard in the night”. Blackout is what people fear when they say they fear the dark. He was defeated once by an old friend of Matthew’s, but now he’s returned. And he lives inside Oda, who is walking around with a hole in her heart and can now kill everyone who looks her in the eye. So yeah – Matthew, Leslie and Penny have more pressing things to worry about than some civil war. The problem is – how do they make Lady Neon and the Tribe listen to them? And who is this “chosen one” who supposedly has the power to stop Blackout and why do both sides want her?

After reading the prologue, I assumed that this was set up similarly to the first two instalments – as an urban noir where Matthew Swift is the reluctant hero who is at first believed by everyone to be the villain but at the end, he saves the day with a little help from his frenemies friends – be it life or a position in politics. And in a way, I wasn’t wrong. The entire series is renowned for its unconventionality in terms of characterisation and a flawless combination of urban London and the detective elements. However, “The Neon Court” takes “Matthew Swift” to a whole new level of unconventional, well-rounded and at times, disturbing. Yes, even more disturbing than “The Midnight Mayor”. The baddies in the latter gave me goosebumps, but they were more disconcerting than terrifying. The third book’s baddies (who are pretty much 80% of the characters) are not only disturbing, but downright scary! The main plot involving the uber-villain strongly reminded me of a Doctor Who episode of Tennant’s era. Not any particular one, just the plot has the overall feel of that particular arc. Add a dash of “Skyfall”, a spoonful of “Supernatural” and a pinch of Jack the Ripper who just shows up because a mediocre bad guy screwed things up for everyone, and you might just scrape the surface of the awesomeness of “The Neon Court”.

“A Madness of Angels” was London-centric.

“The Midnight Mayor” was Swift-centric.

“The Neon Court” is something else altogether. Matthew Swift may still be the narrator, but never before has he been such an unreliable one. Griffin has established him as such a very long time ago. What happens at a certain point in this book, however, makes him even worse off in that regard. I already gave out too many spoilers, so I’ll just say that “Dead is dead is dead” is the biggest lie in the “Matthew Swift” verse. In his own words, “getting him to share his brain with the dead echo of the guy that killed him” is not the best idea. Ha! And you thought that Swift and the angels was confusing and PTSD-inducing! Seriously, Matthew Swift needs therapy. Although Penny is pretty great too. Also, the readers themselves might also need therapy. While Griffin has been quite ruthless in the previous installments with the bloodshed and suchlike, in this book she has escalated to a, for the lack of a better word, sadist. And I thought Robin Hobb killed off a lot of characters!

Swift’s unreliableness is strengthened by the blue electric angels inside him, who are also a narrator, and arguably an even less reliable one. Even though by now the angels have more or less stopped being overwhelmed by the human world and them in and Matthew have reached some sort of a… congruence (well as well as they could considering), Swift still has only two modes – “diplomatically passive” and “apocalyptically destructive”. And unfortunately, this unique characterisation doesn’t allow them to be reliable narrators. But despite any frustrations I may have with their narrative, Griffin’s plot twists make up for literally all of them.

Well, all except one. The title of the book is quite misleading – it lets the reader believe that the clan of The Neon Court made up of “smug self-satisfied bastards” are the biggest plot point and source of conflict in this book. However, that is most certainly not the case. I am actually a little disappointed that Lady Neon, a character with a lot of potential, only appears twice or thrice throughout the book and she is never really explored as a villain. The only explanation I have for the title is that Griffin wanted to go along with the theme of an unreliable narrator and named the book “The Neon Court” as a red herring for the reader so as to make them believe that The Court are the most prominent villains in the story. If I were the author, I would’ve called it something like “The Missing Boroughs” or “The London Blackout”. That’s really my only issue with the writing, though. The book is still amazing, even though my favourite one so far is “The Midnight Mayor”.

What truly makes this book remarkable are the characters and relationships. “The Neon Court” is primarily about old and new villains and secondary characters. That’s not to say that our favourite Midnight Mayor is ignored or that London’s magic is underused, quite the contrary. The backstories we get for the characters, new and old, alive, dead or in-between, offer remarkable insight into them, as well as the answers to the question the readers have had since the prologue of “A Madness of Angels”. And those answers are startling as well as disturbing. It would take me another five paragraphs to explain Griffin’s complex weaving of backstories and character arcs into the noir plot of “The Neon Court”, and I’m happy to write them, but I think that my readers get that the book is an installment that’s in no way subpar to the two previous ones. My rating is 8/10.

Favourite quotes

The words; they’re alive. It’s a sky made out of words, big and bright and brilliant and alive”

“If the soul is immortal, and there is a destiny, and there is a God, I can’t imagine he’ll have nice things to say to me”

“There is no silence as dead as the sound of the engine stopping, no silence so complete as the city when the traffic stops moving. For chirruping country insects the city made human voices constant in the night; for the rustle of leaves and wind there were air vents in the sides of buildings; for the sound of mud underfoot, the clip clip clip of hard soles on tarmac. There should always be something, somewhere, making noise in the city”

Dreamcast

So since we found out a ton of information about characters in this installment, some of my dreamcasts mentioned in previous reviews are changing.

Matthew Swift – Ben Whishaw (no matter how much the guys on the covers look like Cumberbatch, he is much too dignified for Swift)

Robert Bakker – Derek Jacobi

Oda Ajaja – Freema Agyeman

Penny Ngwenya – Naomie Harris

JG – Nathalie Emmanuel

Lady Neon – Michelle Trachtenberg

Toxik – Michael Socha

Theydon – Oded Fehr

Leslie Dees – Judi Dench

Book Review: A Madness of Angels (Matthew Swift Book 1) by Kate Griffin

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(Guys, I opened an Etsy charity shop! Check it out and help stop human trafficking!)

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. 

Favourite character

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!

Favourite quotes

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”.

Dreamcast

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

Recommendations

The Matthew Swift series are for you if you enjoyed:

“Neverwhere” by Neil Gaiman

“Rivers of London” by Ben Aaronovitch

“Supernatural”, “Doctor Who” and “Sherlock” – also known as “Superwholock”