Warning: this review contains spoilers.
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.
“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”
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