"When a man is tired of London he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford" - Samuel Johnson
In fact, Dr Johnson was only half right. There is in London much more than life - there is power. It ebbs and flows with the rhythms of the city, makes runes from the alignments of ancient streets and hums with the rattle of trains and buses; it waxes and wanes with the patterns of the business day. It is a new kind of magic: urban magic.
Enter a London where magicians ride the last train, implore favours of the Beggar King and interpret the insane wisdom of the Bag Lady. Enter a London where beings of power soar with the pigeons, scrabble with the rats and seek insight in the half-whispered madness of the blue electric angels.
Enter the London of Matthew Swift, where rival sorcerers, hidden in plain sight, do battle for the very soul of the city...
You have to feel a little sorry for Kate Griffin in writing A Madness of Angels. In 1996 Neil Gaiman wrote Neverwhere, a book about the world of London Below, that portrayed the picture of a city where restless magic crept into every brick. Here Griffin explores similar themes - London is a city in which sorcerers can tap into the power of the transport systems, the electricity, the very movement of people around the city. What is especially wonderful is that only a few pages into Kate Griffin's A Madness of Angels you will have forgotten every resemblance to Neverwhere and started enjoying the book in its own right.
People who wish to write books are urged to avoid purple prose: passages, or indeed a whole book, written in extravagant and overly ornate prose - to the point where the reader is jarred out of the story. Kate Griffin never got the memo - and yet, A Madness of Angels works because of this rather than despite it. The lyrical and beautiful language takes an effort to read, but I found myself luxuriating in every sentence and my effort was paid back in full. It was partly paid back in some truly lovely imagery, such as the following:
"...just so I could experience the different magics of those places. In New York the air is so full of static you almost spark when you move; in Madrid the shadows are waiting at every corner to whisper their histories in your ear when you walk at night. In Berlin the power is clean, silken, like walking through an invisible, body-temperature waterfall in a dark cave; 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."
I was also repaid in spades by the sheer imagination Griffin displays as we explore this world of London in the company of Matthew Swift, the deceased, and the blue electric angels - whimsical, youthful spirits with an anthem to stir the soul:
"We be light, we be life, we be fire! We sing electric flame, we rumble underground wind, we dance heaven! Come be we and be free! We be blue electric angels"
So we have stunning writing, and a crazy amount of spectacular ideas: these still would be nothing if the underlying story were not as gripping and tense as it turns out to be. Matthew Swift has been pulled out of death and is hunting to find out who wanted him returned to life. Alongside this, he is entangled in a plot to bring down the Tower, headed up by his former master. Add in the Hunger, a distinctly chilling entity that spins itself from shadows when least expected, and you have a book with pace and danger.
I have few complaints about this book (in fact, it is easily one of my top reads of 2010 so far), but I will make one observation. Part of the joy in immersing myself in this book came from seeing London through eyes opened to the magic in the city - I question whether anyone not personally familiar with London would find the same entrancing qualities in the descriptions of the Underground, or the tiny alleyways that seem to go nowhere, or the mish-mash of huge mansions next to council estates. I don't feel the story would lose anything for anyone not directly experienced with the 'feel' of London, but I do think my reading of A Madness of Angels was enhanced by having been there on many occasions.
I also accept that there will be people who struggle to really get on board with the style of writing, especially within the first thirty-odd pages where the reader feels almost as confused as Swift does. Griffin does not baby her readers through the story - she plunges straight into Swift's re-emergence into London life without pausing to explain who he is and how he came to be there. Personally I prefer being passed details through the telling of the story rather than the writer artificially dumping in back history, so this did not deter my enjoyment at all.
It is not a perfect book, but it is a damn fine piece of story-telling and leaves me keen to visit the world of Matthew Swift once again. Recommended for those with the patience to give this book time to come alive.