I worry I’ve gone a bit OTT on the urban fantasy London. I mean, when I list it out, a lot of the books I’ve reviewed on here have fallen into that genre… especially the ones I’ve been quite keen on. Not really sure why, if I’m honest, since I don’t think of it as my favourite genre of all time or anything. Something to ponder.
But OTT or not… have some more! This is actually the second time I’ve read this book (and series), but the first time I got so caught up in them that I ended up reading all four in the space of about two days. So they got all jumbled up in my head and I couldn’t write a post about each of them. So I gave up. Such diligence… But I felt I should come back to them, as they were an excellent recommend from Jacob and just a cracking read generally.
The general premise is very much along the lines of a lot of urban fantasy London stuff – wizardy man in London, controls the pigeons or summons the demon of the lonely traveller, has adventures, saves people and name drops a lot of London icons. In that, we’re not in desperately original territory here. But the execution of it is really, really solid, and there are enough interesting “urban” reinventions of magical things that it works pretty well. What Griffin I think really excels with, however, is her prose. She writes fantastic descriptions and brilliant dialogue… which comes up really really early because of her main character. Minor spoilers ahoy.
Matthew Swift was an urban sorceror. And then he died in mysterious circumstances. When he came back, he wasn’t just him anymore – he was joined by the mysterious Blue Electric Angels, the creatures who live in the telephone lines. The book is written with a lot of dialogue from him/them, and Griffin is great at the subtle and constantly shifting way his speech flips between “I” and “we” and the different personalities, as well as emphasising the complex nature of their relationship: “I am we and we are me”. You never really learn the exact details of what’s going on and how Matthew and the angels relate within his mind, but you get enough to know that it’s far more well-thought-out than a lot of this sort of thing. I don’t think it’s an easy thing to write a “possessed” character with any subtlety, and Griffin has achieved it wonderfully. You find yourself puzzling over whether this is Matthew, the Angels, both or just… somewhere in between… at every action and emotion. His personality and their combination are challenged by characters throughout, so it gets explored a lot, and you never get to a point where you think even Swift fully understands what’s going on in his own head, let alone another character or the readers. It’s fantastic.
Alongside this, Griffin is a beautifully descriptive author. She goes into almost obsessive details, so when she describes landscapes and landmarks of London, the ones I know I find myself wondering how she’s noticed all these things I’ve never seen, but when I think back are definitely there. She finds poetry in the everyday, but it’s not… clichéd. She makes you think about things differently, and see a different interest in the dull stuff of life. I think it’s a deliberate decision on her part to do so, too, as one of the things she has Swift emphasise over and over again is that sorcery is “just a point of view” – about seeing things differently and finding the magic in them. And she’s pushing this through in every bit of her writing. Possibly in other hands this could come over as cringey and sentimental, but she handles it well, and I found myself smiling at some of her descriptive passages.
I think it’s this beautiful writing that really makes the book stand out, because I would honestly class A Madness of Angels as one of the best examples of urban fantasy I’ve ever read. Aside from the writing, everything else is good, solid, excellent stuff, but the way she handles her language just pushes it up that extra little way. The plot is great, fun, clever, sometimes unexpected and always slightly… understated and charming. It’s got that wonderful lack of melodrama that screams “I AM BRITIIIISH” (much like parts of the Peter Grant novels or the Alex Verus books), where it feels like no one involved can take themselves entirely seriously. There’s a bit that probably should feel really tense and dramatic, as the heroes band together to plot their master strategy to overthrow the baddies once and for all… but it’s undermined by Matthew getting a bit too into his pancakes, because they’re in a pancake house. The characters too are all… the seriousness they could have in other places is subverted here and there, and so you cannot take any of them fully seriously. It’s not just subversion by humour, but by touches of almost over the top reality, detracting from the fantasy-like grandeur that you could aim for and grounding it. This is what I like about urban fantasy as a genre and Griffin is absolutely killer at it. The cast are diverse and well-explored (as much as can be done for background characters), and you feel like you could easily read a whole new series of books with each of them in the lead role, and all of them would be worth reading. Oda in particular, the absolutely dead-pan, very occasionally sarcastic assassin, I would love to read in her own novels. You get hints of depth to her, just every now and again, that make you go “oooohh tell me more”. And all of this while not at all detracting from the wonder and joy that is Swift/the Angels.
Everything about A Madness of Angels is well-executed, and with that beautiful writing, it definitely pushes up to the top of my list of urban fantasy novels. It does what so many others do well, and then does writing even better. It has charm and wit and understatement, and it knows itself and laughs at itself. That said, it’s not quite at the top of my list of favourite books ever, but it’s definitely in the running. If you’re going to read urban fantasy, I’d say read this, because well… it’s got everything. As do the sequels (which I will get to eventually but have read before), and it doesn’t suffer from a decline in quality at all. And they’re definitely worth a second read – I enjoyed it as much this time as I did the first, and found all sorts of things I missed last time. Basically, I have no criticisms.