A good book is a feast. It awakens the senses with unexpected spices, gives you new ways to love familiar ingredients. It makes you look forward to the next feast even as you sit full and sated. Unfortunately, Kate Griffin's A Madness of Angels takes many well-known ingredients—folklore, archetype-laden contemporary urban fantasy, role-playing games, comics, and action movies—and rolls them together into a clashing mess of flavors that never marry.
A Madness of Angels starts with a thrilling and intriguing premise. Two years after his untimely demise, London sorcerer Matthew Swift returns to find that all his friends are dead. But he's not alone: someone else inhabits his body with him, plus these mysterious beings that change his eye color from brown to unnatural, electric blue. He sets out to avenge the dead—and, he hopes, save the living. Fascinating as this sounds, it's an ambitious menu description for a mediocre meal.
Pacing is part of the problem. Almost twenty percent of the book is given over to a prologue, and half of that is spent on Swift's meanderings and recollections (and his passengers' relentlessly italicized "run run run") before his name is mentioned for the first time. Things pick up as the bodies mount up, but waiting too long for an appetizer makes one a little less patient with the server.
Throughout the book, the writing feels inflated. Conversations tend toward pointless, hostile banter; descriptions take the form of laundry lists:
I wandered down the middle of the Market, side-stepping the wind-blown papers, dead plastic bags, vegetables and fruit splattered on the road, chubby young mothers with prams, and impatient vendors flapping over their wares, between stalls selling wrapping paper, cheese, mushrooms, batteries, pirate films, pirate CDs, secondhand books (including the complete Mills and Boon list for 50p a shot), cakes, bread, personal fans, portable radios, miniature TVs, scarves, dresses, boots, jeans, shirts and odd pieces of spider-web-thin fashion that looked like they were too light even to billow in the wind.
Until that rather nifty last phrase, I had trouble keeping my eyes from glazing over.
Once Swift sets himself a path, he goes about things very methodically. He believes that his old mentor, Robert James Bakker, is most likely responsible for his death and the deaths of his fellow magicians. Mysterious Dudley Sinclair believes that Bakker's magical organization, the Tower, threatens London's inhabitants. When Sinclair introduces Swift to several like-minded individuals, sniper fire interrupts their rebel meeting and sidelines many of his new allies (some permanently). Swift decides to remove Bakker's four lieutenants from the game—by himself if necessary—on the way to stopping Bakker and the greedy, vampiric creature Swift calls "Hunger."
Bakker's four human sub-bosses—and since the plot proceeds like that of an inferior RPG, it's hard to think of them as anything else—are the most interesting characters in the story. With big ambitions and unusual powers—for instance, one lives in a body deliberately time-stopped in the prime of life—they seem carefully thought out. One character, a necromancer, illustrates an entire branch of magic neatly. Griffin's clever and logical take on necromancy, which involves animating corpses by placing written instructions in their bodies, is one I haven't seen before. The last sub-boss is someone with whom Swift once shared a unique and close relationship, and their dialogue can be rather affecting.
Unfortunately, that humanizing relationship comes up near the end of the book. Through most of the book, we have just Swift, his little blue friends, and a supporting cast that falls neatly into categories of helpers, hindrances, and sacrifices. The chief interest with his external allies is watching them change categories. Swift's blue-eyed monsters—actually a knowledgeable hive-mind—are like smart college students, well-read but inexperienced. They delight in physical sensation, such as pain (at least at first), hot showers, and the taste of bacon. Oddly, neither they nor Swift express any longing for sex.
Swift is difficult to pin down. He's in a worse situation than many first-person narrators because he has neither friends nor home. Swift doesn't appear to have any preferred foods or a favorite color, either; the closest thing we find to personal taste is his insistence on a long coat with deep pockets. In the absence of such simple cues, we have only his actions, which are inconsistent. Often cocky, but disturbed by death and moral issues, Swift seems a little too safe a hero. The itinerant life of the homeless and recently resurrected sorcerer seems much less sympathetic when Swift uses a handy spell to charm cash out of ATMs. With that knowledge, the thrift-store clothes become a mere fashion statement, and the spell-component "sacrifice" of an expensive item bought with other people's money is as hollow as a stale profiterole.
This brings us to perhaps the biggest problem of the book. Griffin writes about individual displays of magic with passion and imagination. Her descriptions of London are accurate, thorough, and scrupulously multicultural. However, there's no underlying logic to the magic in Swift's London. Swift trots out the standard Dungeons & Dragons classifications for sorcerers (intuitive magicians), warlocks (pact-makers with powerful beings), and wizards (serious students of the art). His own powers run the gamut: spells requiring writing, undergoing an ordeal to gain a spirit's favor, a shamanic merging with the city, and drawing down electric light into energy balls. He's Hellblazer's John Constantine crossed with The Authority's Jack Hawksmoor crossed with a D&D mage slinging Magic Missile. Although Swift can always do something nifty, the lack of logical underpinnings strains credibility.
A Madness of Angels can be entertaining. It's certainly packed with colorful characters: bikers, zealous killing machines, mythic archetypes of urban fantasy. Once the action starts, it goes from vandalism to murder to pit fighting and beyond. To me, the book's exuberant inclusion of clichés from such diverse sources seemed sloppy and unfocused, but things do keep moving.
Perhaps the most frustrating thing about A Madness of Angels is that the ending is pretty good. The conceit of the final showdown is clever, and Swift's final conversations with the boss and the aforementioned fourth sub-boss are rather affecting. But I can't help feeling that I'd be more affected if Swift and his magical London felt substantial. An unnecessary, sequel-signaling epilogue sits atop the ending like a squirt of Reddi-wip on a chocolate dessert.
I'm not writing off the chef. Griffin spins some nice phrases, and some of her magical-flavored sauces are tasty. The last hundred pages show that she can balance a dish; she just didn't manage it with the entire prix fixe this time.
A Madness of Angels is vacation food: hit-or-miss, and not especially good for you. It won't do you any lasting harm, but once you've finished it, you're unlikely to want it again.
Laura Blackwell is a writer, editor, and journalist. Her fiction has most recently appeared in The Lorelei Signal. Some of her previous reviews at Strange Horizons have been honored with Reader's Choice Awards. She lives in Northern California.