Matthew Swift is a sorcerer—properly speaking, a dead sorcerer, reincarnated at the beginning of the first book in this series, A Madness of Angels (2009). He was modestly gifted until killed by a demonic creature while on the phone, after which he merged with the blue electric angels who lived in the phone lines, formed of the emotional energy of old conversations—sort of electrical-emotional elementals. Brought back by a spell, he is himself and the angels, both and neither, using the pronouns "I" and "we" interchangeably.
Figuring out all the back-story in that first volume is frustrating. Some of what happened to Swift—who killed him and why—is the matter of the book, and we legitimately find it out as he does. But there's much that he knows from the get-go, but that we have to find out veerry sloowly because it's simply withheld from us, even though he's our first-person-point-of-view character (two times over, both singular and plural).
Fortunately, readers of this book don't need to put up with that authorial ploy. Those who have read the first book may get more out of this than those who haven't, but new readers should be able to pick up here without real problems. An adequate summary of the essence of what came before is provided painlessly in lumps not too large or indigestible. For instance, we're told pretty directly who and what Matthew is in a report excerpt:
It is our final opinion that the fusion of the sorcerer Swift and the entities commonly known as the blue electric angels during their shared time in the telephone wires, has resulted in the creation of a highly unstable entity . . . . The Swift-angel creature, while appearing almost entirely human, is at its core a combination of a traumatized dead sorcerer and infantile living fire, neither of which is fully equipped to handle living as two separate entities, let alone one fused mind. (p. 94)
We start with Swift on the phone again, and again subject to supernatural attack, though without mortal consequences this time.
Swift is not a detective per se; the mysteries he solves are thrust upon him personally by (dire) circumstances. Still, on one side Swift's literary family tree would include detectives and PI's, as well as all those innocent everymen forced to solve mysteries by being thrust into desperate circumstances (a la Hitchcock); and on the other side he owes a debt to the "psychic detective" who deals with supernatural cases, such as Algernon Blackwood's John Silence or Seabury Quinn's Jules le Grandin.
I'm not sure, specifically, where the "sorcerer detective"—or the sorcerer protagonist, who finds himself involved a solving a mystery—begins, though I suspect it's in the pulps. The earliest and clearest examples I know come from comic books, such as Dr. Fate (beginning 1940) or the Spectre (1940). Matthew Swift, however, bears closest comparison to the rapidly-multiplying group of magical detectives in what seems to be a popular urban fantasy sub(sub)genre—partly enjoying such popularity, I suspect, because it shades into the really popular subgenre of paranormal romance. In some ways he's not unlike Simon Green's John Taylor, of the Nightside series, at least in abilities and activities; Taylor had a supernatural mother and is so only part human and can draw on supernatural powers. He does function as a detective. He also brings to mind Thomas Sniegoski's Remy Chandler, who is an actual seraph (in an assumed mortal form) working as a detective (who even does divorce work!); both struggle with their angelic nature, sometimes unsuccessfully. The most popular such character, though one who's completely mortal, is probably Jim Butcher's Harry Dresden.
A key aspect of sorcerer detective stories is, of course, the supernatural battle; you need sorcery on both sides for that. While supernatural powers have been wielded in fiction since there was fiction (if you consider tales of gods supernatural in this sense), actual sorcerous conflict, of the sort now so familiar to us from the Harry Potter franchise, seems more recent to me; I can't, offhand, think of early fictional examples, and turn again to comic books, and to the earliest example that I can think of in films, the battle between Vincent Price and Boris Karloff in The Raven (1963—a film that also stars, almost implausibly, Peter Lorre and Jack Nicholson).
The magical forces used in the Matthew Swift books are of a particular kind, however. Swift doesn't recite arcane spells, per se, wield magical talismans, invoke ancient names of power, or fling about painful pseudo-Latin ("Ridiculus!" indeed). In these books, magic arises from life itself; in Swift's case, specifically, out of the life of the city. Both nature and human constructions and activity generate power; life becomes Life, as the current-borne words and feelings of billions of people became the blue electric angels. And that provenance of magic takes us right to the thematic heart of this series: a long love poem to that hyper-urb, London, in all its gritty glory, to the life of the city, and more broadly, to life itself.
As an example of the magic: to kill off a blobby grease monster, a sort of hypertrophic drain clog, Swift invokes the names of trash collection companies to summon up a spectral garbage truck (pp. 130-38). But not before he's slimed with grease and hair; disgusting scenes and bloody violence, more than actual fright, help put this series over into the horror category. To keep evil beings from following him into the Underground, he invokes the system's ticketing and behavior rules and regulations as a spell. To fight specters in the form of music-listening thugs in hoodies, he reads an "ASBO" (an "Anti-Social Behaviour Order"), British legalese restricting rowdy behavior (pp. 375-76). He's constantly gathering power and light from the electricity and neon found everywhere in the city; away from the urban environment he is, of course, greatly weakened.
Fittingly for this theme and Swift's (and Griffin's) love of London, Swift inadvertently becomes "The Midnight Mayor," the head of a secret group of "Aldermen," a shadow city administration, whose job it is to protect the city from magical dangers and assaults (they compiled the report on Swift quoted above). The city is under attack, specifically by the incarnate Death of Cities and his minions, including the hoodie specters.
There's quite a bit of action, magical conflict, and big, destructive scenes, but one never knows when the action might stop for a long, lyrical description of this or that aspect of the city. Between Swift finding a key part of the previous Midnight Mayor's phone and using it comes nearly two full pages of the description of an urban sunrise (pp. 81-83), followed not long after, during the peripatetic Swift's wanderings, by another two and a half pages of urban description (pp. 96-98).
In Griffin's manner, a simple action sequence, rendering a coroner's office guard unconscious, becomes this:
I reached forward and grabbed the back of his neck with my right hand, pushed the palm of my left into the gap between his eyebrows and squeezed. The magic of sleep was easy at this hour, the night so quiet, footsteps so loud and lonely; the people of the city were either in their deepest dreams or wide awake, burning up with loneliness and imagination as shadows and sounds twisted into alien forms, untouched by the blanket of daylight bustle. The guard himself was a night owl; the streets in darkness thrilled him, walking down the middle of a road whose traffic by day would be at a standstill, eating kebabs from suspicious shops at three in the morning, watching the secret people of the streets, the cleaners, painters, repairmen, engineers, delivery men, graveyard shift and junior night-time nurses scuttling between the shadows. But he was also bored in his little office above it all, with nothing but the buzzing of the electric lamp to keep him occupied, and with his heart leaping at the sound of a truck swishing down a distant street. (pp. 67-68)
There's nothing wrong with that; it's given as an example, not a criticism. Griffin tries, in many contexts and in many ways, to capture her love of the city in a poetic, expansive, almost Whitmanesque use of words, resulting in over 400 pages of rather densely-printed novel, with a plot that could have been encompassed, it must be said, in less. But again, that's not necessarily a problem. And the plot—why the Death of Cities has manifested—is neat but not complex. That of the first book was orderly, almost by-the-numbers, with little surprise, complexity, or reversal. Clever plotting is not Griffin's strong point.
It's easy to be of two minds about her writing. Her first novel (as Griffin—she has written, to date, seven young adult novels under her real name, Catherine Webb) comes boldly blurbed as a "Neverwhere for the digital age," which is too bad, because her pleasant, fluid writing, directly compared to Gaiman's pithy, lyrical cleverness in Neverwhere, starts to seem windy and inefficient, as if compensating for a lack of precision and effect by sheer verbiage.
But there is no experience of tedium or bogging down in reading her. And there is an argument to make for wordy writing, if it's not dull, repetitive, or badly done: it allows readers to slip into a purely verbal mode, into a world composed of words, to submerge, to let themselves be surrounded by the alternate-reality experience of a book. Griffin's books are fully written, not just stories done in prose because the author couldn't afford to make movies. The writing doesn't just carry the story; it does much else at the same time. It bears a theme, it creates a world. To compare her to some writers above her pay grade, there is more than just the story going on in Dickens, say, or Trollope or Faulkner.
But prose aside, there are some problems. The depiction of Swift shares the weakness of that of many action heroes, who must seem really in jeopardy and threatened by terrific odds to arouse dramatic tension, and yet must also win out. Such heroes tend to display a drastically variable level of power and dangerousness from scene to scene. This is a particular weakness of Simon Green's Nightside series; his John Taylor is at times scary and powerful, then in peril, helpless, and beaten, and then suddenly manifests powers he didn't seem to be able to wield two pages earlier, which will be oddly forgotten not only in the next book, but in the next chapter. Swift is pummeled, hurt, victimized, and seems helpless; next episode he's saying to some monstrous semi-human entity, "I am also, and incidentally, the Midnight Mayor, the blue electric angels, the fire in the wire, the song in the telephones, and we are having a bad week. Be smart; fear us" (pp. 185-86).
Moreover Swift remains troublesomely vague. This can be a problem with point-of-view characters; authors, perhaps, use them as a camera on the story, and forget to characterize them. We do get an ongoing subtext of what seems to be a young person reacting to certain experiences for the first time—to opera, alcohol, and recherché haute cuisine, for instance—and to the city in general, which fits the "infantile" blue angels, as new to human life as babies. (While extrapolating from fiction to authors is dangerous, this may reflect Griffin, who started writing at 14 and is perhaps now 24.) We also get a sense of how much the angels value life and of Swift's essential decency. But there's not much else. Swift barely seems human. He doesn't have much of a life, a place to live, or time for interests outside of trying to stay alive in the midst of sorcerous attack. But even very busy young men occasionally (or actually, really, really often) cast an eye at the opposite sex. Or the same sex. Somebody. To my recollection, in over 1000 pages in two books, Swift does not have a single sexual thought or reaction, never mind an encounter. He's not even depicted as inherently asexual, with all that would entail, or with any awareness of the sexuality of others. Given the tendency of dark urban fantasy toward soft core porn via paranormal romance, that's sort of refreshing, an anti-Anita-Blake; it's just not very true to young men, and this lack—and the lack of other types of thought and reaction on Swift's part—tends to leave him a blank. One comes away with the feeling that we have not a young man named Matthew Swift, but the author observing and reacting to the story at a remove, with no depiction of a person.
Still, the books are readable and enjoyable, both imaginative and literate to a point above the norm (far above the militantly quotidian Dresden files), with a real sense of place, not an urban anywhere. They break no particularly new ground, but books don't always have to. And unlike many such, these have a certain spirit, a point, an ethos. The code of the first book's villain was, "Magic is life," but Swift's code, the angels' code, the code of these books, reiterated more than once, is just the opposite: "Life is magic." Griffin infuses the books with that ethos, rather than just tacking it on as a moral, thereby giving heart to her entertainments. This series might please anyone; fans of the subgenre could not only do far worse, they should seek it out.
Bill Mingin, a graduate of Clarion West, has published twenty-two short stories, with more forthcoming, and over two hundred and fifty nonfiction pieces, including reviews in Publishers Weekly. He currently reviews audiobooks for AudioFile Magazine. He's married and lives in central New Jersey, where he runs a small book export business.