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.
—anonymous spam mail, source unknown
I’m always on the lookout for new sci-fi and fantasy series. Here’s one I heard about from the Borderlands Books newsletter: the Matthew Swift urban fantasy series by Kate Griffin. I read the first book, A Madness of Angels, and liked it enough to immediately go on to read the sequels.
Two years after being murdered, the sorcerer Matthew Swift awakens in modern-day London, in the house that used to be his. He’s physically whole, bearing no trace of his violent death, but with an unusual new eye color and an unconscious habit of referring to himself as “we”. Finding out who killed him and why, and who summoned him back to life and why, drives the plot of the first book.
In the cosmology of the books, magic follows the patterns of life. In olden times, when most people lived in the countryside, magic was sunlight and moonlight, flowing water and fire, wild animals and trees. But in the modern era, when life “burns neon”, the sorcerers of the city are urban sorcerers. Matthew Swift is one of them: he can see through the eyes of pigeons and rats, pull electricity from the walls and fling it in lightning bolts, make barbed wire grow like ivy, or cast a spell of protection by reading the legalese on the back of his subway ticket.
Griffin populates her alternate London with all kinds of inventive supernatural nasties. There are gargoyles made of garbage; modern fairies with the flash and glamor of celebrities; a violent religious cult called the Order that hates magic and everyone who has anything to do with it; urban magicians whose power is channeled through paint and graffiti; biker gangs whose motorcycles distort space and eat distance; and assorted demons and eldritch abominations that threaten the city of London and all who live there.Last but certainly not least, there’s a cosmic force called the blue electric angels – gods of the machine, modern deities that coalesced from the stray life and emotion that people pour into the telephone wires and the internet – and Matthew Swift’s connection to them is a major plot arc throughout the series.
I appreciate books with a well-defined sense of place, and this series is like a love letter to the city of London. The author’s deep, bordering-on-obsessive devotion shows through on nearly every page, with paragraph after paragraph of verbose, sometimes florid description of the city’s history and geography. I didn’t mind it, I like dense writing and dedicated worldbuilding, but I can see how some people might find it tedious.
I also appreciated the author’s tight, creative plotting. Griffin does a great job of painting enticing mysteries in each book and then peeling them back bit by bit. She’s also brilliant at coming up with with appropriately scary monsters to populate the streets of her alternate London. It’s not excessively GrimdarkTM – which is a pet peeve of mine, writers who think that more death and despair automatically equates to better writing – but it is appropriately weighty and serious. Anyone can die, and even characters who play a major role in one book aren’t safe in subsequent books.