Kate Griffin is my favourite writer of urban fantasy. I hate to use the phrase “transcends the genre,” as that carries with it an implied denigration of a genre the best of which I am very fond of (and the worst of which often gives it a bad name among those whose think it can only be about supernatural or half-supernatural private eyes who take countless lickings and keep on ticking), so perhaps the best way I can put it is that she redefines the genre. And most intriguingly, she “redefines” it through the seemingly simple but ingenious process of taking the phrase literally.
So much urban fantasy is about elves, fairies, vampires, werewolves, dragons, and other assorted supernatural figures of lore lurking in plain sight within the confines of a modern city. Although they have been relocated to an urban setting, however, they usually haven’t fundamentally changed as species, nor has magic itself altered much since the old days. Instead, the old magic has basically gone underground. The brilliant hypothesis that drives Griffin’s Matthew Swift novels, as well as its newer companion series, Magicals Anonymous, is, “What if, as civilization evolved, moving from the countryside to the city, so did magic, as well? What if the power sources for today’s strongest magic don’t come from ancient ley lines and stone circles but from the city itself?”
In Griffin’s novels, London is literally magic, run on the toils and hopes and dreams (those that are achieved, as well as those that are broken) and worries and memories and focuses and neglects of its millions of citizens--both those still alive and those who passed on but still left a psychic imprint on the very environment surrounding them. In Matthew Swift’s world, an Oyster card can be a powerful talisman, a bored and angry teenager can create a raging eldritch monster out of trash, broken glass, other discarded detritus, and pain, fairies have become creatures composed of electric light and neon, dryads live in metal lampposts, and a sorcerer such as Swift is someone who can tap into the mystical energy created by a city itself in order to perform magical feats, whereas in the country, he is virtually powerless.
Other than his talent, in his world, Matthew Swift might not have been a particularly unique sorcerer except for the fact that he died once, and when he did, his spirit merged with the blue electric angels, an ineffable personification of the energy of the telephone wires (both from landlines and mobile), created from the countless conversations of countless people, and when he came back, he emerged a new entity, both merged and fragmented at the same time: half-human, half-god-like creature, which Griffin conveyed through blisteringly brilliant prose – madly poetic, dazzlingly experimental, dizzyingly stream-of-consciousness, and often also very funny.
Even when Griffin isn’t taking us inside the mind of a potentially deific, delightfully screwed-up sorcerer, the way she uses the English language is rarely less than breathtaking. London is, for all intents and purposes, a living, breathing being in her novels, and she seems to have an encyclopedic knowledge of every one of its areas, neighbourhoods, buildings, Tube stations, and so on and so forth, bringing each to life with such meticulous detail, you can practically taste, hear, and feel everything she describes. She has the uncanny ability to take any reader on such an evocative journey through its streets and secret corners, even someone who had never been to London might feel as if they now know it intimately. And her use of magic only enhances that sense. In her latest book, The Glass God, she writes of one of the city’s most famous skyscrapers, “the great, dark-glass base of the Gherkin, whose true name had been lost even before it was built,” which, yes, THIS.
In the second Matthew Swift book, the eponymous protagonist was granted the job of Midnight Mayor, the mystical guardian to the city, charged with secretly protecting it from basically all Things That Go Bump in the Night, a position that has been passed down for as long as the city has been in existence. At the start of The Glass God, Matthew Swift seems to have vanished off the face of the earth, the only proof of his continued existence somewhere being that his title hasn’t magically passed onto someone else yet. His disappearance also couldn’t come at a worse time, what with a group of shadowy conspirators attempting to create a new god of glass, and Old Man Bone, a gravedigger spirit who has buried all of the unwanted dead of London since the time of the Black Death, threatening to unleash the Bubonic plague on the city once again if he doesn’t get the human sacrifices he is owed.
Luckily for London, the city now has a Deputy Midnight Mayor. Unluckily for that deputy, she might just be in over her head. First introduced in Griffin’s previous book, Sharon Li is a refreshingly non-Caucasian, young, female protagonist, who seemed like a typical Millennial – educated and extremely intelligent but drifting through life and hating her barista job at Starbuck – until the day that she “became one with the city” and learned that she was a shaman, her newfound powers including the ability to shift into the spirit walk, meaning that she can become effectively invisible to the outside world while herself being able to see the city as it really is and all the mystical energies that compose it, and walk through walls. In Stray Souls, she both began her apprenticeship as a shaman, as well as opened a community support group for, in her words, the “magically inclined,” each week hosting an AA-ish meeting of a group of outlandish characters, including Gretel, a cave troll and amateur chef, Rhys, an allergic druid with a massive crush on her, Sally, a banshee and art aficionado, who has to communicate via writing due to her deafening cry, Mr. Roding, a perpetually rotting necromancer, and my personal favourite, Kevin, a hypochondriac, germaphobic vampire. They also, naturally, found themselves crossing paths with Matthew Swift and saving the city.
What I’m really enjoying about the Magical Anonymous books is that, while they are very much part of the Matthew Swift universe - they’re actually more interconnected than most spin-off series, in that plot threads begun in the parent series continue in this one, making it feel more akin to, say, the interplay between the “standalone” Marvel films and The Avengers, wherein, for example, one has to watch the latter in between Iron Man 2 and 3 to get the whole story - they have their own distinct flavour. Whereas in the Swift books, one is always inside Matthew’s head, the Magical Anonymous books provide more of a tapestry effect, bouncing between various viewpoints and vignettes around the city, sometimes in third person, sometimes in first, sometimes in past tense, sometimes in present. While often still providing scenes of intensity to match the most jawdropping of the Swift books, Magical Anonymous tends to feature humour more prominently, often finding comedy in these characters’ gradual acclamation to the magical community. The Swift books tend to focus on those who have been entrenched in it for most of their lives. Swift himself is even more entrenched than most, by dint of his resurrection and the blue electric angels. Sharon, on the opposite end of the spectrum, is still finding her footing. She has phenomenal, raw talent and potential but is only just now learning how to use it, and is still making new discoveries about the city on a regular basis, which provides a fresh perspective on this world.
Another delightful conceit is that, although in many ways, one would expect Sharon’s personality to be averse to managerial duties, she constantly strives to be the best at her newfound calling as she can be, and so she has a penchant for reading how-to-succeed-in-business type books and attempting to apply their lessons to each bizarre new situation in which she finds herself, which is particularly amusing because she’s barely hanging on by the skin of her teeth, having only just given up slackerdom recently herself. I absolutely love Sharon’s voice, which always seems to be a mixture of gumption, desperation, and an overwhelming desire to cut through the bullshit. Griffin’s command of language, slang, and dialect is always so strong and natural, too, that you can practically hear her characters voices in your head while you read, and Sharon is a particularly good example of that. The Glass God also allows her to truly stand on her own two feet for the first time, as Matthew Swift is gone for most of the novel, for the first time in either series, which, although he is missed, is also a nice change of pace for someone who’s read all five previous books.
With all of that said, The Glass God actually isn’t my favourite Kate Griffin novel. Although it is full of classic, trademark Griffin and is so eminently quotable that, as with all of her books, I had to practically restrain myself from taking a highlighter to all the sentences I most loved--which would have rendered most of the book practically blinding in garish, glowing yellow--I found that, for me, the manner in which the various threads of this one came together lacked the same indefinable oomph as her other books.
Don’t get me wrong. I devoured it. As always, it was a thrill to return to her London, and to catch up with all of my favourite characters (although I sometimes wished for a bit more appearances from the support group people, most of whom were very tertiary this time around). One in particular, Kelly Shiring, Matthew Swift’s endlessly chipper and practically praeternaturally perfect assistant, gets a chance to shine in the spotlight as never before, leading to numerous moments that would prompt Yoda-dueling-Dooku levels of spontaneous applause if it were on the big screen. Griffin also picks up Sharon’s emotional arc beautifully from the previous novel, gradually maturing her as a person while also even weaving in the beginnings of a bit of a love life, but in a way that simply teases and hints, rippling beneath the surface, never threatening to overwhelm or disrupt the narrative flow. Think Tim and Dawn in The Office or Jim and Pam in the early years of the American version.
The various plot elements of which the novel is composed are also just as wonderful and often wonderfully eerie, as ever, from the concept of Old Man Bone to the return of the Bubonic plague to one particularly powerful, recurring image, in which Griffin takes the omnipresent city feature of abandoned shoes, tied together by their laces and tossed up to forever dangle over a phone wire, and turns it into something deeply and deliciously creepy - she has always had a knack for revealing the magic, both light and dark, lurking beneath the mundane features of city life. This installment also sees the return of the Tribe, a gang of young misfits, like a very dark spin on Peter Pan’s Lost Boys, whose members feel so alienated from the rest of humanity and its shallow obsession with beauty that they have decided to live underground and evolve themselves into an entirely different species of grotesques through extreme body modification, and who speak in a verbal melange of slang and netspeak: “dis is Gold Mnky n Hobo Grlz...dey fnd im...dis is a fckin shaman n 1 who nos da truf so fckin bow u heds...no fear!...lok @ me!” Griffin paints them perhaps even more vividly than their first appearance in the third Swift book, The Neon Court, and they are a genuine thrill to read about - dangerous and crackling with life. There is also a truly gorgeous sequence involving Sharon and a young striga, who is frightened of her own powers, that is pretty darn breathtaking and might have come very close to reducing me to a total wreck.
So, really, my only qualm is that while all of the threads eventually come together, the manner in which they do seems a bit less inspired and fresh than in her other books. At the same time, when taken on its own, both the climax and the role Sharon plays in it are still extremely badass, so I’m not actually complaining that much. Saying something along the lines of “even an imperfect Kate Griffin novel is better than most of the other urban fantasy out there” might seem a bit of a cop-out or overly forgiving for a reviewer to say, but it’s true.
Rob Berg is, was, and always will be one of our favourite reviewers - bravely tackling everything from Disney to Dickens. He wrote 50 page thesis on Star Wars at age 13 and has been a critic ever since. You can find his work at Rob Will Review and Dreampunk.me. You can follow him on Twitter at @DreampunkMe. He likes Kate Griffin a lot.
Kate Griffin joins Lavie Tidhar and Tim Powers at The Kitschies' "Secret Histories" on Monday 28th October, Blackwell's Charing Cross. Learn more here.