It seems to be public knowledge at this point that Kate Griffin is Catherine Webb, an author of several YA fantasy novels who has now made the leap into adult urban fantasy. A Madness of Angels is a difficult book to read and review in terms of its structure and point-of-view, for its uniqueness lies not in its story or character, but in the way in which this particular tale is told.
Matthew Swift awakens on his bedroom floor, naked and disoriented, only to find that two years have passed since he was last conscious, that his house is no longer his own, and that his (previously brown) eyes are now bright blue. He flees into the night, and his journey begins in the streets of London as he tries to piece together what exactly has happened to him.
To explain too many circumstances of the plot would be to defeat the entire point of the story, as the reader is purposefully thrown headfirst into Matthew’s bizarre situation with very little idea of what’s going on, why he refers to himself as “we,” what’s chasing him, or what exactly he’s trying to achieve. Is it confusing? Sure, but then Matthew is a very confused individual! Everything we experience is what Matthew himself experiences, due to the book’s most distinctive storytelling feature: its tight perspective. The entire story is told from Matthew’s point-of-view and all we get are his immediate experiences as he traverses London.
Gradually we gather bits and pieces of the mystery through Matthew’s occasional reminiscences into the past, but this is a character that lives almost entirely in the present. In what is essentially a survival story and a quest for vengeance, the central plot not only deals with Matthew’s resurrection into the world, but his attempts to traverse the opposing sides of a war that rages silently within London. On the one side are those that seek to eliminate magic-users, and on the other are magically-gifted individuals allied to the immensely powerful Tower, an organization run by Matthew’s former mentor. Despite being a magician himself, Matthew has to turn to those that mistrust and fear him in order to achieve his goals.
As you might have already guessed, London itself is a prominent character in the story, fused with Griffin’s creative use of “urban magic.” From the wealthy penthouses to the alleyways filled with homeless people, from the hum-drum of suburbia to the secret pockets of the supernatural hiding in the shadows, this is a London that is filled to the brim with life and magic, two concepts that are deliberately and continuously linked throughout the book. Described in vivid sensory terms, the fact that all of Matthew’s power is based on the heartbeat of London reveals Griffin’s affection for the city.
As such, Griffin’s “world-building” when it comes to the rules and quirks of urban magic is a treat. Here is a world in which litter bugs are literal dangers, where power can be dragged out of electrical wiring, where graffiti can provide potent magical symbols, and the world can be glimpsed through the eyes of pigeons and rats. Amongst those that hold power in the city are the likes of the Beggar King and the Bag Lady, figures who act much like a Greek array of gods, each with their own distinctive powers, personality and responsibilities.
As a protagonist, Matthew displays a somewhat hapless exterior, with a wicked sense of humor and a sharp mind that is usually one step ahead of everyone else. Although the narrative is more or less trapped inside his head, there’s certainly an interesting brain ticking away in there.
While the pacing can be a bit sluggish at times, and the premise is initially quite confusing, those that that stick with the story may find an intriguing story of mystery and unexpected magic. Ending on a note that promises sequels, A Madness of Angels is a challenging but intriguing read.