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Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Kate Griffin: MATTHEW SWIFT


Author: Kate Griffin (Pseudonym for Catherine Webb)
Series: MATTHEW SWIFT 
Plot Type: UF
Ratings: V-5; S-0; H-3
Publisher and Titles: Orbit
    The Minority Council (5/2012)  
    Stray Souls    

     This blog entry was revised and updated on 6/16/12 to include a review of the fourth book in the series: The Minority Council. That review comes first, followed by an overview of the world-building and reviews of books 1, 2, and 3: 

        BOOK 4: The Minority Council        
     Setting off the events of book 4 is a chance meeting between Matthew Swift and a young woman named Meera on a boat on the Thames. After Meera demonstrates an astonishing sorcerial illusion, they spend the night together, and Matthew feels like a real human being for the first time in months. Then, he gets a call from a terrified Meera begging him for help as she screams, "Don't let them take me." When Matthew tries to find Meera, he opens the proverbial can of worms from which the entire story line then proceeds.

    As it turns out, Meera was addicted to fairy dust, which gives its users (all wealthy sorcerers) enhanced magical skills while it destroys their bodies—fatally changing them into fairies and then turning their bodies into dust that is scraped up by the dealers and repackaged for sale to other addicts. It's a great business for the dealers, who only need to collect the addicts who are on the verge of going dusty and drag them off to their dusthouses to gather their remains.

    A second story line begins when Matthew meets Nabeela Hirj, a social worker who has been trying to get the Aldermen's attention for weeks. She takes Matthew to meet a teenage boy who was part of a group that was attacked by what the boy describes as a sound and a shadow with claws. One boy in the group was killed and the others have pretty much lost their minds. As Matthew investigates this situation, he finds connections that lead him to the Aldermen.

    Eventually, Matthew learns that some of the Aldermen have formed a Minority Council that operates secretly, making decisions that they know Matthew would oppose. One of them explains to him, "We are not your enemies....But we do what you dare not; what you do not have the courage to do. We see the big picture. We protect you, even if it has to be from yourself." (p. 272) As is always the case, people who blindly believe that they are working for the greater good are usually wrong—sometimes, literally, dead wrong.

    The plot follows Matthew as he investigates both cases, getting himself into more and more trouble—as is always the case for Matthew. Eventually, he gets some help from some of his usual cohorts: his apprentice, Penny; the Beggar King; and Richard Templeton, one of the more reasonable Aldermen. As Matthew destroys a dusthouse, confronts a monster fueled by rage sucked from teen-age brains, and faces betrayal from unlikely sources, he tries to maintain his humanity while still working for the greater good—which is the theme for the entire series.

     This is another great addition to a terrific series, with a compelling story line and the usual quirky characters—particularly Kelly Shiring, Matthew's new personal assistant (PA), who adds humorous pragmatism to Matthew's dark and eccentric life. Once again, not all of Matthew's friends make it through the book alive, which adds yet another layer of angst on his soul. The phrase that haunts Matthew throughout this book is "You can't save everyone." Even though Matthew goes through some terrible experiences, this story, as usual, has plenty of sardonic, noir humor. For example, when Matthew is pursued by hellhounds, his doctor rubs him down with garam masala, to which she claims the beasts are allergic. (Who knew?) Consequently, for the rest of the book, Matthew runs around smelling like curry. About half-way through the book, one of the characters summarizes the salient events of the past three books (pp., 266-273), so if you read this as a stand-alone, that should help you out. I wouldn't recommend that, however, because this series is built on a complex mythology, and the previous three books provide critical background information about Matthew's background.

        WORLD-BUILDING        
     Set in an alternate London, this world is divided between a relatively normal day-world and a dark and supernatural night-world. When the office workers have gone home to the suburbs and the government officials have locked up their offices, the Aldermen and the Midnight Mayor take control of law enforcement in the city. The aldermen are described as "protectors of the city of London, guardians of magic, defenders and ostensible all-purpose good guys, battling the unnamed things that are out to get you, in the bleak and lonely corners of the dark." (The Minority Councilp. 144)  Of course, the Aldermen are not all good guys, and some of them have their own dark agendas.

     The premise for the hero of the series puts me in mind of Max Headroom, a legendary TV hero who was created by downloading a human being's memories to a computer to create a virtual clone.

     At the beginning of book 1, Matthew Swift, a brown-eyed urban sorcerer who has been dead for two years, suddenly finds himself alive once again—but this time with bright blue eyes and some new and fiery magical talents, in addition to the powerful magic he already had. Those new powers include the ability to pull power from the mundane life of the city, like electrical wiring and neon signs. At one point in book 1, Matthew even reads aloud the fine print on a subway pass to create a barrier spell. Matthew's newly formed characteristics have come from the entity that now lives inside him: the blue electric angels (more demonic than angelic in spirit). Matthew and the angels are now fused into one sentient being, with Matthew's appearance, memories, and emotions plus the angels' feelings and motivations. As Matthew explains, "We came back from the dead, Swift and the angels, two minds became one, two souls in one flesh, in one form, in one voice. We are me and I am we." (The Neon Court, p. 104)

     The blue angels have always lived in the telephone lines, formed from the words and emotions picked up from conservations heard and remembered over the years. Now they have entered the real world, and they are very curious—about everything.

     The series themes deal with the problems of urban bureaucracy—especially the quandary confronting Matthew and the Aldermen at every turn: Should they act for the greater good, or should they protect individual rights. The Aldermen go for the big picture—do what's best for the majority, and never mind the collateral damage. Matthew, on the other hand, can't help looking past that big picture to the individual people. Once Matthew becomes the Midnight Mayor (in book 2), he finds himself in the middle of that dilemma most of the time. As Matthew explains to his apprentice, "Alderman justice is hard, fast, and absolute. Their only guiding principle is: What's best for the greater good? And sure, that's supposed to be the guiding principle of law, but it doesn't leave much room for redemption or understanding." (The Minority Councilp. 516)

     Here are two quotations that explain how magic is perceived in Matthew Swift's world:

     Here, Matthew explains where magic comes from (Midnight Mayor, p. 159): “There are…things in this world, made up of other things—ideas—that are given life just by the nature of that idea, by the nature of living, life making magic, magic coming out of the most ordinary, trivial bits of life. Like…like when you speak into the telephone and your words are life and passion and feeling and they’re in the wires and sooner or later the wires will come alive or else they’d burst, with all that thought and emotion in them…”

     Here, Mr. Bakker returns from the dead for a moment to remind Matthew of the magic in everyday life in Midnight Mayor (p. 300): “Life is magic, Matthew. You said it yourself. Even the boring, mundane acts, even breathing, seeing, perceiving, being perceived. Life is magic. That is all a sorcerer is."    
  
        BOOK 1: A Madness of Angels        
     After Matthew’s resurrection, he tries to contact his sorcerer friends, only to find that they are all dead; he is the only sorcerer left in London. As he tries to discover who killed him and his fellow sorcerers, Matthew must cooperate with some unlikely allies, most of whom who turn up in later books: Dudley Sinclair and his anti-magic cult (the Order); Oda (Sinclair's hired gun, with whom Matthew builds a relationship based largely on distrust); Vera and the Whites (who rely on magical graffiti to communicate); and Blackjack and the Bikers (who find magic in the speed of their bikes).

    The object of the good guys’ wrath is Matthew’s former mentor, Robert James Bakker, who has been driven by his greed for magical power and immortality to create a supernatural dictatorship that allows no detractors. The plot also involves attempts to destroy a diabolical shadow (the Hunger), which is in deadly pursuit of Matthew and his fire.    
  
        BOOK 2:  The Midnight Mayor        
     In the opening scene of the second book, Matthew answers a ringing telephone, gets beaten up by a pack of spectres, and finds two red crosses branded into the palm of his hand. Then Matthew discovers that some of London’s protectors are gone or broken, that the Midnight Mayor of London (the one who rules over the night-time supernatural world)has been murdered, and that he himself is in line for the job. Matthew has two major problems to solve in this book: He must find his predecessor's murderer, and he must discover who or what is destroying the landmarks that form a magical shield around London. 

        BOOK 3:  The Neon Court        
     As the story opens, Matthew finds himself in an abandoned building alongside his nemesis, Oda, who has been gravely injured. When the building starts to burn, they escape, but, as it turns, out, Oda is no longer humanshe is something very dangerous. As Matthew tries to figure out what's happening with Oda, he realizes that the sun hasn't risen in a long while, the rain hasn't stopped, and time seems to have elongated into a continual night. Along with solving this problem, he must deal with the culmination of a long-standing feud between the Neon Court (the "high-society" Faerie Court) and the Tribe (magical outcasts who gain their magic from disfiguring themselves). The Tribe's dialogue is written in texting form to emphasize their street-cred "outsiderness": Here, Toxik, the Tribe leader, is conversing with Matthew: "U rnt listnin. dat woz wat I woz ment 2 b." (p. 247). 

     Matthew is still using the mundane world to make his magic. In one scene, he brings the little orange-lit man in a "Don't Walk" sign to fiery, monstrous life to hold Oda back until the traffic light changes so that Matthew can escape. We learn a great deal about Oda's early family life in this story, and we can understand why she grew to hate all things magical. Matthew's apprentice, Penny Ngwenya, also plays a critical role in the story, which is another solid addition to a great series.

        CRITIQUE        
    This is a fresh and inventive series. The reader is pulled along on Matthew's adventures, but is never privy to Matthew's inner thoughts. It's as if you were tagging along with someone who knows where he's going but doesn't see the need to let you know your destination until you get there. Matthew can be an unreliable narrator at times. In fact, he sometimes withholds information from the reader for a few paragraphs or pages, just to make things interesting. For example, in The Neon Court, when Matthew runs into his old Order nemesis, Anton Chaigneau, he seems surprised by the man's appearance, and we assume that this is a stranger. Then, Matthew talks to the man for awhile, and finallyparagraphs laterlets us know the man's identity. Each story in the series is an exciting, darkly humorous journey taken at breakneck speed, and we are forced to trust Matthew to get us to the end safely, if not securely. The humor is dry and witty, with a self-deprecating, almost mournful tone. 

     I have just one minor fault to find with the series: Generally, I admire an author who provides a detailed sense of place in an urban fantasy novel, but in this series, Griffin really goes a bit too far with her endless, if eloquent, descriptive riffs on every single London neighborhood, street, and room through which Matthew passes—and he passes through many, many locales. Frankly, the verbal pictorialization gets repetitious, and I found myself skipping over blocks of print to get back to the plot. A little of this goes a long way. 

     Fans of Simon R. Green’s NIGHTSIDE and SECRET HISTORIES series will enjoy this series, with its dry humor and its vast menagerie of vicious supernatural creatures of the night, like the litterbug (made entirely of street litter), the grease monster (composed of old cooking oils), and Mr. Pinner (a murderous, indestructible humanoid created from bits of paper, which remind me of the Robert De Niro's final scene in Terry Gilliam's film, Brazil—death by a tornado of paper). 

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