Plot Type: Urban Fantasy (UF)
Ratings: Violence—4; Sensuality—0; Humor—3)
Publisher and Titles: Orbit
Stray Souls (10/2012)
The Glass God (7/2013)
The heroine of this series is Sharon Li, who begins as an under-employed (and soon unemployed) barista who has unexpectedly developed the ability to walk through walls. She is extremely confused about her new talent and is worried that it might come with negative side effects to her health, and she wonders if others might be in similar situations. Sharon's 21st-century solution is to create a Facebook page called "Weird Sh-- Keeps Happening to Me and I Don't Know Why But Figure I Need Help." She founds a group that she calls Magicals Anonymous (MA) and sets up a meeting for people (creatures?) who are having problems with their magic. As Matthew sums it up, Sharon is the founder of "a self-help group of the mystically buggered." (Stray Souls, p. 50)
Here's a description of Sharon from the second book: "Sharon exuded the brightness of a firefly, the confidence of a double-decker bus, the optimism of a hedgehog and the tact of a small thermonuclear missile." (p. 8)
> Rhys is an almost-druid whose uncontrollable sneezing kept him from passing the test for his final Druid credentials. Here, he tries to explain his allergy problem at the first MA meeting: "Anyway, the problem...I mean, I wouldn't say it's like a massive problem, I mean, it's not like I've got a disease, see, and it's nothing criminal or anything like that! It's more how...everyone said I was going to be a druid and I was going to be the leader of my circle and...I was very excited...but then when the season comes, I just can't...And also if I get nervous then sometimes it comes out too, and the doctor says it's just psychosomatic now...bur it really does get in the way when you're trying to summon a pipe dragonling or something...so you see...it's not a problem but it's...well, it's rather ruined my life, actually. There. I said it. I was supposed to be...and now I can't. And I don't know what anyone can do to make it better." (pp. 16-17)
> Kevin is a germaphobic OCD vampire who is obsessed with personal hygiene—his own and others. His problem is that he has been diagnosed as having a condition that forces him to imbibe only O negative blood. As Kevin explains, "I don't know if there's like, any scientific reason to think this but I really think these O negative f---ers don't live clean. I have to bring a questionnaire along now and everything. I mean, really it's like a f---ing dis-as-ter." (p. 23)
> Gretel is a seven-foot troll whose problem is that she is a gourmand—a lover of fine food—but no restaurant will serve her. "My clan said it wasn't right to be interested in food, that a baked rat served on tyre rubber was all a sensible troll needed for good living. But I've got this good sense of smell...There came a time when I couldn't eat rat any more. I just wanted...I wanted something more." (p. 244)
> Sally is a pigeon-eating banshee whose touch turns the blood of mortals to ice and whose voice causes people to writhe and scream. She hangs from the ceiling beam at the MA meetings and communicates through messages she writes on a portable whiteboard. She is "attending Magicals Anonymous for its opportunities and positive effects. I am looking for evening classes that are friendly to my particular situation. I considered t'ai chi, but my wings get in the way. Cooking seems very interesting, but there are very few cuisines which cater for the pigeon lover. I would love to do pottery, but my talons ruin the clay on the wheel." (p. 106) Sally is extremely fond of modern art.
> Jess is a polymorph (shape shifter) who turns into a flock of pigeons, and then her boyfriend has to leave a trail of breadcrumbs to coax her back into human form.
> Mr. Roding is a 100-year-old complexion-challenged necromancer who must keep replacing his body parts (which keep falling off). Here, he explains his problem. "I...can halt the passage of degrading time upon my body through the use of ancient lore studied over many a sagely lifetime, but I still haven't found a solution for the skin-sloughing issue. The books recommend aloe vera, fat lot of use that was." (p. 31)
> Mrs. Rafaat is "not really magical at all, you know. I mean, I've been tested because I was having these experiences, but they weren't so much experiences as things that happened around me but actually I don't know any wizarding or witching or anything...but the thing is I do seem to know things, and really things do seem to happen and...I am...really yes...actually quite worried. I've been feeling that way for a while, something I can't quite put my finger on." (p. 30) Let's just say that Mrs. Rafaat isn't what she seems to be—not by a long shot.
Here's a typical scene: "A goblin sat cross-legged on the kitchen table; he was licking the end of a tube of toothpaste with a foul grey tongue. The fridge door hung open, and a troll, in fact the most troll-like troll Rhys had ever seen, was considering which cheese would serve best as the topping to her five-cheese lasagna. By the kitchen sink Kevin the vampire was unloading a fresh bag of anti-bacterial handcreams, while, from a pipe on the ceiling, Sally dangled, head buried in a copy of Van Gogh—Life and Times. A thump from the bathroom and an unmistakable smell heralded the arrival of a fifth—Mr. Roding, who greeted Rhys as he swanned into the living room, trailing the odour of lavender and decay." (p. 251)
BOOK 1: Stray Souls
Gradually, the city's two-prong problem surfaces. First, Greydawn (aka the Lonely Lady, Watchman of 4 a.m., Lady Who Walks Beside, Keeper of the Lamp, Silent Friend) is missing. She is the invisible force who comforts lonely people in the darkest hours of the night, reassuring them that she is with them and that they will be safe. Greydawn's dog—a huge hellhound-type creature—misses her and is killing people on the streets as he searches for her. Is he killing randomly? Or is there a purpose to his choices? The second (closely related) problem is that the spirits of the city are going missing. Buildings formerly inhabited by generations of spirits have been sucked dry, and night by night, more and more of the city's spirits are disappearing.
When Matthew discovers Sharon and her MA group, he realizes that Sharon is a newbie shaman and sends Sammy to bring her up to speed on her shamanic skills. You'd think that Matthew Swift would be able to solve London's spiritual mystery with his powerful sorcerer skills, but Matthew can only use his powers against tangible foes. In this case, the problem is with spirits, and only a shaman can save the day—or night, as the case may be. As Matthew explains to Sharon, "I've done all I can but I'm no shaman. I don't know how to walk down the hidden paths. The spirits of the city are missing and it's not natural and it's not evolution, and it's not right..." (p. 50) Sharon isn't too impressed by Matthew. Later, she tells Mr. Roding, "I think I've met the Midnight Mayor...Dark hair, blue eyes, bit of a twat, that him?...He looked kind of...scruffy....A bit...crap." (p. 164)
The story weaves back and forth, up and down, and around and around as the various characters explain themselves and their various problems to the reader and interact with one another in their own weirdly sweet way. Eventually a sinister villain surfaces, and the Magicals strategize on how to handle the situation. We watch Sharon, who began as a hesitant, reticent human girl, develop into a tactful but tough leader and a confidant, fearless shaman whose skills eventually save the day.
I love Griffin's writing, and in this book she has created a wonderful array of characters, particularly Sharon, who takes a practical approach to every problem—magical or not. For example, when Matthew and Sammy tell her that she has to save the city, the first thing she does is pull out her computer and google "save the city." When that just turns up "recycle more, build less, bicycle more, drive less, build skyscrapers. build terraces, preserve historical housing," etc., etc., she turns to her "Weird Sh--" Facebook page and posts a query on the wall. "Hey guys, does anyone know anything about the spirits of the city all disappearing or nothing? Drop me a line if you've got any ideas!" (p. 111) Sharon is pretty bummed out that the Internet failed her "since, in nearly all of her education, she'd been reliant on it to get even a C grade." (p. 51) Obviously, Sharon isn't the sharpest arrow in the quiver, but she's likable and she's relentless—she never, ever gives up. After more time on the Internet, Sharon tracks down the firm of Burns and Stoke, which owns most of the de-spirited properties in the city. The company's new chairman of the board is Mr. Ruislip (a look-alike and act-alike for Mr. Burns on The Simpsons), who turns out to be the not-quite-human villain of the story.
To summarize this fresh and inventive book, I'd have to say that the general effect is this: Think Stephen King's monsters-under-the-bed terror combined with South Park's hilariously profane, spot-on portrayal of the frailties of human (and inhuman) nature. Then add Griffin's mystical stream-of consciousness narration alongside self-searching monologues by a cast of eccentric, magical characters. Finally, underpin it all with a tangible, but spiritual, sense of modern urban reality. This book is a joy to read, with little gems of discourse and description on nearly every page. Stray Souls is definitely not your typical urban fantasy genre novel; it's a darkly humorous magical take on urban problems that we face in real life, voiced by an odd lot of fantastical, offbeat misfits whose statements and conversations are based on a chimerical version of mundane existence. Personally, I can't wait to see what happens next.
As this book opens, Matthew Swift, London's Midnight Mayor has disappeared, but before that happens, he orders Kelly Shiring, his spunky personal assistant, to notify Sharon that she is now the Deputy Mayor and to give her his umbrella. Sharon isn't at all happy about being "promoted" to Deputy Mayor, but she keeps her positive attitude in place and sets out with her minion, Rhys, the sneezing Druid, to find the Mayor. Of course, since this is a Kate Griffin novel, the plot is hilariously complicated and multi-pronged. Along with Matthew's mysteriously magical umbrella, the clues include pairs of shoes draped over high wires and tree branches around London and an ever-growing number of missing persons that corresponds to the locations of the shoes. Early in the story, Sharon discovers that Matthew's physical body is now inhabited solely by the Blue Electric Angels that have been part of Matthew since book 1 of the MATTHEW SWIFT SERIES. (Click on the series title to read my reviews of those books and to get an explanation of the Blue Electric Angels.) Unfortunately, Matthew's mind has been separated from his body, so that adds another level of difficulty to Sharon's task.
The story follows Sharon and Rhys, along with an Alderman named Miles, as they collect clues, strategize over next steps, and jump to some logical and illogical conclusions. In this book, the theme is the tension between old, earth-based magic and new, urban magic. For example, Sharon gets her first tip that Matthew is missing from a dryad who lives in a London lamppost: "a city dryad: skin of steel, hair of flowing, billowing copper, body pulsing with yellow light, eyes curved with the Perspex shell that framed a streetlight bulb." (p. 14)
I absolutely loved the first book of this series, and I also like this one, just not as much—4 stars instead of 5. What I missed were the great characters—all members of Magicals Anonymous—whom we met in book 1. Granted, several of them show up late in the book to help Sharon save the day, but it wasn't enough for me. Frankly, I got a bit tired of Sharon's never-ending cheeriness and Rhys' constantly dripping nose and his need for antihistamines, which becomes a running (sorry about the pun), not-so-funny joke. I love Kate Griffin's writing, but this is not one of her strongest books. Also, Sharon appears to be developing a romantic relationship with Rhys, which, to me, is somewhat unbelievable. Still, I can't wait for the next book to arrive because I love Griffin's story telling and her dry humor.