“Forget you are afraid – there is too much worth living to just hide behind your own uncertainties.”
We sat on the bench in the middle of the capsule and watched our city expand beneath us, and felt like God. We had never seen anything so beautiful, and could not conceive of more magic in the world.
Matthew Swift is a sorcerer, and something else besides, though we don’t find out exactly what for a good way into A Madness of Angels. His last memory is dying in a telephone box, so when he wakes up on the floor of his old house two years later it’s something of a surprise. And now he wants revenge against those who killed him.
I loved A Madness of Angels. I loved its worldbuilding, its magic system, its amorality, its joy. I loved its alliances, its flowing, ragged, uneven prose, its geography, its concepts. But most of all I loved it for this:
You are more than other magicians, you lose yourselves in the city, your minds and thoughts are so much a part of it that at rush hour you must walk because the city is moving, and at end of office hours you cannot help but feel a rush of relief and the desire to look up at the sky, because that is how the city works.
A Madness of Angels captures that boundless feeling of life you get when you walk down the busy streets of your home city better than anything I’ve ever read. For the magic of A Madness of Angels is urban magic; the magic of the London underground, of the rats and the pigeons and the telephone wires; a magic of theatres and wishing wells and abandoned buildings; it’s a world peopled by sorcerers and magicians, bikers who can ride anywhere quicker than anyone, Beggar Kings and Bag Ladies, monsters made of rubbish, dragons made of metal, disenchanted artists whose graffiti is more than graffiti. It’s exhilarating and exciting and, in fact, everything you want in an urban fantasy novel. I can’t explain it any better than by saying that the magic, the spells, they feel right; they feel like things that should be real, should work in real life. And there’s no higher achievement that fantasy, an essentially unrealistic genre, can aspire to.
It’s not perfect, of course, because what is? The prose is a little clunky in places, and there’s at least one extraordinarily unsubtle infodump right in the middle. A few things stretch credulity: at one point there’s a sort of graffiti treasure-hunt, which is very cool and lots of fun to read, but it’s not quite clear how our heroes (Matthew and his reluctant ally Oda) are managing to distinguish actual genuine clues from, you know, standard London graffiti. It’s annoying, too, that none of the muggles (so to speak) ever seem to notice the rather frequent noisy magical explosions/summonings/battles that pepper the novel; or, rather, they don’t notice unless it is convenient for them to do so. As a brief example:
the lord of the lonely travellers screamed with the sound of a plane crashing from the sky, of brakes snapping on a speeding bike, of the emergency cord being pulled on the train…so bright I couldn’t look, so loud the windows shook
This is happening in a hotel room, at night, and yet, apparently, no-one comes to find what is going on. There’s never any mention of the necessity of secrecy, of keeping the city from disruption; why, then, is this magical society still an underground one? Why doesn’t everyone know about the sorcerers of London and their stock-market-fixing tricks?
But it’s easy to ignore these things in the face of the brilliance of this world which is so deeply, satisfyingly mythical. There’s some really interesting stuff going on with Matthew’s I/we complex: is he himself, or is he whatever has possessed him, allowed him to come back from the dead? I like, too, that this isn’t a straightforward tale of Good and Evil; the alliances made in the novel between the various factions of magicians are tense, strained, with a very real possibility of double-crossing and treachery.
There’s at least one more book out in this series, and I think there are more planned; hopefully the little inconsistencies and clunkeries will iron themselves out as the series continues. A Madness of Angels is a really promising start, and an excellent book in its own right.