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A Madness Of Angels
Kate Griffin
Orbit paperback £7.99

review by David Hebblethwaite

A Madness Of Angels is Kate Griffin's first novel. But it's also Catherine Webb's eighth: having made a name for herself as a writer of young-adult fiction, she has now turned her hand to writing fantasy for adults, under the Griffin pseudonym.

On to the book: Matthew Swift is a sorcerer who wakes up in an unfamiliar flat in London - which really shouldn't be possible, because he's dead. At least, he was dead. Someone has resurrected him, albeit in a slightly different form: his appearance is different (his eyes too blue, for a start); and Matthew seems to be harbouring a passenger, because his narrative voice slips from talking about 'I' to 'we' and back again.

Swift tries to reach his old friends and contacts, but finds that they're all dead - and that their deaths are connected to his former mentor, Robert Bakker. Matthew swears revenge but, to complicate matters, there's a hungry creature of shadow after him - and Bakker has greater plans on his mind. To sort this out, Swift will need help from a number of quarters - not all of which are happy to see him alive.

Fantasies about magical practitioners in contemporary cities are hardly thin on the ground at the moment, but Griffin treads quite a distinctive path in A Madness Of Angels: this is urban wizardry with a touch of Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere. The author has some wonderful imaginative notions, at both the conceptual level (different environments having their own forms of magic, so 'urban magic' is a mode distinctive from the magic of the countryside or the sea) and the particular (I loved the idea that the conditions on a Tube ticket could be recited as a ward against monsters, and a scene where Swift tries his best to heal someone is like no example of magical 'healing' that I've ever come across. It's the imaginative qualities of A Madness Of Angels that really keep the pages turning.

There are problems, though. One is a stylistic quirk that I found irritating: Griffin's tendency to use long lists of things as a means of description. This does not happen constantly, but still often enough for it to be noticeable. The very worst example is when Swift is attacked by a 'litterbug', a monster composed of rubbish. It's a nice idea and a nice image (well, it's not really 'nice', but you take the point), but we get far too much detail of all the different types of litter in the creature, and it spoils the effect. (The other lists of this type are not as detailed, true; but they are still obtrusive.)

My other problem with A Madness Of Angels is a certain feeling of distance from the story. As a character, Matthew Swift remains something of an enigma throughout the book, so that, involved though the plot is, it can be hard to truly care about what he's doing. Even the big final confrontation, where spectacular spell follows spectacular spell, is described in terms that give one the feeling of watching it through a window, rather than being there in the room.

All in all, though, we do have a good book here. There is the ever-present sense of a fizzing imagination that leaves us wanting to know what Griffin has in store around the corner (or on the next page). And the ending of A Madness Of Angels seems to clear the way for us to get to know Matthew Swift better in future books. It's an intriguing prospect.
A Madness of Angels by Kate Griffin

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