In my quest to find good and solid urban fantasy novels I was directed to this book by a friend. I had never heard of the author before reading this, although since then I have done a bit of research and found out this was her first book for an adult audience after several young adult books. Overall I found this book a very mixed bag and although I enjoyed it, I was not desperate at the end to read the next book in the series. It might be that other people don't notice or would not be bothered by the issues I had a problem with, in which case I would suggest you pick up a copy and see for yourself.
A Madness of Angels starts off in the thick of it. Griffin doesn't baby her audience and you have to keep up with the main character who doesn't know where he is, who he is or what is going on. It isn't long before something happens that tells you straight away the main character is familiar with magic as he manages to fight off a magical construct sent to kill him. What follows is a story to uncover the identity of the main character and the reason behind his current state of mind, which is unstable, to put it mildly. In order to discuss some elements of the book I have to give some minor spoilers, but they are not major plot points and won't spoil your enjoyment of the book. The main character, Matthew Swift, is effectively sharing his consciousness with an entity, electric blue angels, which is a magical urban construct that developed over a long period of time, rather than anything religion based. Matthew is also a sorcerer, an adept user of magic who can tap into the essence of the city and draw on its diverse power to help him in his quest.
There are a lot of really good ideas jammed in this book. Some of them are also very cleverly done about how the city creates magic and how something incredible mundane can generate energy and therefore a form of magic, if you know how to look at it in the right way. It is also clear to me that either Kate Griffin did a bucket load of research, or more likely she has lived in London for a long time as the vivid descriptions of the many streets, shops, boroughs and landmarks are described in lavish detail. As someone who has never lived in London it made it very easy for me to see the city through the main character's eyes and share in his wonder at some of the mundane and unusual. Here is also where I hit one of my first snags with the book. There are times when the level of detail was laid on a bit too thick and I struggled to get through it. The text itself is not difficult to read or poorly worded, but I felt that it really slowed down the momentum of the book and I lost that sense of urgency which Matthew has on almost every page. At its core this book is also a story about revenge, and once the first few dominoes begin to fall it must inevitably build towards a climax. There again I was disappointed, not by the final battle itself, but by the lead in because of the way it was structured. The book has no chapters, only sections, but there are paragraph breaks to come up for air. On the one hand I thought this style was a good idea because Matthew is a hunted man, racing through the city and getting into all kinds of trouble and there is no real break for him either. But on the other hand, it made it difficult to read because whenever I put it down, it took me a little while to remember where I was previously. That is not to say there are no cliff-hangers in the story, because there are, but overall I struggled with this style.
Also, there are a couple of interludes. The first didn't particularly bother me, but it was the second one I found both unnecessary and bizarre. It comes at a times in the story when the main character is on his way towards the final battle, and whilst it provided background on a character we had previously been told about in passing, I thought it wasn't needed and it completely stopped any momentum cold. By that point in the story the audience knows enough to be able to fill in some of the blanks by themselves and I'm not sure that the interlude adding anything. If it had come earlier in the book, as a nice moment of reflection and a pause to catch your breath, then it would have worked better in my opinion. If that was its purpose at that point in the story then for me it was a misstep.
As well describing the city in detail, the story is populated by a wide spectrum of characters that are as culturally diverse as the city. They are also very magically diverse and I believe Kate Griffin has a vast imagination which she puts to very good use. Some of her magicians reminded me of the Londonmancers from China Miéville's Kraken, but others drew their power from a number of sources and her creativity really shines through. The level of detail about the characters sat comfortably with me, providing just enough without overloading the reader. The only real thorn is the main character Matthew Swift who seems quite vague. Being possessed by the electric blue angels means that sometimes Matthew is speaking, and sometimes it's the angels, and it changes between "I think" and "we think" which at first is jarring, but you do get used to it. The angels are a construct and although Matthew is essentially driving his body, they are seeing everything for the first time and there are moments of wonder, but on the whole I found him quite hollow. Some of it could be explained by the weird symbiosis, but Matthew is still in there and it doesn't rob him of his emotions. There are some tragic and violent moments in the book and Matthew just seems to drift along and never seems particularly upset, which is very odd given the length to which we are told about some of the characters and their importance to him.
The book is a very interesting and engrossing read and while comparisons to Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman are expected, it is a separate and unique entity. I admire Griffin very much for creating this novel and crafting a version of London I've never seen before as well as creating her own flavours of monsters and magicians. There are no familiar tropes here, no sparkly vampires or werewolves and yet it is steeped in magic that feels authentic. Whilst I personally struggled with some of the structural and character issues I've mentioned, I'm sure others will have no such complaints. This is also the first in a series about Matthew Swift and his adventures in London so it could be that the main character will develop more the next book. This book is jam-packed full of ideas and action, and while the author has an obvious love for the City which was contagious, it wasn't enough to persuade me to move there!