January books — from The Midnight Mayor to Nazi Germany

A Madness of Angels, or the Resurrection of Matthew Swift by Kate Griffin

Also The Midnight Mayor, or the inauguration of Matthew Swift

I had read The Minority Council late last year. Of course it turned out to be number 4 in the series — don’t you hate that, not starting a series at the beginning. But I loved the book so much that I willing hunted out the first at the Library. (This is not a difficult task, as I can request them online and hey presto! they appear at my local branch.)

To the books…..

Matthew Swift was an reasonably good sorcerer before he was killed. After he was resurrected he became an amazing one. This is not giving anything away. He is dead before the book begins, and the opening pages describe his resurrection, and the resurrection within him of the blue angels. The blue angels/Matthew Swift draw magic from electricity and phone lines, giving them power that very few magical creatures can withstand.

Griffin has taken the traditional element of fantasy, such as magic, wizards, sorcerers, fairies and so on and woven them into something new and dynamic. I am new to the concept of Urban Magic, so her ideas may be mainstream within this genre. However I would be very surprised if that was the case. London sits firmly in the centre of her creation and it is the movements, patterns, history that creates the magic.

I love the real London, and I love the London Griffin has created. I can easy believe in the gritty, powerful magic of the city.

An example of this urban magic — Swift uses his Oyster card to fend off an dangerous creature, Hunger, at an Underground barrier. He explains later that

…everyone and everything has its own unique magic. The underground’s magic is defined by the rhythms that go through it. It’s like a heartbeat, a pulse, the flow of life like blood through its veins, describing in every detail the shape of power in its tunnels. When you go into the underground, you buy a ticket, you pass through the barrier, you enter its tunnels, you take the train, you use your ticket, you exit through the barrier. This part of what defines it, this is part of what makes the taste of magic different, heavy, crowded, full of dirt and noise and life and strength. If you know that this magic is there, if you understand the rhythms that shaped it, it is a very simple matter to harness it to a spell that utilises to the full its unique signature.

There is the Beggar King, and the Bag Lady — “She isn’t simply a bag lady….she is The Bag Lady, the queen of all those who scuttle in the night, gibbering to themselves, and the voices that only they can hear. She is the mistress of the mad old women in slippers who ride the buses….she is the lady of all dirty puddles…..However, when the pigeons were nested for the night, it was to the Bag Lady that my gran would always offer her prayers.” There is a litter monster, the last train and, in The Minority Council, fairy dust, more powerful and more addictive that any drug found in our world. There is the spirit of the train conductor, who helps Swift after accepting a gift of The Train Journey’s Companion.

Switft’s urban magic doesn’t work in the countryside, or even in the large London parks like Regents Park.

It sounds cute, and parts of it are endearing, much of it witty. However it is also strong and violent. Right from the beginning of each book Swift has to fend off  monsters that are overpoweringly awful.

Angry. Attacked, burnt, attacked, hurt, attacked, fled, attacked, attacked, attacked, gunning for us, gunning for me, gunning for my….for people who stopped to help. (From early into  The Midnight Mayor)

The action pulls you along and you discover what the blue angels are and who brought Swift back to life. He is no superhero, but a well drawn character who, while making mistakes, also knows when to use a can of spray paint, an Oyster card or the by-laws of the Underground!

And by the way, her distinctive writing is pretty good too! I am so looking forward to reading the third book. I just hope there is a fifth, sixth, seventh etc!!

A man without breath by Philip Kerr

(Warning, this review has a big spoiler in it.)

Many years ago I read a trio of stories by Kerr about his detective, Bernard Gunther. What made these stories standout in the vast genre of crime fiction was that Gunther was a detective in Berlin in the late 1930s. In these stories Gunther had to tread carefully, while holding onto his own moral compass. So, when I saw this one on the Library shelves I wanted to read it. And I got about to thirds of the way through when I decided not to finish it. This is most unusual for me, especially as I had got so far.

It wasn’t the awful subject matter of the story, although that was pretty gruesome. It is set in March, 1943. Gunther is working for the German War Crimes Bureau and has been sent to Smolensk, in German occupied Russia, to investigate a mass grave found in a forest. If it is the grave of thousands of Polish officers who had been murdered by the Russians, it is good propaganda for the Germans. If it is where the SS murdered thousands of Jews, then it must be a secret that stays buried.

Smolensk is a frozen town filled with anxieties and fears, with not much food or hope. Other murders happen that Gunther is drawn to solving.

What countered the foul taste in my mouth while reading this was that Gunther and others are determinedly anti-Nazi. Kerr’s research has found events that shine like a beacon in this dark time.

One was a protest. On February 28th 1943 Berlin’s last Jews were rounded up for deportation. A couple of thousand were held in the Jewish Welfare Office. They were Jews who had non-Jewish wives. The wives protested outside the office and, miraculously, their husbands were released. They were the only Jews who were not deported. As Gunther, the narrator, muses:

……it begged the question, what might have been achieved if mass protests had taken place before? It was a sobering thought that the first organised opposition to the Nazis in ten years had probably succeeded.

What made me close the book [spoiler alert!] was when Gunther murdered a man, and it wasn’t one of the baddies. It wasn’t done in an argument or rage. Gunther uses the Greater Good Argument, but I don’t think that was good enough. He is a detective in the Philip Marlowe mould — hard bitten but with a core of decency. That’s why he is anti-Nazi. That’s why I couldn’t countenance his murder of another anti-Nazi.  I don’t want my Good Guys to behave like the Bad Guys. That’s why I had to close the book.

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About anne54

Botanic artist
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