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Putting the Urban in Urban Fantasy: A Madness of Angels by Kate Griffin

Urban fantasy’s genre boundaries have grown a bit muddy. The label has become a catch-all for modern paranormal fiction–anything that doesn’t fit the happily-ever-after mold of paranormal romance or the elves-and-dwarves conventions of high fantasy. Sometimes, I forget the “urban” part entirely, but there are a few books that exemplify it, making their metropolitan settings integral to the story.

One of these is Kate Griffin’s Matthew Swift series, starting with  A Madness of Angels.


I admit, when I read the back cover copy, I wasn’t enticed. It sounded like the kind of book that might be obsessed with it’s own world building and the city of London, and there definitely didn’t seem to be a romantic sub-plot. I love romantic sub-plots, and I like my world-building subtle.

Well, my initial assumptions were pretty much right. And I LOVED IT.

I recommend this book to anyone who stands still long enough to listen to me. It’s over-descriptive. Griffin spends an entire page describing a single paranormal entity in one unbroken paragraph. It’s long. Six hundred and thirteen pages. There’s no sex–and I mean none. There aren’t even any potent lingering glances. I don’t care. It’s brilliant. I devoured every page of those six hundred plus and immediately wanted more.

The bedrock of the series is Griffin’s concept of “urban” magic. She takes the idea of druidism–of a magical power connected to the earth–and reimagines it in a modern city. As her hero puts it, “you’ll realise that you can see the city all around, and it’s so full of lives and life, and they’re all buzzing around you, and every single individual is real and alive and passionate and full of mystery, and it’s not just Joe Bloggs walking by who’s like this, but every part of the city is crawling with life…and roughly around that point you’ll realise you can hear rats and pigeons and thoughts and spells and colours and electricity, and that’s probably when you started going a bit mad.” The characters recite the fine print of subway tickets as spells. It’s gorgeous.

The system of magic she creates from this simple idea is seamless, existential and unique. But what really makes the series stand out is the language. Griffin leaps into over-description with such headlong abandon, it’s impossible not to follow her over the edge. It’s a testament to her skill that her prose never ventures into the purple, flowery territory that might mire a lesser writer. One page, and you know you’re in the hands of a pro.

It’s not a book for everyone, or even a book for every mood. Sometimes I’d prefer a sexy, fast-paced romance with an overabundance of action and lingering glances to spare. But right now I’m in the mood for something a little bit different, so I’m diving into book two of the series, The Midnight Mayor. Spoiler alert: I’m loving it just as much.

What about you? What’s the most unique thing you’ve read recently? Have any books surprised you lately?

7 thoughts on “Putting the Urban in Urban Fantasy: A Madness of Angels by Kate Griffin

  1. Hmm new author and book to me AJ. It sounds good, I don’t need romance in every book. I have been surprised lately by books I enjoyed when I expected not to. Married with Zombies, when I loathe zombies, and now Loving Mr. Darcy. I did not think I would enjoy this “sequel” to Pride and Prejudice, but I do.

    • I think you might like it, Aurian. It’s smartly written, and it’s like nothing else. I’m not a big zombie fan, either (they give me nightmares), but maybe I’ll check out Married with Zombies. Thanks for the rec!

      Some of the Pride & Prejudice “sequels” have surprised me with how much I’ve liked them. I’ve actually found a few re-tellings that I like. Have you seen The Lizzie Bennet Diaries? It’s a retelling of the story, set in modern day, and told in short “weblog” style videos. It’s just fantastic. Charming, clever, true to the original and yet with its own unique stamp. (Here’s the link: http://www.lizziebennet.com/)

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