Kate Griffin

A Matthew Swift novel

Orbit (2011)

ISBN: 978 1 84149 901 7

Reviewed by Gillian Polack

If you have not read Griffin’s previous volumes starring Matthew Swift, then do not even read this review. Stop at the end of this paragraph. This is one of those trilogies where the individual works stand sufficiently solidly to be able to be read in isolation, but at the same time if I were to even attempt a proper review of The Neon Court without referring to events in the first volumes I would doom this review to failure. They do rest on each other, very much. In Kate Griffin’s universe, events have consequences. In other words, if you are worried about spoilers for the previous volumes save this review until after you’ve caught up.

Matthew Swift is the Midnight Mayor. He’s responsible for keeping London on some sort of magic even keel. He has Aldermen to assist him, but he isn’t quite sure whose side they’re on or possibly quite how they operate. He has an apprentice also to help him, but she’s more likely to insult him until she’s blue in the face and then insist on him buying her a curry dinner.

Swift was a very powerful sorcerer who died and came back as something quite strange. He speaks as himself and also as himselves; his blood is blue fire. He’s part angel, part other things entirely and he mostly handles it all quite comfortably. Except when he’s under attack on many sides. Then he’s not comfortable at all. All this relates back to events in earlier volumes. By the time we meet him in The Neon Court, the main legacy of those earlier events is that people around him don’t really want to believe he is who he says he is, and that he has those powers, which means that a lot of his work as Midnight Mayor is convincing people around him that they must work with him. London is at peril if they don’t co-operate. An assassin has somehow been caught up in a rather dire (but uncertain) fate and the Neon Court (the last of the once-powerful magic courts) and the Tribe (the urban grunge human equivalent) are determined to fulfil a prophecy and go to war. Swift and his Aldermen and his angry apprentice have to sort everything out. With no daylight and even less sleep, this might be difficult…

The Neon Court is an urban fantasy. Not the paranormal romance kind, or the gentle suburban kind, but the sort that’s heavy on the anger and danger. It’s lovely and dark, full of bite but, oddly – since there are no apparent touches of warmth and homeliness – it’s not bleak. It’s funny, it’s fast and it reflects the feel of current London far more than most London-centred urban fantasy.

A great deal of urban fantasy centred on London (Gaiman’s Neverwhere, for instance, or Shevdon’s books) have a strong element of nostalgia. This, to be honest, is part of their attraction. Griffin, however, dumps the nostalgia and so her version of magic London stands tall and is definitely worth a look. It’s so full of attitude that even the darkness is humorous, which possibly accounts for the lack of bleakness at its heart. It ought to be bleak. It’s not a happy book, nor a happy-ever-after book. There’s a great deal of love in it, I suspect, both for London and for its more magical inhabitants.

As far as the writing goes, it’s sometimes excellent and sometimes a bit patchy. The opening, for instance, is a bit too clever. At times I was left wondering why this event had to be explained from this direction. There is possibly not quite enough attention to how the universe hangs together.

There is a lot of explanation. Backstory is presented in huge slabs that slow down the rattling pace – this wouldn’t be a problem (since the pace is otherwise good) except that the backstory is not always told in as entertaining a way as the rest of the tale. In other words, despite the interest of its subject matter (and it’s always interesting) the background stories of each character often act as a dead weight on the tale as a whole. If it had been better integrated or had its own swift dynamic, then the novel would have been the better for it.

Still, it’s a vibrant volume, with a clear sense of place and some devastatingly dark dialogue. If it had been a bit more tightly written or a bit more highly developed, it would have been amazing. As it is, it’s merely excellent.