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REVIEW: The Neon Court by Kate Griffin

The Neon Court: Or the Betrayal of Matthew Swift by Kate Griffin Title: The Neon Court: Or, the Betrayal of Matthew Swift
Author: Kate Griffin
Pub Date: March 24th, 2011
Chris’ Rating (5 possible): 1 point 1 point 1 point 1 point
An Attempt at Categorization If You Like… / You Might Like…
Excellent, evocative, and innovative world-building with ambitious characterization techniques.

Like many of my favorite fantasy finds, I first came across Kate Griffin’s Matthew Swift novels while on a business trip to London. This is kind of appropriate, considering how central London is to Griffin’s impressive urban fantasies. In her third Matthew Swift novel, The Neon Court: Or, the Betrayal of Matthew Swift, Griffin continues to impress with her unique take on contemporary magic and successfully strengthens her already-impressive characterization.

I first noticed Griffin’s writing with A Madness of Angels. In that book, she created a fascinating new spin on magic by inverting traditional eldritch trappings and fundamentally modernizing them. Her underlying conceit is that sorcery is a by-product of life, and because we lead ever more urban lives today, magic, too, must grow more urban. As a result, the magic of Griffin’s London is not that of moonlit rituals and twining ivy, but instead of subway cars and swirling fast food wrappers. What makes this conceit work in A Madness of Angels, and what continues to make it work through The Neon Court, is how solidly Griffin grounds her system in the real London, and how consistently she applies her new spin on magic.

Griffin’s images of contemporary London seep through into her characters and the urban magic of her world. The incidental characters we meet along the way are appropriate to their locales. Whether we’re talking about the professional Westminster-ish Aldermen (a bunch of bureaucrats…and more), the Tribe in the deepest parts of the East End, or an Irish seer living in Mile End, the characters are all believable because every one of their aspects is rooted in place: speech patterns, clothing, behavior, values, they all ring true to their environment.

This sense of place is also inextricably woven into the magic of her world. Every metropolitan idiosyncrasy becomes grist for Griffin’s magical mill. One gets the sense that there is sorcery lurking just beneath every insignificant fragment of Griffin’s London. Consider the Oyster travel card, or London’s many tourist traps. In the hands of a lesser author, the former would just be an incidental prop used to get on or off public transit, and the latter would just be settings. But Griffin makes them all potent magical talismans. This was impressive when first developed in A Madness of Angels, but even more impressive is how Griffin continues to expand and develop her magic system as the series progresses. In each of the Matthew Swift books, she introduces us to significant new facets of London’s magical underbelly, and nearly half of the fun in reading these books is seeing what new urban wizardry Griffin’s imagination will come up with. In The Neon Court, she asks how would the traditionally rural Faerie Court evolve in the modern urban world? Other authors – notably Emma Bull in her seminal War for the Oaks – have asked this question as well, and Griffin’s spin on it (the titular “Neon Court”) is innovative, unique, and fundamentally believable.

Her characterization – and especially that of her hero/narrator, Matthew Swift – is the next most impressive aspect of this series. Swift is a fractured hero, his mind merged with that of the blue electric angels (god-like personifications of the ghosts-in-the-wire who inhabit telephone and electric wires). Depending on which aspect of his personality is in ascendance, his narration veers from the perpendicular pronoun to first person plural, and at times shifts into a disjointed stream-of-consciousness. In the earlier books, this was a daring gamble on Griffin’s part. It made Swift’s struggle to re-assemble his mind and personality vivid, but risked disorienting an inattentive reader. Griffin walked a fine line in the earlier books, but she managed to pull it off. Swift’s fractured nature is so intrinsic to the first book’s plot, that the disjointed narrative added to the storytelling overall.

By the time we get to the third book, Griffin, Swift, and the electric blue angels are all more comfortable in Swift’s head. As a result, the narrative flow of The Neon Court is smoother, with fewer sudden shifts, and where those sudden shifts do occur, they are handled more subtly than in the earlier books. In general, I find the characters in The Neon Courtto be more carefully constructed than in the earlier books. As Swift’s focus shifts from internal (putting his mind back together) to external (saving London and his friends), Griffin’s characterization of secondary players strengthens as well. I felt that the third book does a much better job characterizing supporting characters like Penny (Swift’s apprentice), Dees (Swift’s Alderman lieutenant), and even Theydon (a thrall in the Neon Court) than the earlier books did.

If there is a weakness in the Matthew Swift novels, it is that it would be hard to start with the second or third installment. In The Neon Court, Matthew Swift struggles to save London and his friends from a terrifying magical threat amidst a burgeoning factional war amongst London’s magicians. The stakes, the characters, the plot, and the world are all adequately communicated. But a reader coming fresh to this world is likely to be confused by everything that came before. Swift’s history with R.J. Bakker (established in book 1), and his role as the Midnight Mayor (which was established in The Midnight Mayor: Or, the Inauguration of Matthew Swift), for example, are all central to The Neon Court’s plot. While there are passing explanations offered in the text, the book assumes the reader is already familiar with these events. However, their ramifications would be unclear to someone coming into the series with the third book.

Despite this fact, I recommend Griffin’s Matthew Swift novels, and especially The Neon Court: Or, the Betrayal of Matthew Swift. Readers who enjoy contemporary fantasy with innovative, vivid world-building will find a lot to enjoy in these novels. They are excellent examples of urban fantasy, particularly of the non-paranormal romance variety. If you enjoy the fantasies of Neil Gaiman, Emma Bull, Jim Butcher, or Harry Connolly, I suspect you will also enjoy Kate Griffin’s books. The entire series is good, and I found that it strengthens significantly in all of the right ways as it continues.

REVIEW: The Broken Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin

The Broken Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin Title: The Broken Kingdoms
Author: N.K. Jemisin
Pub Date: November 3rd, 2010
Chris’ Rating (5 possible): 1 point 1 point 1 point 1 point 1 point
An Attempt at Categorization If You Like… / You Might Like…

In The Broken Kingdoms (the second book in her Inheritance Trilogy, begun in The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms), Jemisin successfully avoids the middle-book-blues by constructing a beautiful mosaic of unique and skillfully executed traits rarely seen in fantasy. Most importantly (and most impressively), you can enjoy it without having read The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms), although the experience will be richer if you have.

It is hard enough to maintain momentum, pattern, and voice in a single novel. But publishers love multi-book series for good economic reasons (who doesn’t love reprint sales?), and so do authors (who doesn’t love contracted advances?). Unfortunately, very few authors are up to the challenge of constructing a story arc that will span multiple books, not drag, let each installment work on a standalone basis, and do something new, meaningful, and entertaining. If Broadway is littered with excellent first acts, then Borders is littered with excellent first books. Readers of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms may be surprised to see few characters they recognize. While set in the same universe and dealing with the same (divine) conflict established earlier, this book is told from the perspective of a very different hero. It is a complete, and self-contained story that builds off of the events of the previous book and would be an excellent standalone novel in its own right. Jemisin is constructing a fascinating standalone epic trilogy that reminds me more of Homer’s Odyssey than Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.

The Broken Kingdoms follows Oree Shoth, a blind artist living in Shadow, a city beneath the World Tree and the city of Sky perched atop it. Oree takes in a taciturn and mysterious lodger, and finds herself plunged into a conspiracy centered around the serial murders of godlings. The conspiracy, Oree’s involvement, and the steps she takes to survive give the book a solid rhythm and provide momentum that Jemisin maintains through to the end. And while this book’s plot is strong and engaging, the book’s real engine are the characters and their relationships and its fuel are the ways in which it subverts epic fantasy tropes.

Oree is a disabled member of a historically-oppressed minority. As a result, she represents a refreshing antithesis to the standard fantasy heroine (Oree is neither white, nor is she able to wield two swords at once in a spinning dance of death). In the hands of a lesser author, Oree’s race would turn this book into a simplistic caricature of contemporary racial relations, but Jemisin neatly avoids that trap. Oree’s background and the history of her race are intrinsic to the plot, but her character is woven of more complex strands than race alone. By taking the societal consequences of ancient choices and making them concrete through the experiences of her characters, Jemisin produces a rich and complex society, and avoids the solipsistic condemnation of either the majority or the minority. This enables Jemisin to introduce much stronger and deeper characterization for her principle actors, building a very subtle and effectively post-racial character without sacrificing the plot elements that hinge upon her narrator’s background.

Oree has some magical ability, but she neither understands it nor is it ever explained to her by a helpful teacher. Reading the book, we are as much in the dark as to her ability as she is, and we are pulled right along with her as she discovers the truth about herself. The emotional core of the book are Oree’s complicated relationships with the men in her life (the silent homeless man she names “Shiny”, and her godling lover Madding), and it is these relationships and her complex feelings for them that motivate her actions. The supporting characters are all drawn believably. The godlings – by their very nature – are flat characters yearning to break into three dimensions, and the sensitivity with which their efforts are handled really make you feel for them. Just like the mortal Oree, they are products of their own histories and their own family histories, and it is through this excellent characterization that Jemisin is able to explore her primary themes of choices, family, and relationships.

Oree, as the mortal narrator, provides us with a very identifiable perspective on these themes, both within herself (as a mortal Maro) and amongst the gods of her world. The characterization in this novel is the best part about it, although the characterization is so good precisely because everything else (the world-building, the language used, the magical system) contributes to it. Jemisin uses first person narration to extremely good effect, limiting the reader’s awareness to that which Oree herself would notice. But the real trick of characterization, and what seals the deal for me actually occurs at the end. I won’t spoil it here, but the denouement is used in an exceptional way to tie together the themes that Jemisin explores throughout. It brought tears to my eyes, which for jaded old me is not that easy to do.

By subverting so many fantasy tropes, it is difficult to categorize The Broken Kingdoms. It shares a palpable sense of consequence and history with Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen, but it is (thankfully) more approachable, less convoluted, and less gritty. It shares the playful and sensitive touch when twisting fantasy tropes that can be found in Brandon Sanderson’s Warbreaker and Elantris, but it is more powerful thematically than either. It has the gripping pacing and excellent characterization of Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind, but Jemisin’s novel is more complete on a standalone basis. Probably the closest comparison I can come up with is Suzanne Collins’ excellent Hunger Games Trilogy, which similarly deals unflinchingly with delicate, complex, and powerful themes while keeping each book as an effective standalone novel.

The Broken Kingdoms is an exceptional new chapter in the already-enjoyable Inheritance Trilogy. Jemisin has done everything right: her characters are rich and engaging, her world is complex and believable, and her plot is fast-paced. This is an ambitious book, and it satisfies by completely addressing important themes in an innovative and immensely readable fashion.

I will be eagerly looking forward to the third and final book in the series, The Kingdom of the Gods, which is due out from Orbit in 2011.

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