The Neon Court, Kate Griffin’s third Matthew Swift novel, starts out with high drama as Matthew, urban sorcerer and Midnight Mayor of London, abruptly materializes on the top floor of a burning building. Oda, a member of the fundamentalist, magic-hating Order, has used a summoning spell to bring him there. This is enough, in her belief system, to damn her soul. Oda is dying, or at least, she should be, since she has been stabbed through the heart and is weeping tears of blood, but she is still surprisingly animated, and she needs Matthew’s help, although he doesn’t understand what she is asking.
It takes Matthew’s magic to deliver them from the flaming tower, and then things really get bad. The Neon Court, the urban incarnation of the Realm of Faerie, has come to town to declare war on the Tribe, another group of magical practitioners. Parts of suburban London are disappearing, people are found dead bleeding from the eyes, and Matthew is pretty sure that the sun hasn’t come up in a very long time.
Stop a war, save London, and bring back the sun — Matthew must do all that while dealing with the distrust of the Aldermen, who are the palace guards of the Midnight Mayor. He must dodge the manipulations of Lady Neon and the psychological sabotage inflicted by the ghost of his former mentor, Robert Bakker. In his spare time he must find a girl dubbed “the chosen one,” and somehow free Oda from a terrifying possession.
In the “Plus” column, Matthew has his loyal and feisty apprentice Penny, his fusion with the blue electric angels, and his own quirky madness/genius when it comes to magic and London.
The Neon Court has all the things I love about the Swift books. Matthew’s escape from the burning building, the depiction of a place called Between the Cracks, and Fat Rat are little masterpieces of urban mythos. Griffin still allows Matthew to have moments of experience that read like poetry, and creates a clan that talks in text-speak. Then there are things that seem derivative. The Night Bus — wasn’t there one in The Prisoner of Azkaban? The Tribe seems like a knock-off of China Miéville’s humano-mechanic hybrids; but where Miéville’s inventions emerge organically from the story, (in Kraken, I believed in a sentient tattoo), Neon Court’s feel forced. I almost think Griffin is commenting on Miéville some way, and I’m not getting the message.
It is the Neon Court itself that is the biggest let-down of the book for me. Having met the anarchic artist-wizards, the Whites, in the first book, I expected far more than a bunch of Fae Folk led by a bored and self-indulgent Faerie Princess. Griffin wants the court to be seen as shallow, and she succeeds, but then this means that they are… shallow, really, almost too trivial a problem for Matthew to have to deal with in the midst of everything else. I wish Griffin had unleashed her imagination on Lady Neon, instead of going for a safe, stereotypical belle dame sans merci.
The first third of the book dragged, but once Robert Bakker’s ghost appeared, things picked up. Although she falters with the court, Griffin nails the supernatural villain in this one, and Matthew’s solution — after many people die — has the right amount of emotional resonance.
And… a lot of people die. I think this is to show that these books are serious, that magic has consequences and isn’t make-believe. It also seems to mean that any strong woman who helps out Matthew won’t survive for more than two books, so I’m beginning to worry about Penny. Killing off characters is a tricky business. In both The Midnight Mayor and The Neon Court, Griffin gives us a book-specific character in whom we are somewhat invested, who dies. I’m not sure what purpose this serves, just as, in this book, I’m not sure what Matthew’s serious injury in the early part of the book truly serves. Killing off characters wholesale actually makes the action seem less meaningful and more like a video game. Again, a point of some kind is being made — life is magic, but everyone around Matthew dies — and I just don’t get it.
These issues nag at me but they don’t extinguish the pleasure of reading these books.
Matthew’s insight into the nature of the villain is a good pay-off; as is another interaction he has, late in the book, with the head of the Order. That scene is very emotionally satisfying. At times it seems that the office of Midnight Mayor is too restraining for Matthew. On the other hand, the world is in disarray, the old rules don’t apply, and you don’t know who you can trust. Keeping us safe from the things in the dark? Maybe a scruffy, snarky sorcerer whose blood sizzles blue with the energy of a million-billion telephone lines is just the guy for the job.
Matthew Swift — (2009-2012) Publisher: For Matthew Swift, today is not like any other day. It is the day on which he returns to life. Two years after his untimely death, Matthew Swift finds himself breathing once again, lying in bed in his London home. Except that it’s no longer his bed, or his home. And the last time this sorcerer was seen alive, an unknown assailant had gouged a hole so deep in his chest that his death was irrefutable… despite his body never being found. He doesn’t have long to mull over his resurrection though, or the changes that have been wrought upon him. His only concern now is vengeance. Vengeance upon his monstrous killer and vengeance upon the one who brought him back.
Magicals Anonymous — (2012-2013) Set in the same world as MATTHEW SWIFT. Publisher: Sharon Li has just discovered she’s a shaman. And just in time: London’s soul has gone missing. If anyone can solve the mystery and rescue the dying city, she can, but she’ll need help-from the support group she’s just set up for people with magical issues. Among them are a vampire who is O, a druid who suffers from allergies and a lack of confidence, and a banshee looking for an evening class in impressionist art. Now, this motley crew must find a way to save the world ….