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“The more I read, the more I acquire, the more certain I am that I know nothing.”
One of my problems with reading books in a completed series is the tendency to read through the books back-to-back. I did that with the Matthew Swift series by Kate Griffin, and I think my first read of The Neon Court suffered, strictly because of a surfeit of Matthew Swift, along with surprisingly similar plotting and characterization to the prior book. Had I been waiting a year between books, I wouldn’t have minded. But I didn’t, so I did. Luckily, my second read was much more enjoyable.
True to format, the story begins with a ringing phone, and the bottom falling out of Matthew’s world. It appears he has been summoned by Oda, the magic-hating, sometimes-bodyguard, fundamentalist to a burning building. Oda, normally human and quite mortal, appears to have sustained a major stab wound to her heart, and yet here she is, walking and talking. After an eventful escape, hampered by Penny, Matthew’s new apprentice, and an unknown fae, Matthew’s presence is requested at a meeting with Alderman Ms. Dees. She presents the latest magical political crisis to Matthew, which he summarizes in his usual charming manner:
“‘Ms. Dees,’ I said, ‘let me get this absolutely clear. The Neon Court–a bunch of narcissistic wankers who haven’t yet come to terms with the fact that the age of the Faerie Court is over–have this major-league grief with the Tribe, a bunch of self-mutilating wankers who haven’t yet come to terms with the fact that the world isn’t out to get them personally–and someone somewhere is dead, which is very sad, and they’re threatening to kill each other and I care… how?’“
By treaty, Matthew has twenty-four hours to solve the mystery of the “chosen one” sought by both the Tribe and the Neon Court before they go to war. Meanwhile, there is the strange behavior of Oda, who has disappeared after apparently killing everyone around her. Once again, Matthew focuses on trying to save an individual as a way into solving the larger political drama.
I continue to enjoy Griffin’s writing style, the subtle way a phrase is elevated into just a little bit more:
“I took my time with the words, careful in case they got ideas of their own.“
A description of Lady Neon: “Her voice was a conspiracy between cigarettes and jazz; low, warm, fuzzy, smooth and probably quite hard to achieve.”
Though the plot is very grim, leavening is provided by Griffin’s dry humor, humor that has a way of applying to the situation but also funny because of it’s topical nature: “‘Mr. Swift, if it’s any comfort to you, I can promise that were I not a happily married woman with a husband I love well,’ sighed Dees, ‘you would definitely be in my top two genders of choice.’”
Sorcery ‘teaching sessions between Penny and Matthew are a frequent source of conflict and amusement, particularly because of Penny’s blunt manner:
“‘Isn’t there supposed to be this teacher-student relationship?’ I growled. ‘Isn’t it the one where I tell you something and you accept it?’
‘Uh-huh. See, my cousin Chenaara, right, she went to fucking uni and it was all ‘question the system’ and ‘you gotta find out for yourself’ shit, so no, I don’t think I do have to accept a word you say.’“
Frequently, the comic relief comes with medical treatment, particularly the perky Dr. Seah. This book was no exception, and if you’ve ever been subject to a medical history, you can undoubtedly relate:
“‘Any history of kidney problems?‘
‘Any history of liver problems?‘
‘Have you at any point dabbled with necromantic powers that might affect your cellular structure?’
‘Um…well, I was dead for two years,’ I admitted. ‘But since my body was dissoved into raw energy…I don’t really think it counts as necromantic powers.’
‘I’ll put you down as a ‘no,’ shall I?’
‘If you say so.” …
‘Are you, to your knowledge, cursed?’
However, despite the creative magic, the enjoyable humor and the fast moving plot, there were areas that fell a little short for me. One element is the characterization of Matthew, who continues to be his dual-identity self. I thought it odd then, given the electric angels delight in newness and the sensory world around them, that in the first breakfast scene, they would be refusing food. That it was kimchi made it even more odd, as it isn’t particularly unusual. A small but odd detail, made particularly apparent later when he has some stinky cheese at Sinclair’s.
More significantly, I’m still not learning much about the functioning and classification of magic in this world despite this being book three, despite the previous curiosity of the angels and despite Matthew having an apprentice to teach. In one sense, Griffin does an excellent job of showing, not telling. Yet since she is more than willing to spend paragraphs describing London, it’s an interesting choice to not do something similar with the magic. I’m not saying I want Sanderson level explanation, mind you. It’s just when someone in the book pointed out that sorcerer magic wasn’t good for much, and that it can’t heal Matthew or save his friends in a jam, it occurred to me that I didn’t know much about what exactly his magic does, except that allows him to keep pulling hat tricks to manage the narrow escape.
Lastly, Matthew has a fatal flaw that’s very obvious, and it doesn’t look to be improving with experience. Though he recognizes it midway through the book, he still engages in the classic save/guilt dichotomy that so many urban sorcerers seem prone to display (well, hello, Dresden). Personally, I usually find it to be an uninspired discussion about the responsibilities of power, and it seems especially curious given the tendency for high casualty counts in these situations.
On a similar note, I do find the high body counts disappointing, as if the reader can’t appreciate danger with littering the ground with corpses. That Griffin includes characters she takes the trouble to humanize and develop and then kill off proves especially troubling. I understand that it leaves Matthew alone, and that might be a key part of his personality. I also understand that it opens up the way for new characters in subsequent books without being beholden to expectations that the whole ‘team’ appear. Still, it’s a little disappointing for me, and dare I say it in a book about magic, not realistic. You see, I’d like to open the paper and imagine that the story I read about the bodies found in a fire really did happen the way Griffin proposes, for the reasons she does. But when the destruction is wide scale and the deaths frequent, then the author needs to start accounting for why ‘normals’ don’t notice (which has been largely ignored to date).
At any rate, those points make it a 3.5 to 4 for me, a little less than the other books in the series, not because it is worse, in itself, but because it fails to show any new emotional or world growth. Still, as an individual read, well done. Just give it a break between books.
Thankfully, the next one, The Minority Council, explores the world of the Alderman and magical London in new ways.