The Neon Court is the third novel in Kate Griffin’s London-set urban fantasy series following Matthew Swift, a human possessed (maybe?) or at the very least sharing his body with (not quite) the blue electric angels, spirits of the telephone wires.
London’s on the brink of war, as it usually is in these novels. This time, it’s between the titular Neon Court, a cleverly-updated modern version of the unseelie court where glamour is everything, and the Tribe, a community of outcasts who exercise power through self-mutilation. They’re fighting over a Chosen One who will (according to an irresponsible seer with a Monopoly board) decide which faction gets destroyed and which survives. To avoid all-out magical war, Matthew, in his capacity as Midnight Mayor (which is to say, general overseer of magic and magic users in London), is forced to promise the Neon Court’s Faerie Queene, Lady Neon, that he’ll find the Chosen One and deliver them up to her.
And, if that wasn’t enough to deal with, there’s a woman wandering around the city who makes people’s eyes bleed and their brains fall out. More or less. And the sun isn’t rising.
The Neon Court didn’t quite ring true for me. Oh, there’s a lot to enjoy about it: Matthew’s sarcasm, directed especially at the privileged Aldermen who support the Midnight Mayor; the magic, which is that very special and rare kind of magic that transfigures the everyday into something wonderful and strange; the precise evocation of city life (what a treat it is to read this now I actually live in London!); and, above and over it all, Griffin’s ragged, excessive, vital prose, whose default mode is the list, details piling up and up till they overflow the narrative as the blue electric angels still (though less than they did in A Madness of Angels, admittedly) overflow Matthew’s control:
The liars, the gamblers, the cheats, the men who lust, the women who succumb, the desperate who pulled one last desperate act, the rich, the greedy, the overweight, the vain, the glorious, the proud*
This is how Griffin understands the metropolis: the magic of London is vital, an overflow; it cannot be captured; and so the prose, and the plot, must race to try to catch it up, and so glorious is the race that we hardly notice the plot holes and the grammatical fails, because the novel is capturing the whole of London, and London is as imperfect as the novel is.
But, you know, your mileage may vary.
This, though, is why the ostensible thematic core of The Neon Court doesn’t work for me. When Matthew visits the Tribe to try and negotiate a peace of sorts, Toxik, one of their leaders, explains (in irritatingly phonetically-rendered speech that “couldn’t be bothered to waste time with this syllables crap”) why they don’t like the Midnight Mayor:
wen ours were dyin, wen ours were bleedin, da midnite mayor did nothin. Said dat da streets wer al dat matered, sad dat sometimes people must die, but city must live, dat all dat der is is der city, n we r just passin thru.
As it happens, this reads like a pretty decent mission statement for The Series So Far. Griffin’s never been particularly interested in characterisation, and, reading her novels, neither have we: her interest is the city, and what it is to live in aggregate, in that amoral and often uncaring stream of life. Even her protagonist is not one but many: human and angels both. (The preceding novel, The Midnight Mayor, is in some ways a celebration of how city life requires us to rely on total strangers; of, in other words, the anonymising, subjectivity-threatening forces at work in the city.) All that there is is the city, and we are just passing through: yes. That is just exactly the wonder and the terror of living here.
But, in The Neon Court, it becomes something for Matthew to stand against. He starts to become an advocate of the individual: for people like Toxik, who’s dropped out of mainstream life because of a profound sense of powerlessness; like Oda, a hunter of magic-users whose brother became a sorcerer and then a murderer; like the Chosen One, a terrified pawn in a game she knows nothing about.
These are important stories. Of course they are. They’re stories about people who don’t end up in stories very often – not ones with happy endings, anyway. But Matthew’s never cared about them before, particularly – certainly I’ve always read him and the angels as distinctly amoral – and there doesn’t seem to be a reason why he cares about them now. (Well, apart from giving the institution of the Midnight Mayor the finger, which I suppose does seem rather Swiftian.) And in a novel whose very essence is in multiplicity, his sudden advocacy not just of “the little people” as a group but of specific individuals unmoored from society feels too easy and too obvious – in fact, too Hollywood – a narrative strategy. It’s a cheap way of turning a not-always-very-nice-person into a Hero. And we have lots of stories about heroes, about individuals. We have hardly any stories about living in aggregate.
And now, we have one fewer.
*Side note: apparently women don’t lust. *sigh*
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