Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Two by Kate Griffin

(cover image from Amazon.com)

These are two books by Kate Griffin I read a few weeks ago. Yes, I'm that far behind in posts here. So I'll make this quick.*

The Neon Court (2011) is the third in her Matthew Swift series of the sorcerer who returned from death, thanks to the blue electric angels of the telephone wires who now inhabit his body. (See my reviews of her earlier books - and books by other authors - here.)

As of the previous book in the series, he's also the Midnight Mayor of London. Now he gets summoned - literally - to a blood-drenched, burning office tower, which leads to a war between two magical factions and a night that might never end.

Like the previous books, this is very entertaining,... and also quite dark. Indeed, it's even darker than the previous two books. Oddly enough - because that's not my style - I still enjoyed it.

OK, time for an extended digression:

There's a big difference between science fiction and fantasy which is abundantly clear in this book - and it's one big reason why I prefer the former.

Science fiction doesn't have to be optimistic, but there's usually a sense that progress is at least possible. After all, technology is democratic. You don't have to be anyone special, because nearly everyone has the capability to use, create, and even invent technology.

Science and technology are connected to the past by a long line of discoveries and advances. All you have to do is look back to see how far we've come, and it's pretty easy to expect that trend to continue in the future, as we continue to educate human beings and learn more about our universe.

Of course, there may be setbacks. Dystopias frequently demonstrate what can go wrong. But we readers, at the very least, can certainly see that progress is possible. Indeed, dystopias are usually just cautionary tales from people who do expect progress, or at least hope for it.

Fantasy tends to be very different. For one thing, it's usually aristocratic, rather than democratic. Magic is normally something you're born with. You're either a Muggle or you're not. If you don't have any magical power, there's nothing you can do about it.

You can be trained if you've got the innate ability, and training does help a great deal. But only if you're already magical to begin with. And even then, different people have different degrees of magical power,... innately. This, too, tends to run in families, but even when it doesn't, you're still stuck with what you're born with.

Furthermore - and I'm talking about this fantasy series in particular now, though it might apply more generally than that - there's no sense of progress. Good people can fight evil, but evil will always exist. Whether you're talking about evil people being born with powerful magical abilities or about evil existing as an inherent part of life, as in The Neon Court, the best you can do is just fight it when you can.

After you're gone, things will be no better. Of course, if evil wins, things will be a lot worse. It's commonly a given in fantasy that losing will be absolutely catastrophic. But winning just means that you and your society live to fight the next battle. In this book, and others, there's no sense that progress is even possible.

I don't know if these are two separate things - democratic vs aristocratic and the whole idea of progress - or not. Technology has had a democratic influence in human societies, especially after peasants could be handed a musket and be trained as soldiers in a matter of months (instead of the born warriors who dominated previously).

And social progress tends to follow technological progress. Maybe it's not inevitable, but I doubt if you can have one without the other.

Well, I've gotten completely off the subject, haven't I? Let me just say that The Neon Court is dark, not just because of what happens in the book, but also because it's clear than progress isn't possible in that world. The dangers are always going to be there, and there's really nothing anyone can do about it.

(cover image from Amazon.com)

Since the Matthew Swift series is so dark, it seems rather surprising to me that Griffin has created a humorous offshoot of it, her Magicals Anonymous series which starts with the book, Stray Souls (2012).

Don't get me wrong, Stray Souls is fairly dark, too. But it also tries very hard to be funny (too hard, really).

Sharon Li is an untrained shaman with a messed-up life who creates a Facebook page for magical misfits and then gets involved in fighting a deadly danger to all of London. (Matthew Swift is a minor character in this book.) Of course, her diverse group of weird characters are the key to saving the city.

OK, the book was fun enough, but Griffin really seemed to be trying too hard. Whether it's the failed druid with psychosomatic asthma attacks or the vampire germaphobe or the troll gourmet, it's as if she made a list of the weirdest characters she could think of.

Many of them are more pathetic than funny, really, and that includes Sharon, herself. Plus, with people being killed in disgusting ways, this series is also surprisingly dark. It's a weird combination.

Maybe this was meant to be a young adult book. That wouldn't surprise me. And it's not that I didn't find it entertaining,... but I doubt if I'll continue with the series. It just didn't work for me. I love humorous fiction, and even humor in serious fiction, but the author just seemed to be trying too hard in this one.

I might continue with the Matthew Swift series, but I'm not sure. My big problem is that it doesn't seem to be going anywhere. Swift doesn't seem to have a personal life - not with anyone who isn't quickly killed. OK, his apprentice is a possible exception to that, but...

My big problem is still the lack of progress. In this case, it's that Swift's life doesn't seem to progress, but the overall situation doesn't progress, either. Nothing changes, so every book is much like the others. Is the overall story going somewhere? Not that I can see. And that's a problem for me in a series like this.

Matthew Swift doesn't have enough of a personal life for me to remain interested in his own story. And nothing else seems likely to change much, either. For the first two books, I was OK with that. But by the time we get to the third, I guess I expect to see progress of some kind.

*PS. You didn't actually believe that, did you?
Note: My other book reviews are here.

1 comment:

Gregg said...

That's funny - my first thought when I saw your promise to "make this quick" was, " No you won't!"

Neither of those books sound like my cup of tea - just a bit too "out there" for my taste, I'm afraid