The Minority Council by Kate Griffin
Reviewed by Carol
★ ★ ★ ★ 1/2
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity.
Well, sort of. Take two dislikeable tropes, refrigerator females and the drug scourge, and put them in the hands of a fine storyteller, set it a city with a millennia of history, and fill it with fascinating characters, particularly a reincarnated schizophrenic sorcerer, and you get something pretty amazing with a little side helping of ambivalence.
The Minority Council is the fourth (and last?) book in the Matthew Swift series; however, he does guest appearances in the Magicals Anonymous series. Charmingly, the next book, Stray Souls, is hinted at in a couple of places. At any rate, Matthew Swift is a former sorcerer, reincarnated along with the electric blue angels who escaped from the phone lines. He becomes the reluctant hero, the Midnight Mayor of the city, charged with protecting London from magical destruction. Matthew, however, has a problem caring about the larger issues, and does much better on the concrete, individual level. He only ends up managing the Big Concerns when individuals he comes to care about are affected. The Minority Council doesn’t break this trend; in the first few pages, he meets Meena, a magic user of stunning power, and when she calls him for help, he finds himself involved in London’s underground magical drug trade. At the same time, a local council worker, Nabeela, is trying to storm into the Mayor’s office, intending to bring her cause to his attention. Little does she know that the scuffily dressed man sneaking in the service entrance is, in fact, the Mayor. She convinces Matthew he needs to see one of the teen hooligans who has been somehow changed and the investigation gains momentum.
I continue to love Griffin’s voice. She uses a first person narrative starring Matthew/the electric angels (he switches from ‘I’ to ‘we’ regularly), which does fascinating things with characterization. But it is the overall voice, a mixture of pensive and resolute, wonderment and observant that I enjoy, a voice that perfectly fits with Matthew’s split character. I found myself wondering if Matthew the sorcerer is indeed ‘there’ at all, or if his personality is merely the electric angels impersonating humanity. It could be because I’ve been reading Richard K Morgan’s downloaded personalities, but I can’t help but see the electric angels as the same sort of phenomenon.
Then there’s the writing itself. Griffin uses words well, specific, slightly unusual choices that highlight and play with meaning. At times, shades of Douglas Adams. At times, flat out great. “At first I hadn’t realised that the voice had been addressed to me, but when I felt an expectation next to me, I looked round, and there she stood.“
The overt plot of the book largely surrounds the relationship between Matthew and his Alders. Having been on the receiving end of the Alders’ willingness to use lethal force, Matthew isn’t inclined to cut them any slack. Matthew sums up the problems between himself and his Alders early on: “In theory they serve the Midnight Mayor, soldiers in his army… They were magical, they were dangerous, a lot of them were dabblers in high finance, and if all of this wasn’t enough, they liked to wear black and talk in short sentences to let you know just how mean they were. They were the banes of my life and it was of only some small satisfaction to think that we were, in our own quaint way, the bane of theirs.“
A note of levity was introduced with Kelly, Matthew’s new Alder P.A. I’m afraid I’m becoming quite fond of her, always dangerous in a Swift book. But she of the eternal optimism made me laugh out loud when she points out: “‘You say that, Mr. Mayor!’ she exclaimed. ‘But you say it in your special brave voice and, you know, I’m really not sure if I can trust your special brave voice these days because, if you don’t mind me saying so, Mr. Mayor, there’s a very thin line between being brave and six months of physiotherapy and liquid foods.‘”
My problems with the series are hard to describe. As much as I wish it wasn’t true, bookaneer’s observation of Griffin’s use of the refrigerator female is sadly apparent. I admit to disappointment, particularly in a female author who ought to be aware that she’s killing off most (all?) of the strong women characters, good or bad. My other challenge centers around Matthew’s naivete. This is book four in Matthew’s reincarnation, and I started to feel like it is entirely too easy to use him as a cat’s paw in a larger scheme. He may feel like he is an actor, but remains largely an agent. Realizing that was one of the moments that made me question whether a sorcerer of Swift’s knowledge and experience was actually in the body at all, or if it was only the electric angels believing they are Swift–what other excuse explains the simplistic way they react with only shreds of intuition and little information?
However, Griffin does an excellent job balancing the drama of the story with humorous touches, one reason the series stands out among urban fantasy. There’s sophistication in the moral issues, and it isn’t always entirely clear that Matthew is right, however understandable his thirst for vengeance might be. The magic and magical creatures continue to impress, updated to a modern recognizable version–the magic of crime scene tape, bus passes, fairy dust, the vestments of the homeless. Overall, highly recommended, but this is one series I strongly suggest be read in order.
crossposted at http://clsiewert.wordpress.com/