In the novels of Kate Griffin, Joshua S. Hill discovers there’s magic in everything, not just in the trees and animals.
Has anyone ever read the work of Kate Griffin (aka Catherine Webb)? Her books include A Madness of Angels, The Midnight Mayor and The Neon Court.
You haven’t? Oh, you’re missing out!
Why? Well, I guess that’s why I brought it up, and I’ll use some examples below from other fantasy writers – specifically their use of magic in their fantasy worlds – to show you just what Kate Griffin is doing with her own writing that makes it, to me at least, so impressive:
Kelsier dashed forward, flaring pewter and whipping out his daggers. He burned atium, as did the Inquisitor — and they both probably had enough to last an extended fight.
—Brandon Sanderson, The Final Empire, Chapter 34
Where Lysaer’s opposing talents were hampered by the need to spare allies, Arithon stiflened shadow at will. Even without access to the well-spring of his mage talent, training lent advantage and finesse. He could play his gift to gossamer illusion, or snap wave crests to ice in a swift, freezing absence of light. Where the fleet fled the fire, he used cold as a weapon, to jam sails, and ice rudders in their pintles. Many a stricken quartermaster fought to clear his fouled steering, while the smaller slower luggers in their path were overtaken and mulched to wreckage beneath the trampling bows of crippled ships.
— Janny Wurts, The Ships of Merior
The Moon’s lord responded. A black, writhing wave rolled down to the first hill. The High Mage was buffeted to his knees deflecting it, the hilltop around him blighted as the necrous power rolled down the slopes, engulfing nearby ranks of soldiers. Tattersail watched as a midnight flash swallowed the hapless men, followed by a thump that thundered through the earth. When the flash dissipated, the soldiers lay in rotting heaps, mown down like stalks of grain. [Kurald Galain sorcery. Elder magic, the Breath of Chaos.]
— Steven Erikson, Gardens of the Moon, Chapter 3
Her breaths coming fast and tight in her chest, Tattersail felt her Thyr Warren flow into her. She shaped it, muttering chain-words under her breath, then unleashed the power. Calot followed, drawing from his Mockra Warren. Hairlock surrounded himself in his own mysterious source, and the cadre entered the fray.
— Steven Erikson, Gardens of the Moon, Chapter 2
Magic comes in so many different forms in literature. These are just three somewhat-easy examples I found of what magic looks like to different authors. For Sanderson, he made magic in his Mistborn series reliant upon different metals; Wurts in her Light & Shadows series based it on the use of light and shadow; and Steven Erikson based his Malazan Book of the Fallen series on drawing magic from parallel realms.
But there is a common element there: they drew magic from what was available around them.
In fact, stereotypical magic – if you asked someone – would look something like this:
Arcanus dug his feet into the dirt, feeling the power of the Earth coursing through the furrows his feet made. He could feel the trees slow press, the hurried crawl of the insects, and the determined existence of the rock. Concentrating, Arcanus drew from all of these, and more, drawing up into his body the force he needed to create his spell.
That’s something I just quickly wrote up, and a lot of people know this sort of magic; it is the basis for a lot of what we read, and very much based on drawing from what is around you, drawing upon the most prevalent aspects of your surroundings, be they trees or rocks or life: and considering that a large amount of stories are written in a medieval-type setting, that’s often going to be trees, animals, etc.
So I guess it’s no real surprise that, in this 21st century of ours, writers would begin to realise that, what is most prevalent is no longer trees or rocks, but rather neon lights, choking exhaust, and electricity.
Enter Kate Griffin.
I had a travelcard. Druids say there is no greater wand of power than a unicorn’s horn given willingly to the supplicant. In the city, there is no greater wand of power than a Zone 1-6 travelcard. It is freedom to go anywhere and see anything, and all it costs is a large chunk of your income. Then again, a unicorn’s horn usually involved quests and battling ancient demons, so the changing times weren’t all bad.
— Kate Griffin, The Midnight Mayor, Prelude: The Heavy Metal Spectres
I looked round at the window of the chippy, threw my arm and my will at it and shattered the glass with a thought. Reaching past, I found the warm, familiar hum of gas in the mains: heat and fire to burn the fat. I dragged at it, pulling faster than I had planned, sucking out the smell and rippling it upon the air until the street was a mirage of twisted neon and competing stenches. Adrenalin kept us moving, backing away from the advancing tide of yellow-brown oil dribbling over the pavement and the tower of fat rippling in its wake.
— Kate Griffin, The Midnight Mayor, First Interlude: The Sorcerer’s Shoes
Words have power. You just had to pick the right words. In the good old days, this involved a lot of Latin and some very fruity intonation. These days, the words were different, new, bright, and in this case, plastered on the sides of most refuse collection carts in London.
I raised my hands to the sky and called out, shouted into the air, “Veolia, Accord, Kiggen, ECT, Onyx, ELWA, in accordance with Hackney Borough Council, you are contracted to collect, remove and recycle household refuse and waste . . .”
— Kate Griffin, The Midnight Mayor, First Interlude: The Sorcerer’s Shoes
I’m sure Griffin wasn’t the first writer to practice the writing of this sort of magic. If nothing else, we know that Neil Gaiman wrote a measure of it for his Neverwhere TV series (which later became a book). But whether or not she was the first, Kate Griffin is definitely one of the best at it.
In every example there – and in dozens of others throughout her books – Griffin takes seemingly mundane aspects of city-life and makes them powerful spells. In the third example I’ve provided, Matthew Swift is reciting the names of rubbish collectors throughout the city. In other places Swift recites regulations as wards against attack; relies upon the fact that the last bus will only ever arrive when you’re desperate and soaking wet but also a hundred yards from the bus stop; and a hundred other aspects of city-life that you would never have thought of as anything other than ordinary.
Griffin takes these aspects of our everyday life, and makes of them her world. They aren’t just “everyday life” anymore; there’s no simple ordinariness to how Griffin sees the world. Everything is imbued with magic. From the way the buses and trains run to the importance of zebra-crossings to the fact that we pour our lives and souls down the telephone wires, talking to one another, and how couldn’t something magical come of that?
Griffin’s entire style of writing these books is based around the concept that there is magic in the city: that life is magic, and that magic is life.
It’s a stunning interpretation of a world that, in all reality, could do with a little magic to brighten life up a bit. The way that Matthew Swift and his contemporaries view the world they live in is quite exciting, exhilarating, to read. You walk away feeling something of what they feel.
So how about it? Don’t you think you should start reading Kate Griffin’s work?
More than that, though, don’t you think you could take a second look at the way the world works? Does it feel like hours have passed in a minute or have actual hours passed and you have just suffered at the hands of someone’s spellwork? How important are the Red and Green men in the traffic lights? And just how would your city cope if it did not have those historical touchstones that date it back dozens, if not hundreds of years? Would your city crumble to the depravity of the dark and evil things that lie just beyond the scope of your imagination and ken?
Seriously … take a moment to think about what you’re missing out on in life. Try and find some of the magic that is out there. You’ll thank me for it, and you’ll thank Kate Griffin.