RogerBW's Blog

The Severed Streets, Paul Cornell 06 June 2015

2014 urban fantasy, sequel to London Falling. As protests brew into riots during a hot summer, important people are being murdered in a bizarre and impossible way. Fortunately, the Met has four officers who specialise in the impossible.

If London Falling was the TV series pitch, The Severed Streets is an episode or arc in the show itself. As with so many modern television writers, Cornell produces many excellent set-piece scenes and one-liners, but they never quite cohere into a bigger story. Some of those set-pieces are great (especially if one imagines the scene as delivered by bankable and appealing young actors):

"Oh, right, I get it: you're the good cop."

Costain pointed to himself, looking surprised. "Bad cop."

"Surreal cop," said Sefton, also pointing to himself.

"Good cop," admitted Quill. "Relatively. Which is weird."

Ross just raised an eyebrow.

While some of them just fizzle out:

The bar in Hoxton was called Soviet, all sofas and low tables and big red projections of Stalin on the wall, so deeply ironic that Quill wasn't sure he quite followed it.

One of the really strange bits is the use of Neil Gaiman, not disguised, not as a coded background character, but as a major named player in what's going on. I'm sure he agreed to it all, but it feels like a very strange thing to do: it's fanfic about real people, and it throws me out of the invented world that Cornell's trying to create.

Tone is all over the place, which doesn't help. At one point one of our heroes is giving up all future capacity for happiness as a magical sacrifice. A bit later, the same person plays the Dead Raven Sketch as a way of keeping shop staff laughing while a police raid is being set up. There's possibly the grimmest romantic relationship I've met in fiction not written by Tom Holt, where each of them is expecting the other to betray them, and they're both right. Back in my review of London Falling I said:

(One of the very positive points is that this book misses out the adolescent sexuality of Rivers of London and its sequels: one of the team is married, one begins a casual fling which may turn into something more, but none of them lets sex take over their lives.)

Well, now they do. If you want to see protagonists suffer, fair enough: they bring it on themselves, mostly by being stupid, and deserve everything they get. That's not what I'm into, but some people love it.

There's a Chekov's Magical Artefact, the future narrative use of which is obvious as soon as it's mentioned. There's a villain wearing a hi-vis reading "I am the obvious villain" on the back, whom nobody seems to suspect, for no obvious reason, and who turns out to have been orchestrating everything throughout the story (always a bit of a red flag for me). There's a lazy connection to Jack the Ripper which becomes an unquestioned assumption. There's a visit to the hell which was established as real during the first book, which is increasingly obviously nothing to do with the Christian conception of it, but which nobody seems to think of examining in more detail.

It's good that Cornell doesn't have to spend as much time introducing the weirdnesses of the world, but this is still a book that starts off very slowly, picks up a bit in the middle, then comes to a crashing stop at the end with a long Villain Monologue and a hasty coda.

The grit from the first book is still here, but it's too obviously been pasted on by the makeup people just before the cameras started rolling. The whole edifice crumbles as soon as it's poked with a finger. This is a collection of small things meant to push the reader's buttons (ooh, Neil Gaiman; ooh, a clever bit of dialogue; ooh, two of the heroes are nasty to each other; ooh, something horrid happens to a bad man), but I want more out of my books than a series of button pushes.

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See also:
London Falling, Paul Cornell


  1. Posted by Michael Cule at 03:06pm on 09 June 2015

    Yeah, the number of pop-culture references is almost overwhelming and the author's use of the ConDem coalition government as background are already a bit much before you hit the peculiarity that is Neil Gaiman's part in the book. It just goes over the line into fanboyishness. I sort of wanted there to be a third in the series if only to discover just what it was that destroyed the previous guardians of London but I'm not surprised there hasn't been any more of them.

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 03:09pm on 09 June 2015

    Book 1 2012, book 2 2014 - still reasonable to expect a book 3 might show up one day. But I did feel that Cornell's TV-writing style was showing through here much more than in the first book.

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