RogerBW's Blog

London Falling, Paul Cornell 18 March 2015

2012 urban fantasy. The big crime boss is finally arrested, curiously easily, but explodes in a shower of blood while he's being interviewed. In trying to work out what happened, four coppers accidentally step into a much larger world.

Another contemporary fantasy set in London by another Doctor Who writer (though not for the original show), published the year after Rivers of London. Something in the air?

It does inevitably invite comparison with Aaronovitch's book, and the most obvious difference is the grit. All four of our protagonists (this world originated in an unsuccessful TV series pitch) are broken in various ways; and this is a London of football hooliganism, gangsters, drugs and race violence, with a seething resentment against anyone who can be painted as a "toff". And once magic comes into the plot, that's dirty too.

"And among the small bones we found a lot of shredded and split fingernails." He held one up with tweezers. "This is evidence of a struggle, in close conditions, where the victims were so concerned about escape that they were willing to harm themselves. I think it's possible that these three may have been… boiled alive."

The principals are two undercover policemen, Costain and Sefton (both black, one gay, the other somewhat bent); their boss, Detective Inspector Quill; and an intelligence analyst, Ross, who's also the Obligatory Chick on the team. (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.)

The basic setup is well thought out: all of our heroes get the power to perceive magical things (for lack of a better word), but they can't show this to anyone else, so if they want to follow magical evidence or talk to magical beings they have to do it themselves. It's a convenient way both of keeping the action among the main cast, and of stopping the word of magic from spreading out into the world and changing it into unrecognisability.

It's funny what can throw you out of suspension of disbelief. I was going along quite happily with all the supernatural stuff, and then stalled in a sequence where one of the protagonists is at the West Ham football ground (the Boleyn) and wants to get outside the M25, by car, as quickly as possible – and heads all the way round the North Circular to the M1. Even casual inspection of a map of London will show you the M11 reaching deep into the heart of the East End, and there's also the A12 and A13 to think of. This doesn't do the plot any particular harm, as the same things could have happened if he'd taken the sensible route; but it did break my immersion, by making it clear that this is not somebody who's lived in that bit of London, not even somebody who's lived in that bit of London and had a different experience from my own when I lived just across the road from the Boleyn; he's just someone who's read books about it and maybe visited once or twice.

Anyway, this is mostly a police procedural. Thrown into a world they don't understand, our protagonists fall back on their training as coppers. That works very well, both as an idea and in practice; it's good to see people who aren't simply stunned by weirdness but carry on with doing what they do. On the other hand, it pushes against development of individuality among the characters, as they all do standard police things and rather fail to find their own voices. People really need to be more than just the sum of their traumas. I suppose that if this had been a TV series the individual actors would have done that part of the job.

The book is perhaps a little too consciously grimy (the third time someone's soaked with freshly-exploded blood I was getting as blasé about it as they were), too ready to go off with look-how-clever-I-am references:

He took a few faltering steps and saw that he was just along from Cannon Street tube station, near a mobile phone shop and a business that called itself 'London Stone'.

but if one can get past the faux-streetwise veneer – and the start that throws one in at the deep end with too many names, all of them speaking in the same way, and no clear motivations – there is still an enjoyable story here. For me, not up to the standards of Rivers of London but better than Moon Over Soho.

Recommended by Michael Cule. Followed by The Severed Streets.

[Buy this at Amazon] and help support the blog. ["As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases."]

See also:
Rivers of London, Ben Aaronovitch
Fifteen Minutes from the Boleyn

Series: Shadow Police | Next in series: The Severed Streets

  1. Posted by Ashley R Pollard at 01:33pm on 18 March 2015

    Depending on the time of the day and roadworks etc going around the North Circular is not a bad idea, but good catch. I'd avoid the A12 and A13 where at all possible, chock-a-block and slow as snail racing IMO.

    I enjoyed this book and I'm looking forward to reading the sequel no it's out in paperback. BTW I recommend John Lambshead's Wolf in Shadows, which I mentioned on my blog here:

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 01:49pm on 18 March 2015

    You may regard tomorrow's post as an example of "over-thinking things". :-)

    Thanks for the recommendation.

  3. Posted by Ashley R Pollard at 09:30pm on 19 March 2015

    And I should have said once on the North Circular one would switch to the M11 of course. Obvious once you look at the map.

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