RogerBW's Blog

Wolf in Shadow, John Lambshead 13 April 2015

2013 urban fantasy. Rhian, a young woman from the valleys with some unusual talents, finds herself in east London, where ancient magics are mixing with modern in a distinctly unpleasant way.

I seem to have been reading quite a bit of fantasy set in modern London lately, and this is one of the best. Even though it has the obligatory error of research:

The Mile End Road opposite the station was impassable on foot, with dual carriageways separated by railings. So, being too tired to struggle along the pavement with her bags until she found a pedestrian crossing, she turned behind the station into the maze of small streets.

Seems clear enough, right? But I've been there, and there's a pedestrian crossing right outside the station.

On the other hand there's a sequence set at what's clearly the Salute wargames show at ExCel which is well-observed and fits the place perfectly, and plenty of other references to the area do fit my memories of it. Lambshead is a wargamer of long standing, and this feeds into the book in smaller ways too: casual historical chat from quite a few characters, and references to things like the zeppelin bombing of London in the Great War and the Carausian Revolt in Roman Britain. There may be a bit too much info-dumping, with lectures on history, but at least Rhian is ignorant enough that she wouldn't automatically know this stuff already.

Rhian's own background is less than clear at first, making her initial motivations muddy; it's hard to sympathise with her plight when all we know is that her boyfriend's dead and she's feeling sorry for herself. What does she want out of life? Why is she in London in the first place? But anyway, she finds a job at a local pub, and a room in a house run by someone who turns out to be a reasonably powerful witch (and information dispenser). Her own powers start to feel less like a curse and more as though they could be of some use.

There are lots more magical folk about, of course. There are creatures who are something like vampires and something like elves (and one of them seduces/rapes Rhian with so much glamour that she doesn't even notice her lack of consent, which I'd hoped would get resolved later in the book but it's just forgotten since she has no reason to remember it… which is an unusually grim attitude for this sort of stuff to take). There is also The Commission (which turns out to include The Library, The Coven, The Gamekeepers, and presumably other such generically-named entities, though The Black Museum turns out to be a different mob and nothing to do with the police) – and this brings us firmly into the subgenre that John Dallman christened "Occult Secret Service". (An operative's possession of a sheaf of warrant cards, all of them valid, is a dead giveaway here.)

And that's where the major writing problem starts: one story thread deals with Rhian and her new friends dealing with relatively minor magical threats and getting explanations of how magic works (particularly hopping into the Otherworld, which here is largely a series of frozen memories of the things that made strong impressions on people at the time), while the other has the hard-bitten Commission soldier Jameson and the bound vampire/elf Karla playing with the big boys. Yes, of course they're working two ends of the same problem, and eventually they'll join forces, but alternating chapters between protagonists breaks up the flow terribly.

What works rather better is the infighting: the Commission has been around for several hundred years, and it's thoroughly embedded in Civil Service politics. Once they've decided who's behind all the current occult nastiness, the major problem they face is that he's got on the right side of MI6, who will be asking pointed questions if he suffers an "accident". These are fairly broken people, and one suspects that this is largely because of the broken organisation that they work for.

A common world-building trait in urban fantasy is that other people have got there first: the protagonist moves from mundanity into an existing world of wizards and vampires and whatnot. I'm frankly more interested in stories of pioneers, the people who are setting up the rules for the new world (and getting it wrong and trying again). But if as a writer you are going to have that existing world, make it a world like this one that's had real people in it, who've made mistakes and reached an uneasy peace, not something that feels set in stone until Wonderful Protagonist turns up to be Different.

There's grit and blood and guts here, and basically none of the romance that's usual in urban fantasy, but I enjoyed it far more than I expected to. I gather John's working on a sequel, and I look forward to it.

Recommended by Ashley R. Pollard.

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  1. Posted by Ashley R Pollard at 10:03pm on 15 April 2015

    Not disputing the photo, but is it right for the time the novel is set in, as in when the novel was written? Things have certainly gotten a lot cleaner in that part of town since I lived and worked there in the mid nineties.

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 08:33am on 16 April 2015

    Fair point. The book was published in 2013; the crossing was there in 2008 when I lived nearby, and it's there on the 2015 satellite imagery looking exactly the same.

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