London Falling - Paul Cornell
~~Moved from GR~~

London Falling

by Paul Cornell

Recommended to Carly by: Me. And Doctor Who. And Ben Aaronovitch. And the gorgeous cover. But mostly me.


Recommended for: readers of grimdark urban fantasy and police procedurals

D.I. Jimmy Quill of the Met is well aware of the disastrous ways a five-year undercover sting might end: you might not capture the perp; you might not be able to pin anything on him; your UCs might defect or be injured. And, of course, you might have the kingpin in custody and willing to confess when he inexplicably explodes in a welter of blood--right in the middle of a police interrogation room. As Quill and his team begin to investigate the mysterious death, they find themselves unexpectedly gifted with the Sight. It isn't long before they realize that human gangsters aren't the biggest monsters stalking the London streets.

It may just be because I'm getting jaded--I think this is my tenth London-based UF series[1] but, gorgeous cover notwithstanding, I have very mixed feelings about this one. Some urban fantasy (UF) seeks to create a world of possibility and hope that only magic can bring. Some UF uses magic for the special effects, pyrotechnics, and zombie dinosaurs. But sometimes, UF is purely about horror: the magic is used to make every form of abomination, from vicious ghosts to the devil himself, come to life. London Falling is of the latter variety: as the plot itself is police procedural noir and all the magic seems essentially evil, the mood is almost unrelentingly bleak.

UF derives its humour from the often absurd contentions between the mundane and the fantastical, and London Falling is not sparing in its use of this delicate balance, especially when the characters do their best to apply standard police procedure to supernatural situations. (The coppers attempt to keep the Ops board up to date, even though it requires sticking up a pictures of furry familiars. At one point, a priest, a rabbi, and an imam actually do walk into a police station.) However, for me, there's a limit to the quantity and graphic nature of the atrocities that I can tolerate before the absurd becomes the grotesque. The vengeful spirits of football and snarky ghosts should have been both frightening amusing, but the consequences of their actions are so drastic that I found them macabre instead. The remainder of the 'humour' was derived from black irony. One of the standard aspects of suspense fiction is the "million-to-one-chance" that, since this is fiction, has a ninety-nine percent chance of coming off. There is a sadistic brilliance in letting all the nail-biting suspense and high stakes and optimism build up, then letting the reader down with a resounding thud. I can only think of two other venues where this trick is used regularly: Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn and the TV programme Supernatural (think SE3). However, even in these cases, the "million-to-one-epic-fail" is liberally mixed with successes. In London Falls It seemed to me that no matter how horrific the consequences, the protagonists were quite likely to fail. The first time it happened, I burst out in outraged laughter, but after it led to a certain number of children being boiled alive and whatnot, the overload of atrocities made me feel disconnected and no longer able to summon up a shadow of hope that could act as the foundation for suspense.

Part of my issue was my inability to connect with the characters. Maybe it's because I'm so used to first-person protagonists, but I had a very hard time empathising with or even distinguishing the voices and personalities of the four POV-characters. Since Cornell switched between viewpoints about once a page, I could never settle into the thoughts and viewpoints of any of them and their personalities felt oddly shallow. For example, while I appreciate Cornell's attempt to create a diverse viewpoint, cultural identities of the two black coppers, Sefton and Costain, felt incomplete to me. Both spend quite a bit of time thinking about the issues they face because of racism, yet they never even once mention their cultural heritage. I don't think a colour is a natural endpoint for self-identification, yet we aren't even told the national heritage, religious backgrounds, etc. of the characters--as if skin colour somehow was the end of the story. I faced equal problems with understanding Quill and Costain.

[The whole plot with Quill forgetting Jessica felt entirely false to me. We have an entire pre-witch scene with Quill stumbling home to his wife and still no thought of the kid. Speaking with all the authority of a female with no kids, what kind of bastard do you have to be to not even think about your kid for upwards of 70 pages? To reiterate, this all takes place before he met the witch. In theory, I like the twist; in implementation, I thought it flopped like a fish out of water.
I also was unable to muster much emotion about the Costain-Hell thing. Cornell didn't really milk the horror of the scene, and somehow the bare third-person descriptions of Costain's thoughts didn't transfer much of it to me. Possibly because Cornell was trying to hold back the twist about Costain and his hidey-hole, he kept our knowledge of Costain's thoughts to a shallow and superficial level. It also just felt off; we never really hear what mortal sin Costain committed that got him bound on a one-way trip to down-below. I also thought that the sudden acceptance between Costain and Quill felt forced and unnatural.]

(show spoiler)

I felt that each character was given just enough backstory to drive the plot, but not enough to create a personality. All the same, it would make for an excellent TV programme--all that it requires is some superb actors to bring the characters to life. Paging David Tennant....

Overall, I found London Falling compulsively readable. Cornell's prose is sophisticated, coherent, and practically magnetic, and the tensions of the plot kept me glued to the book long after I resolved to put it down. At times, the narration drifts into stream-of-consciousness, and found it evocative and elegantly handled. The ending, while not a cliffhanger, sets the stage for some very interesting extensions to the world. I may not be precisely the right audience for this, but I think it will be a fantastic read for anyone looking for a traditional noir police procedural with a touch of magic. For any reader looking for bleakly humorous, grimdark urban fantasy, look no farther than London Falling.


[1] Laundry Files, Alex Verus, Matthew Swift, Nightside, Ghostfinders, Neverwhere, Bryant & May, Felix Castor, Peter Grant. Possibly more. Bloody hell. I think it's also my tenth UK-based UF series. One would think London was the only magical city in the UK--I think it has more occult detectives per square foot than LA has hardboiled PIs.