So there I was, talking about London and its slightly odd underbelly, when the forces of synchronicity came and walloped me round the head.
Jenni Hill, one of the editors over at Abaddon & Solaris—as well as one of my favourite people on Twitter—posted something to the effect of being tired of “alternate Londons”, and wondering why writers in the UK didn’t pick a wider range of cities for their urban fantasy works.
Of course I’ve got my own views on that (don’t I about everything?) which boil down to the fact that, as I said in my last post, London has a long, muddy and bloody history. It has more superstitions than you can shake a rat at—and heaven knows there’s enough of those about if you believe the stories. That’s not to say that Winchester or Edinburgh or York or Bath couldn’t rival it in the history stakes, nor that there are places with superstitions just as abiding as here—but London has its own gravity; it exerts its own pull, and perhaps that isn’t limited to the real world.
I can come up with a good number of alternate Londons off the top of my head: there’s—of course—Neil Gaiman’s London Below (“Neverwhere”), which was the first book to give me that ‘why-didn’t-I-think-of-that?’ moment, with its Black Friars and Angel Islington. There’s China Mieville’s umbrella-stalked UnLondon; Suzanne McLeod’s London populated by witches, vampires, trolls & goblins. There’s Kate Griffin’s London where sorcery battles kebab-shop grease-monsters and hoodies with spray-paint and the best pseudo-Latin I’ve ever seen; Mike Shevdon’s version of a city which overlaps the land of Feyre, and which can be crossed in a heartbeat if you know the right roads, and Mike Carey’s “Felix Castor” London, where the dead walk, talk and hang out in abandoned cinemas.
The thing is, I love these almost-Londons. I’ve been fortunate enough to talk to several of these authors about their work (and hopefully those interviews will slowly creep into the light of day. They’ve been hideously delayed for reasons I can’t control, and for which I’m immensely sorry to the people who’ve given up their time to talk to me: their answers were all fascinating, particularly when it comes to the question of “Why London?”) and every one of them has a different thing to say about the city—or City. Each of them has picked another side to explore in their alternate universe: Kate Griffin chooses the London of now, with its graffiti and concrete. Suzanne McLeod opts for the bustle of Covent Garden: magic in plain sight, melding with technology. With Felix Castor, Mike Carey explores a particular sort of man—the kind you’re more likely to find here than anywhere else—who taps into the dead (of whom London has more than her fair share), while Mike Shevdon overlays the arcane traditions that the City perpetuates with something much more exotic, conjuring life from dust.
I can understand why people might tire of the alternate-London sub-genre (and I agree, it’s definitely becoming one), particularly as there seems to be a new book every couple of weeks. Ben Aaronovitch’s “Rivers of London” and the first of Sarah Silverwood’s “Nowhere Chronicles”, both recently released, have been getting great reviews. I’ve not read either yet, mostly due to my slight case of Everything-I-Own-Being-In-Storage, but I can certainly believe that these too can draw something fresh from a city I love. There’s a lot of books out there already—but I can’t say that any of the ones I’ve read have felt stale or samey. Each of them has brought something new, and each of them has made me look at the same old chewing-gum clogged pavements in a bright new way.
And for me, at least, that’s what it comes down to: I want fantasy to show me new faces to the familiar. I want it to take words I thought I understood, streets I thought I knew, and to turn them around—to show me the magic that was always there, unknown and unseen all along.
In my case, that’s most likely to happen in London. I was born in a small town in Wales, but in so many ways I was bred here, in London. My parents met here, married here. I came to university here at 17, and I never went home. It’s in my bones and in my blood; I love it and hate it and refute it and need it. I accept that might not be true of everyone… but to bring wonder to London—to a cynical Londoner (and that’s what I am) who’s been here a third of her life..?
Surely, however well-used it might be, there’s still some magic in that?