London. A city with personality to spare. With its layers of history, its ghost stories and urban legends, it is a veritable playground for the imagination and a lot of authors have had fun moulding new, fantastical Londons from the clay of the real one. Here, for your delectation, I present just a few of my favourites. And yes, I’ve ignored Neverwhere because you already know about that one.
But maybe you’ve not yet visited …
Un Lun Dun by China Miéville
Miéville has played with London a few times, so I’m mentioning two of his books in this post. The first is the Middle-Grade-to-Young-Adult, Lewis-Carroll-worthy Un Lun Dun, a place built upon everything that is discarded by the residents of our version of the metropolis. Old coinage, discarded typewriters and record players, broken umbrellas, the forgotten and the dead all have a second life is this peculiar, topsy-turvy city. Rubbish is a living, feral thing. Dustbins sprout arms and legs and fight ninjutsu style. Carnivorous giraffes stalk the streets at night.
Into this bizarre city stumble Zanna and her friend Deeba, to fulfil a prophesy and defeat the Big Bad of the piece, Smog (yes, as in the Great London Smog, banished to UnLondon after 1956). Even the Chosen One aspect of the tale gets turned on its head, and while this adventure doesn’t quite follow the rules, the outcome is more satisfying because if it.
Come for Curdle the milk carton, an oddly adorable hero’s companion; stay for the deviously delightful word play. While never quite as elegant as Gaiman’s Neverwhere, UnLunDun is still a daytrip worth doing.
Kraken by China Miéville
This second is a London that on the surface appears to be our London, with its Natural History Museum and its Metropolitan Police Force, but underneath is a seething battleground between religious cults, supernatural gangs, magicians, magical assistants (on strike) and a pair of age-old assassins (who will disturb me until the day I die). The only thing on which these disparate groups agree is that the forty-foot-long giant squid that’s just been stolen from the Darwin Centre has something to do with the end of the world.
This is Miéville having heaps of fun with urban fantasy and squid cults. We follow museum curator Billy Harrow as he follows the trail of his missing exhibit and falls well and truly down the rabbit hole into a hidden city packed to the gills with pop-culture riffs and wonderful weirdness, (a possessed Captain Kirk figurine, an invisible pig, a bewitched iPod that plays NWA and Amy Winehouse… to name a few of my personal favourites). This book is so infused with Miéville’s bat-crackers London that the writing even sounds Cockney in your head as you read it.
The Matthew Swift series by Kate Griffin
And while we’re talking urban fantasy, let’s talk Kate Griffin (AKA Claire North and Catherine Webb). The London in which Matthew Swift lives and works is a city with two faces. Its everyday face is that which any visitor or resident would recognise. Its nightside face crackles with a raw magic created by so many lives lived together in the urban sprawl. The thrum of the Underground, the graffiti on the walls, the chatter across the phone lines, even the pigeons, rats and rubbish contribute to the magic. The city is, in effect, a giant magical battery. Here the Beggar King and the Bag Lady rule. Here Matthew Swift wakes up in his flat two years after he died and sets about unfolding the mystery surrounding his resurrection. That he goes about this in an irreverent and wickedly funny way instead of in the more expected world-weary noir style is so much the better.
There are very few books that make me want to actually visit a place in person, but this is one of them. I’m very taken with the idea of doing a walking tour of Matthew Swift’s London. There is an overlap in approach between this series (including the companion Magicals Anonymous duology) and Ben Aaronovitch’s Peter Grant books, but for me the headier brew is offered by Griffin.
The Shades of Magic trilogy by V E Schwab
But why settle for only one or two Londons when you can have four? Schwab’s Grey, Red, White and Black Londons are a fascinating world unto themselves. Ranging from the barely magical Grey to the lusciously magical Red; and from the starving magic of White to the all-consuming magic of Black, (a place now sealed off for the protection of the remaining cities and their worlds), the four places sit alongside one another like the pages in a book, yet differ vastly in geography, temperament and language. Perhaps my favourite thing about Schwab’s nested creations is that they each have different smells. White London, cold and leeched of colour, smells like blood, which tells you everything you need to know about the necessity for caution when visiting. Grey London smells like smoke, and to all intents and purposes is our London, in the year 1819. And Red London smells like flowers, which, yeah, is a heavy-handed way of saying it’s the best London, but also hints at its more exotic nature.
Of all the books on this list, Schwab’s are my least favourite in terms of plot and characters. Kell, an Antari magician, can travel between worlds using blood magic and acts as an emissary for Red London and does a bit of smuggling on the side. He gets caught up in a bit of bother involving a magic stone from Black London, but everything turns out fine. Meh.
Hide Me Among the Graves by Tim Powers
Finally, there is my favourite version of London. Powers’ novel is set in Victorian England and features members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and their circle of acquaintance. It is a dark, fog-addled London that we enter here, haunted by ghosts and plagued by vampires. It is also a city with its own magic, practiced by crossing-sweepers and songbird sellers, watermen and mudlarks; a magic found down in the sewers and the Roman ruins beneath the streets, in Highgate Cemetery and upon the River Thames. This is urban fantasy of a sort – this London could easily by the predecessor to Griffin’s – in which historic places and practices have supernatural resonance and secrets are hidden in plain sight.
Christina Rossetti’s involvement with a vampire-ghost-creature impacts the lives of vet John Crawford and reformed prostitute Adelaide McKee when their daughter becomes the object of that creature’s plans. As they struggle to save Johanna from a fate worse than death (literally), so they become acquainted with Powers’ hidden London where the menace of hungry ghosts and vampires is palpable and the fear of damnation a living thing. Enter at your peril.
OK, so not that great a multitude. Only eight Londons (and the ghost of Neverwhere lurking in the background), but who’s counting really?