It does my heart no good to have to give a bad review of a book, especially a book which has annoyed me by having profoundly decent ideas to go alongside its unsatisfactory execution. It does it even less good to have to compare it to books by another writer, especially when that writer is a friend of the book’s author and quoted on the cover of the book I am reviewing, praising it. However, it would be utterly short-sighted not to draw a parallel between the London-based supernatural crime drama of Doctor Who writer Paul Cornell and the London-based supernatural crime drama of Doctor Who writer Ben Aaronovitch. And I have to deal with the frustration of this book which had so much in it so poorly-presented, when it could have been brilliant.
Indeed, in description London Falling (currently a respectable 59p on the Kindle store) sounds like exactly the sort of thing I profess to enjoy, which just goes to show that trying to describe what one enjoys reading by means of characteristics is no more useful than saying “I like steak” when one means one likes grass-fed, correctly-aged steak of a particular cut and probably only served in the right way in about five restaurants overall. The difference is, I suppose, that while one can handle mediocre steak, because it is so common, this is rather more like finding a rare dish of a specific recipe and having it made by someone whose tastebuds aren’t aligned the way yours are.
For further disclosure, I found Paul Cornell’s two-parter on Doctor Who – Human Nature and The Family of Blood – almost the strongest of that season and certainly some of the better stories told since the return of that show to British screens in 2005. But he is out of kilter with my reading preferences, and I am about to explain why, with a certain number of spoilers, and comparisons to Ben Aaronovitch and Neil Gaiman which the author (who shouldn’t be reading this anyway) and his fans may find annoying and/or insulting.
The book follows the progression of a case through a series of established policemen, beginning in media res. That is to say, there’s no jumping-in point, no hand-holding, and no introduction, which I normally quite enjoy. There is, however, also no handle to be got on any of the protagonists, which makes it a little harder to like.
James Quill, the head of the operation, has a series of characteristics apparently pulled from the “honest copper” bin of clichés and nothing that differentiates him as a person, even after he gains “the Sight” and an unexplained and frequently dangerous insight into the malignant, magical city that lies below/beyond/through the physical one. Lisa Ross, the data analyst and eventual sacrificial hero, driven by a fairly standard-issue need for vengeance for her father (you will note no heroic woman ever wants to avenge her mother), has no other characteristics, no other desires, and like Quill no personality. They barely even have voices: with the attributions removed, I can’t tell one character from another for most of the book.
Tony Costain, the requisite reluctant hero/bad boy, similarly has no real personality aside from a desire for self-preservation and an ego which apparently vanish for most of the book in order to further the plot; Kev Sefton, the knight in shining armour and token nod to the existence of queer characters, goes on the hero’s quest for enlightenment, dumps a lot of exposition, and gets into a relationship in which he confides almost immediately every feature of his case in a dude he picked up in a bar. Sefton is described as having a posh accent that he slips into, of which there is no actual sign in the text.
I read stories for their characters first and foremost. A strong set of character voices is imperative in forming an emotional connection with the characters and in London Falling it is almost entirely absent. This is frustrating as all hell because there are some excellent ideas and some very solid world-building in here, but the overall tone of the book is cold. By comparison, the Rivers of London series provides a human warmth, set of weaknesses, and easy handle on all the human characters, and even the strange and esoteric creatures which pass through the world have glitches and points of interest.
There are other problems with the book, which ordinarily would have been nagging problems but not major ones: combined with the lack of character warmth and connectivity they became gaping. For example: in the Rivers of London books and Neverwhere, the fantastical London which lies within and through the London in which most people dwell is primarily neutral. It has its own laws, it can be extremely dangerous to those ignorant of them, but it is not malignant. In London Falling, the world which lies across ours is not fairyland, but Hell. The adversary of the overall arc of the Rivers of London books – and this is one of the things that really connected for me – is not a demon, not The Devil, but a human being who has become greedy for power. Something mundane, a form of evil with which we are all familiar, and which instead of excusing the greed and evil of mortal men by providing something bigger only underscores how rotten it is.
However, I can take fiction where the adversary is not mortal: in Neverwhere, Door and Richard Mayhew face a fallen angel, which is a pretty clear code for The Adversary in anyone’s eyes. In another of my favourite and not-exactly-well-written supernatural detective series, John Connolly’s Charlie Parker books, the adversary is again the lord of Hell: but the humanity of all its characters – including the grotesques – and the broadness and mundanity of the world, are preserved.
London Falling takes elements of traditional London storytelling: old Hob, a wicked witch, football legends, ghost stories, the power of the city, a hero’s vision quest, and the eternal copper. It lines them up together in a plot which makes good narrative sense and which hits all the major points at the right pace: but it feels both slow and rushed at the same time. The characters don’t speak from the heart, but are vehicles for the story, rather than driving it. There are times in which the narrative appears to be trying too hard to elicit a feeling that it doesn’t have the emotional vocabulary to instil; moments in which the reader feels more like the jaded coppers standing outside the horror with no connection than perhaps they ought.
Most of all, this doesn’t seem to have any love for the city in it. Rivers of London and Neverwhere, Memoirs of a Master Forger (William Heaney), among others, fairly throb with affection for the metropolis in which they’re set. The story has been coalesced from the sense of unreality and history and Something Bigger which I think affects almost anyone who spends much time here, looking at the past poking through the present in unexpected places and in incongruous ways. It is natural as breathing for any writer to look at London and think of the mystical past affecting the rational present. But Paul Cornell’s writing doesn’t betray any kind of love for his subject matter, and that I think is what really affects the tone of the book more than anything else.
The alternative London captured in his pages is Hell; the London Sefton enters via a number 7 with a London Charon is empty; the Londoners of our reality are aggressive and stupid and moved only by tabloid thinking; there is nothing but contempt and anger, and if that’s real sum of London I’d be surprised.
There are other ways to make a horrific story boil out of a city than by failing to appreciate the picture that its uglinesses and beauties give rise to, and I don’t think I’ll be expending money or energy on the sequels to this book.