Saturday, 20 February 2016

Is Anyone Else Obsessed With Magical London or is it Just Me?

I really think I should talk about books more. The thing is, I am not a great book reviewer. If I like a book, and I mean really like a book, I am hard-pressed to do anything more than babble about HOW MUCH I like it. To paraphrase a line from Caitlin Moran's How to Build a Girl, I'm an enthusiast, not a critic. That said, I started this blog largely for my own amusement, and as such it's my space, and I can babble incoherently as much as I like. Hopefully, you might be into the same stuff as me, and we can babble together. If not, don't say you weren't warned.

My favourite stories are fantasy; urban fantasy to be more specific. And to be even more specific, the kind of urban fantasy that suggests (whether subtly and slyly, or in-your-face boldly) that the world of magic exists just outside, or just alongside ours, like the flipside of a coin, and that the act of stepping from one to the other might be so simple as to be almost overlooked. That something so small as a change in the light, a crack in the pavement, an alleyway you've never seen before, could open up one's eyes to possibilities - and dangers - bigger and stranger and wilder than you ever dreamed about.

I have a particular fondness for paranormal and magical takes on cities, alternate Londons most of all. Partly because I love London - of all the cities I have ever set foot in it remains quite possibly the strangest; not the prettiest, or the most glamorous, but the quirkiest, and it has been a goal of mine for quite some time to explore it more and spend more time there - and partly because a decade or so ago I was in a bad mood, and took myself to the bookshop, and bought a book called Neverwhere on a whim. It was the first book I ever read by Neil Gaiman, and whilst it may not appeal to everyone, and it may not be perfect, it was everything I could possibly have wanted in a story and remains so to this day.

Neverwhere set me on a personal quest to find and devour every book about alternate Londons that I could possibly find, and I feel I've been making good headway. (However, I still live in hope that one day someone might write a Field Guide to London Below. Hint hint, Mr. Gaiman.) I thought, in the spirit of starting to blog more about books (and fangirling like a loon, as per usual), I'd start with a rundown of my favourite alternate Londons, and I'd be delighted if you guys could recommend me some of yours (other cities also welcome!).

1. Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman.
Obviously. (I am wearing my Old Bailey's Birds and Information T-shirt as I write this.) There's also a graphic novel, TV series (which preceded the book, but the book's better), radio dramatisation, a sequel short story (How the Marquis Got His Coat Back), even a range of Neverwhere-inspired perfumes from Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab.

"Under the streets of London there's a world most people could never even dream of. A city of monsters and saints, murderers and angels, and pale girls in black velvet. Richard Mayhew is a young businessman who is about to find out more than he bargained for about this other London."

2. Kraken by China Mieville.
The first book by this author I happened to stumble across in a secondhand bookstore - immediately I was hooked, and have been collecting Mieville's 'New Weird' works ever since. This one starts with an incident of squid theft.

"Deep in the research wing of the Natural History Museum is a prize specimen, something that comes along much less often than once in a lifetime: a perfect, and perfectly preserved, giant squid. But what does it mean when the creature suddenly and impossibly disappears? For curator Billy Harrow it's the start of a headlong pitch into a London of warring cults, surreal magic, apostates and assassins."

3. A Madness of Angels by Kate Griffin.
I have a bit of a character crush on Matthew Swift. I'm pretty sure he wouldn't appreciate it, but it's not going away. Also, I love, love, love Kate Griffin's incredibly visual, descriptive writing style. And the concept of urban sorcerers. Almost perfect, IMO.

"Enter a London where magicians ride the Last Train, implore favours of The Beggar King and interpret the insane wisdom of The Bag Lady. Enter a London where beings of power soar with the pigeons and scrabble with the rats, and seek insight in the half-whispered madness of the blue electric angels. Enter the London of Matthew Swift, where rival sorcerers, hidden in plain sight, do battle for the very soul of the city . . ."

4. Sixty-One Nails by Mike Shevdon.
A magic London. With faeries. Thank you, Mike Shevdon.

"Sixty-One Nails follows Niall Petersen, from a suspected heart attack on the London Underground, into the hidden world of the Feyre, an uncanny place of legend that lurks just beyond the surface of everyday life."

5. Fated by Benedict Jacka.
If anyone can point me in the direction of a fanfic wherein Alex Verus meets Matthew Swift, that'd be GREAT.

"In the heart of Camden, where rail meets road meets leyline, you might find the Arcana Emporium, run by one Alex Verus. He won't sell you a wand or mix you a potion, but if you know what you're looking for, he might just be able to help. That's if he's not too busy avoiding his would-be apprentice, foiling the Dark, outwitting the Light, and investigating a mysterious relic that has just turned up at the British Museum."

6. Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch (sold as Midnight Riot in the US).
To be honest, I am such a magical London fanatic that I snatched this off the bookshelf based on the title alone. It was in the fantasy section. The title had the word 'London' in it. I hate to use the phrase 'no-brainer', but it really was.

"I'm a Detective Constable and a trainee wizard, the first apprentice in fifty years, and my world has become somewhat more complicated: nests of vampires in Purley, negotiating a truce between the warring god and goddess of the Thames, and digging up graves in Covent Garden ... and there's something festering at the heart of the city I love, a malicious vengeful spirit that takes ordinary Londoners and twists them into grotesque mannequins to act out its drama of violence and despair."

7. Un Lun Dun by China Mieville.
I've read some really mixed reviews for this book. It's aimed at perhaps a younger audience than some of the others, but I really liked it. It's good fun. I especially liked the 'bookaneers' - adventurous extreme librarians hunting down lost books.

"Zanna and Deeba are two girls leading ordinary lives, until they stumble into the world of UnLondon, an urban Wonderland where all the lost and broken things of London end up . . . and some of its lost and broken people too."

8. The City's Son by Tom Pollock.
An excellent debut, rich in detail. Again, perhaps aimed more at a YA audience but I really enjoyed some of the ideas.

"Hidden under the surface of everyday London is a city of monsters and miracles, where wild train spirits stampede over the tracks and glass-skinned dancers with glowing veins light the streets. When a devastating betrayal drives her from her home, graffiti artist Beth Bradley stumbles into the secret city, where she finds Filius Viae, London's ragged crown prince, just when he needs someone most."

Honourable Mentions and Not-Quite-Londons:

The Narrows by James Brogden
This is set in Birmingham, but other than that *ahem* minor detail, it fits in so well on this list I couldn't not mention it. Tantalisingly surreal; well worth a look.

"There are places where the skin of the world is thin. Here, miracles walk the streets, and nightmares haunt the alleyways. Bex belongs to a hidden society of misfits, homeless, and runaways who live in the Narrows - the hidden paths that lie behind even the darkest of alleyways."

Dream London by Tony Ballantyne.
I liked this, but not as much as I wanted to. The characterisation wasn't great and the ending failed to satisfy (although I note that a sequel, Dream Paris, has just popped up, so that might help). However, it's fun, clever and very entertaining.

"Captain Jim Wedderburn has looks, style and courage by the bucketful. He's adored by women, respected by men and feared by his enemies. He s the man to find out who has twisted london into this strange new world, and he knows it. But in Dream London the city changes a little every night and the people change a little every day."

King Rat by China Mieville.
Mr. Mieville clearly likes his alternate Londons. This is his debut novel, and whilst I thoroughly enjoyed it - a nicely grimy take on the magic city - I didn't like it as much as the other two Mievilles that did make my hotlist.

"Something is stirring in London’s dark, stamping out its territory in brickdust and blood. Something has murdered Saul’s father, and left Saul to pay for the crime. In the night-land behind London’s fa├žade, in sewers and slums and rotting dead spaces, Saul must learn his true nature."

London Falling by Paul Cornell.
I got this for Chistmas! It is most often compared to Rivers of London since it's heavy on the police procedural, but it's much, much darker and genuinely scary. Personally, not as whimsical as I like my fantasy to be, but that's only a matter of taste.

"As the group starts to see London’s sinister magic for themselves, they have two choices: panic or use their new abilities. Then they must hunt a terrifying supernatural force the only way they know how: using police methods, equipment and tactics."

So - what would you add to this list? Can't wait to hear what you guys recommend! :)


  1. A fine book set in Magical Brighton featuring elves, werewolves and all manner o'strange beasties:

    1. Ah excellent! Thank you! I love Brighton, it's s great town so I'll definitely check these out! :D

  2. I was frustrated that I read Neverwhere (the comic version) after going to London as I could have travelled around the underground and pretended I was going around London Underground. I love real world fantasy because I have to believe there is magic in this world!

    1. Oh my gosh, absolutely same! If I had to believe that what we see is all there is I think I'd be miserable.

  3. Wooow, I really like this genre too, so I wrote down almost all the titles (shame on me, I never read even one on this list!). I have to admit, though, that I find Mieville's english difficult. I read The City & the City and while I really liked the idea, I had to struggle a bit to understand everything.

    1. Ooh I hope you enjoy them :) yes I know what you mean about Mieville, I don't know another writer who could be accused of overusing the word 'palimpsest'! I think that's why I prefer Kraken and Un Lun Dun to some of his others; the language is a touch easier to follow IMO.

  4. On my to-read list I have a book called Street Magic by Caitlin Kittredge, but I worry I'll never get to it.

    1. That's on my Amazon wishlist (and has been for some time >.< ). If you do get to it before me, let me know how you find it!

  5. I would love to visit London, England and the rest of the United Kingdom one day (particularly great Britain, Scotland, Ireland and wales maybe see if I could find any places my ancestors from England, Scotland and Ireland lived in. You may like Canada :)

    Anyway, I hope to have that YouTube link ready by the weekend :)

    1. Thanks :)

      Canada is defo on my list of interesting places to visit.

  6. Hi Amy,

    Just wondering if you have ever read the glorious 'Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell', by Susanna Clarke? - Magical London at its very finest! (plus magical Yorkshire and wicked fairies!)
    I would highly recommend it!

    1. Hello!
      I have indeed, although not for a long time - must dig up a copy for a re-read! Thanks for the suggestion :)

  7. Those books sound like something I would as well enjoy reading if I had enough time on my hands (and finished my horribly huge pile of books that are already waiting for their first read XD)

    1. I have a book pile too >.< what's in yours, if I may ask? *is nosy*


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