TITLE: London Falling (Shadow Police #1)
AUTHOR: Paul Cornell
GENRE: Fiction, Urban Fantasy, Thriller
PUBLISHED: February 24, 2014
PURCHASE LINKS: Amazon
MOBILISM LINK: Mobilism
When I first decided to pick up Paul Cornell's London Falling, I did so because it was blurbed by Ben Aaronovitch, author of the Peter Grant series of urban fantasy novels and one of my favourite authors in the genre. However, I also did so with some trepidation because I was worried that Cornell's book would read too much like a clone of Aaronovitch's novels.
Fortunately, I need not have worried: London Falling is the farthest thing from a clone of Aaronovitch’s series. First in Cornell's Shadow Police series, it starts off with a drug bust: DI James Quill and his team have worked for years to bring in the notorious drug smuggler and dealer Robert Toshack, and he is this close to finally putting Toshack behind bars. But then, things go awry and Toshack is murdered - right under Quill’s nose, while in custody. This puts Quill on the warpath: he is determined to find out who killed Toshack, and how this mystery person (or persons) managed to do it. To that end, he brings in analyst Lisa Ross and undercover agents Tony Costain and Kevin Sefton, who worked on the Toshack case along with him (though Ross was never on the field). Though they chafe at each other’s company, they all know that if they want to find out what happened to Toshack, they’ll have to work together.
But what happened to Toshack is far more complicated than it seems. It turns out that Toshack had some very, very dark dealings with an entity wielding terrifying powers, and when Quill and his team brush up against that entity they find themselves changed by the encounter in ways none of them could have predicted. In the aftermath, they realise that they can either run for the hills - or finish this Toshack business once and for all. And in choosing to do the latter, they come up against a world they know absolutely nothing about - and powers that could kill them, and everything they hold dear.
The first thing I noticed about London Falling is the setting, which reminds me of British crime dramas like Luther. This is exemplified by the first two paragraphs of the novel:
Costain entered the service station and stopped when he saw Quill standing there, not even pretending to look at the chocolate bars displayed in front of him. Costain headed for the toilets, and Quill immediately followed, as if he didn’t care who noticed. Costain made astonished eye contact with him just before the door, turning to take in the SUVs he’d left on the forecourt outside, with Mick and Lazlo currently filling up the first two vehicles with diesel. No, nobody was watching. He closed the toilet door behind him.
They stood in the cubicle, with the door bolted: the seat gone, the toilet bowl blocked, everything smelling of shit, a single bulb making it al ghostly white. The cold made their breath bloom around them.
The above excerpt does two things. First, it sets the tone for the rest of the story: hard, grimy, and (though I am leery of using this particular term) edgy. The tone carries through the rest of the book - it is serious and almost devoid of levity, and though I say “almost,” any moments of hilarity to be found in this book are generally tinted dark, or some variant of gallows humour. It is the dry kind of humour the British prefer, to be sure, but it has a grim edge to it that I was not quite expecting. That’s not a bad thing, of course, just that it was not quite what I was expecting, even when comparing it to the dark humour of American urban fantasy novels like Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files books.
The second thing the excerpt does is to drop the reader into the world with the story already running. Now, while there is nothing wrong with this sort of “sink or swim” approach to storytelling, it does mean that the reader will find himself or herself floundering a bit until he or she finds her feet in the story - which can take a while, depending on the story itself. In the case of this novel, the reader does not really find any firm ground until some three or four chapters in, though familiarity with British crime procedurals may make things a bit easier.
Still, there is something about the opening of this story that reminds me, and likely other readers, of a certain television show, especially in the way the story is told. The narrative has a tendency to jump between character points-of-view even within the same scene, reminiscent of various film editing techniques applied widely in the making of movies and TV shows. The chapters themselves feel a bit like the episodes on a TV series, each one beginning and ending at a specific narrative point that renders the chapter self-contained, to a degree, while leaving just enough hanging to encourage the reader to keep going.
But while this sort of style might work well in a visual medium like TV, it can be difficult to control in a written medium like a novel. Though the author has clearly done his best to keep the narrative coherent, there are times, especially when a scene is told from multiple points-of-view, that I get a vague sense of whiplash from all the jumping around between characters’ viewpoints and mindsets. This would not matter so much in a TV show or movie, but it can be a bit confusing when reading a novel. This means that what might otherwise be a coherent storyline feels more fragmented and incoherent than it needs to be, and forces the reader to work harder than he or she needs to in order to keep the story together in his or her head.
This is quite a pity, as leaving that particular narrative flaw aside, the story and characters are absolutely fascinating. Instead of one protagonist, there are four: a ragtag team of misfits who must go up against an evil they know nothing about. Even more interesting, those four characters do not start out liking each other in the least; instead, they grow into each other as the novel progresses. I like this take on urban fantasy - not only because it’s different from other books in the genre, but also because it opens up a different set of character interactions and development that does not otherwise exist in other urban fantasy novels. I find it rather nice to read about a team of people working together to combat supernatural shenanigans, instead of yet another lone wolf trying to contain all these dark secrets by himself or herself.
And speaking of supernatural shenanigans, this novel’s take on the supernatural world is just as interesting as the characters who band together to combat it. In most urban fantasy stories, magic - and the creatures and entities associated with it - is not entirely a bad thing. While there are some genuinely evil entities, almost anyone and anything associated with magic is largely “grey”: Neutral, if I may frame this according to the Dungeons and Dragons alignment table. This means that even when the protagonist uses magic, the reader is inclined to view it as a tool, instead of as something far more dangerous.
In London Falling, however, magic is not grey at all - or if it is grey, then it is a darker shade of grey than I’ve ever read about in other stories from the same genre. Magic is a dangerous, sharp-edged thing, and only those who are willing to pay the price - or have nothing left to lose - can use it at all.
This is, in its own way, tied to the themes of this novel. There is plenty here that a keen reader will be able to spot and pick up, but if this novel is about anything, specifically, it’s about the power of change - and how stopping it may do more harm than good, as the following excerpt suggests:
“… It is time that defines whether something is real or not. Time is what makes what people experience a tragedy or a love story or a triumph. Hell is where time has stopped, where there’s no more innovation. No horizon. No change. I sometimes think Hell would suit the British down to the ground, and that, given the chance, they’d vote for it. You’d better make sure they never get the chance, eh?”
Leaving aside that little poke at the British people’s inability to accept change as it comes, the excerpt - and the novel as a whole - does say something interesting about how accepting change is vital, not only to individuals but to entire countries, entire cultures as a whole. The world does not stay still, after all, and being able to move along with it is important to not only for survival but for thriving in it too. Trying to avoid change - or, worse, stop it altogether - is how we get the oppressive and repressive regimes currently running the world at the moment, from the Orange Marmot in the White House to the Erstwhile Mayor in Malacañan Palace. It is how, in essence, we find ourselves living in hell.
Overall, London Falling is a fun urban fantasy read, despite being rather darker than other novels in the genre. The four protagonists at the heart of this novel are all flawed, broken people, and they don’t like each other off the bat, but reading about them coming together and growing as a result of their work together is really what makes this book so enjoyable to read. The novel’s take on magic is also interesting, not least because it is a much darker and harder view than is portrayed in other urban fantasy novels. Despite these good points, however, readers may find that the novel’s narrative style hinders their ability to really get to know the world and the characters, which diminishes the pleasure they may gain from reading this book. I hope the other books in the series are not as prone to giving the readers point-of-view whiplash as this one does.