London Falling by Paul Cornell
Idiomatic English is great fun because, in a colourful way, it follows its own kind of logic to communicate meaning. So, for example, we have the conventional verb “to urinate” but offer coarser alternatives like “to piss”. Hence, the past participle “pissed” means the individual has consumed sufficient alcohol that there’s an heightened need to urinate. Or to “piss someone off”. . . well you wouldn’t be very pleased if someone pissed on you, that would get your goat (which I’ve always thought should be Satanic and be associated with the preparations for conducting a ritual sacrifice). All of which brings me to the question of tone. In a review like this, it’s perfectly acceptable to use words like “piss” or “goat” because I’m being vaguely academic and, in that social context, the writer can use more explicit language. Connecting goats with the concept of sacrifice usually means we’re into the supernatural and there are certain linguistic conventions readers expect authors to apply to create the atmosphere for chills and thrills. . .
So here comes London Falling by Paul Cornell (Tor, 2013) which is labelled “dark fantasy”. This does not, of course, make it “horror” although elements may have a similar effect on readers. It also could have pretension to be “urban fantasy” because it takes place in London which is, well, urban. So what we have is a police procedural which, inadvertently, happens to be investigating some supernatural events which, because the police officers have rational minds, they do not consider possible and are therefore not investigating. Note the cunning use of paradox here. No police officers worth their salt investigate something they do not consider possible. Until they are confronted by evidence of their own insanity, i.e. the evidence of their eyes suggests the impossible is all too possible. Under such circumstances, what would you do? Well you could begin by pissing on the witch’s soil. That tends to get her pissed off, i.e. it breaks the spell by contaminating the medium through which she projects her power. That was just a lucky shot, of course. Usually the scientific method requires experimenters to engage in multiple efforts at trial and error to prove the effect. It was just a lucky shot that senior police officers usually express their contempt for criminals and the laws that protect them by dropping their pants and pissing on them. Doing what comes naturally is usually the right thing to do.
All of which should indicate my serious dilemma about this book. At one level, there a tremendous amount of invention at work. Some of the detail is wonderful to behold and the way the plot works out is objectively pleasing. In other words, I should be hailing this as one of the best books in the dark or urban fantasy genre. What, you should be demanding of me, do you expect of a police procedural that suddenly dumps three ordinary coppers and a research analyst into a lot of supernatural shit? Of course it’s messy and they flounder around desperately trying to develop theories about how all the magic works and what they can do to protect themselves from it. That’s what you should expect and the book is actually being very realistic in exploring how rational people deal with irrationality. Except. . . Except I don’t think the tone of the book hits the mark. I find it all very interesting and not in the slightest alarming, let alone frightening. So here’s the question back at you. If an author and the publicity machine behind him broadcasts the nature of the book as supernatural fantasy tinged with horror, should the reader not feel a frisson, no matter how slight, of fear?
Perhaps I’m just getting too old. Perhaps my sensibilities have just been numbed by reading all these books. But I don’t find any of what happens in this book even faintly thrilling. I’m impressed by the skill of the narrative construction. I admire the prose Paul Cornell has produced. But, for me, it doesn’t create the advertised effect. Indeed, at times, I was faintly amused and, once or twice, annoyed by the slight jokiness of conflating the supernatural with football (not the American type). For the record, I’m even remotely a football fan. I’ve never actually been to a football match. It just doesn’t strike me as a healthy premise for a dark fantasy book to base everything on fervent support for West Ham, a London club. I understand the passions raised by the game allow the writer to explore structures of memory and myth, but such trivial interests have no resonance for me. As a final thought, those of you who prefer not to read books which have children victimised should give this a miss. Fortunately most of the animals survive (apart from a few pigs in an explanatory flashback). So London Falling may well be your cup of tea. If so, I wish you well.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.