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The Severed Streets by Paul Cornell

November 14, 2014 2 comments

The Severed Streets

There are times you read a book and you know in your bones there’s a good story in the content, but it’s buried and left unfulfilled. Well, The Severed Streets by Paul Cornell (Tor, 2014) Shadow Police 2, is just such a book. Following on from London Falling, our team of four are doing their best to adjust to the reality of their newly acquired supernatural powers. So, if you wanted a thumbnail sketch of the book, this is a dark fantasy grafted on to a police procedural. In theory, this is a good blend because stolid and, up to the moment their eyes are literally opened to the “reality” around them, reliable police officers (plus one intelligence analyst). Suddenly they have to adjust their thinking to accommodate the “impossible”.

In this case, we have a beastie on the loose which may be the original Jack the Ripper or a new incarnation of some sort that wants the world to label him or her as a modern version of Jack. Either way, this razor-wielding creature literally passes through walls and the sides of motorcars, hacking away at the white powerful men inside. Ah yes, you noticed the difference. Instead of killing prostitutes, this modern Jack has a completely different agenda. At this point, it’s appropriate to point out the have-your-cake-and-eat-it approach of the author. I don’t mind him creating characters who can see a different version of reality as an overlay on the London around them, but I strenuously reject the idea that this alternate reality could be captured by digital cameras and then viewed by our “sighted” heroes. Supernatural powers vested in an individual by an accidental exposure to a trigger give the sight. Digital cameras, no matter how advanced their design, cannot see supernatural events and, if they could record them, they would presumably then be visible to all viewers.

Paul Cornell

Paul Cornell

It’s this kind of annoying lack of logic that bedevils the book. That and the fact it’s badly overwritten in the first third so that the pace is leaden and the development of scenes interminably boring, e.g. in the pub called the Goat and Compass. There’s also one other seriously odd element. In historical mysteries, it’s relatively common for real-world characters to appear. This is the first time I can remember a living person featuring as a character. In this case, we meet Neil Gaiman who proves to have an important role to play as the plot develops. Of course, Paul Cornell asked Neil Gaiman for permission and got approval for the use of his name. For some, I suppose, this adds an extra frisson of excitement. I thought it a dissonant note. If you are writing fiction with a dark fantasy twist, including a real person as a player is crossing the line between fiction and reality. I don’t think it works at all.

That said, the basic plot is sound with a nicely balanced threat to destabilise London as an excuse for imposing a little more order — the usual right-wing conspiracy theory made real by a man able to manipulate the zeitgeist and hack into dreams to see where there may be problems to solve. Some of this works really well as we progress into the second third of the book and the pace picks up. There are stresses and strains on the group of four police officers, and one inadvertently finds a very original way of interviewing the key characters who can speak truth and out the villain of the piece. So I’m faced with a minor problem. Because it finishes strongly, I could deem the whole a success. Or I could declare the flaws to be sufficiently serious that I cannot recommend the book. On balance, with some reservations, I think there’s enough good to make The Severed Streets worth reading. Perhaps more importantly, it’s been left in a very interesting position so the next book in the series will be starting off from a good position.

For a review of the first in the series, see London Falling.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

London Falling by Paul Cornell

LondonFallingUS

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) the first in the Shadow Police series 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.

Pau Cornell a writer and possible football fan

Pau Cornell a writer and possible football fan

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.

For a review of the sequel, see The Severed Streets.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

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