After Rob Toshack, London crime boss, dies a horrific death while being interrogated, four members of the London Metropolitan Police Service encounter something in a crime scene that gives them the Sight. Transformed, they’re now able to access an entirely new London, one that’s more dangerous than they ever thought possible.
Paul Cornell’s latest novel London Falling is a fast-paced police procedural with a twist: it’s also a clever urban fantasy novel that brings in all manner of the paranormal to policing. It’s a book that balances both genres superbly, and it’s one that’s hard to put down.
Following a sting operation, officers Quinn, Constain, Ross and Sefton find themselves with paranormal powers. An occultist version of London appears before them: they see ghosts, remnants of the past, and most importantly, a suspect that adds a new dimension onto the case on which they’ve been working. With this new power, they do the only thing that they know how to do: tackle the problem with their tools and knowledge as police officers. The team finds themselves after Mora Losley, a centuries-old witch who has a penchant for the West Ham United football club, and child sacrifices. Helping out mobsters like Toshack, she’s existed in a state of revenge for centuries, using her skills and craft for horrific evil and longevity.
Cornell, who’s worked in the comics, television and literary markets, has been named a triple threat by George R.R. Martin, and it’s easy to see why: London Falling is a deceptively easy novel to start, before he cranks up the pressure, delivering an impressive story that’s complex, emotional and quite a bit of fun to read.
Cornell’s phantom London is a fascinating place, bringing the book into such company with China Miéville’s Kraken and Neil Gaiman’sAmerican Gods. There are deep magical roots to the city, wholly dependent upon the memories, perceptions and actions of its citizens. Ghosts patrol the sites where they lost their lives; invisible ships travel up and down the Thames, and if you get onto certain buses, you’ll end up in an entirely different world. Cornell weaves this all together in a breathtakingly fresh manner, and it’s quite a bit more interesting than most of the typical urban fantasy and high fantasy magical systems that you’ll see on bookshelves today.
As vivid and interesting as the world is, however, the novel’s greatest strength lies in its characters: Quinn, a cop with a strained home life, Ross, whose father was killed by Toshack, Costain, an undercover cop looking to run and escape, and Sefton, a closeted gay man with his own demons to battle. Apart, they’re a dysfunctional group with their own issues to sort out. The Sight gives them a collective purpose: put down Losley and end her terrible acts that have sustained her for so long. The quartet work through the problems of paranormal powers logically, figuring out the world around them, working out the tools that they can use, all before working to apprehend their suspect.
Memory, in a lot of ways, is the central focus to London Falling. The idea of a collective memory defining a central location is a strong one, and in a place such as London, with its very deep history is a place where stories can literally come alive, so long as enough people believe it’s true. It’s a neat thought, one that sets the book apart from the rest of the pack.There are points where this book is genuinely horrifying and gut wrenching. Losley sacrifices three young children, and their fates alternatively repulsed and riveted me to the book. More frightening than the immediate murders is her proclivity for messing with people’s memories. Not only do the parents of the children over her reign not know that their children have been horribly murdered, they can’t even remember having children in the first place. It’s a terrifying thought.
Cornell does an excellent job putting thought behind the power, and this is a book that gets better and better as you read it, all while blending a story that’s equal parts fantasy and detective thriller. While parts of it seem slightly odd on the surface: witches sacrificing children to punish football players, it comes together in utterly top form, and kept us at the edge of our seats right up to the last page. London Falling succeeds at this wonderfully, and already, we can’t wait for its sequel, The Severed Streets, which will be out in December in the UK.