Friday, 28 December 2012

London Falling, by Paul Cornell

Opening London Falling reminded me of how out of practice I am at reading fiction; it took a while to reaccustom myself to looking for indications of character and absorbing detail. Befitting a police procedural, there is a lot to take in and a lot which is unfamiliar to the uninitiated. The same is true of the fantasy-horror genre to which London Falling also belongs. Its protagonists - DI Jimmy Quill, intelligence analyst Lisa Ross and undercover constables Sefton and Costain - are also on a learning curve, and most of their first investigation consists of them finding their depth in the sea of magic which underpins the novel's London. Paul Cornell's worldbuilding is as dependent upon London mythology - specifically that of West Ham United Football Club - as it is on the culture of the Metropolitan Police, and it's an author's right and perhaps also obligation to refashion and add to both as necessary. If footballers start exploding, be afraid.

London Falling features concerns familiar from Paul's earlier work, but demonstrates a more mature understanding. There's a stronger grasp of how the historical process shapes mythology; the reader is (gently and then pointedly) asked to consider what this does to the identity of a person who lives for a very long time, feeding from an ever-changing society from the margins. Concepts less than half a century old, such as the Hammersmith and City Line and a Greater London of thirty-three boroughs, are ritually invoked in the name of tradition. His police protagonists ask questions about their own understanding of themselves as well as the organised crime case which brings the Sight (second and more) to them, but they are rationalists throughout, two characters in particular laying emphasis in different ways on the application of the scientific method to the supposedly irrational. There are preoccupations about intimidation, particularly school bullying and 'discipline' among criminals, but also how accent expresses not only locality and social class but also tribalism and individual or collective self-respect and self-loathing.

This is self-consciously the first novel in a series. Several important threads belong to a wider arc. The conclusion to the main plot, though satisfying, horrific but true to the characters concerned, reveals a larger mystery; and the epilogue opens a long barrow of backstory. The origins of what the back cover blurb calls the Shadow Police novels are traced in the author's afterword to a television series proposal put together under the auspices of Steven Moffat and Sue and Beryl Vertue, and there are times when one really wants to see what actors would make of the protagonists. There's a viscerality to this magical underworld which leaves the mind's camera foaming with blood and dollying precariously over bridges of soil. Watch out, also, for a very personable cat.

London Falling is a confident book, one of those adventure stories with some thought. There's a conjuring trick underway for most of the book hidden in plain sight which is achieved with some force. Only occasionally is there anxiety that characterisation has been compromised by the need to make authorial preoccupations too concrete. Resolution is achieved, but not closure; there are boxes still to open, darknesses to be charted, and diminutive entities to be punched against the wall of the Rotherhithe Tunnel. Quill, Ross, Sefton and Costain deserve their chance.

London Falling by Paul Cornell is published in the UK by Tor at a RRP of £12.99.

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