Thursday, July 3, 2014

Book Review: London Falling

Sometimes your enjoyment of a thing is so wierdly subjective it's hard to parse. Usually, if I love a thing, or hate a thing, years of being opinionated spring into action and I can pretty well express what I liked, or what I didn't, even if its just a matter of being honest about having certain mental buttons pushed. Just today I've been feeling pretty snarky about the released pictures of next year's Batman v Superman movie, which is uncharacteristically mean-spirited of me, but at least I know why. (Its because I'm a little bored of grimdark re imaginings and the film - so far at least - sounds utterly joyless). But other times I struggle to put my finger on it, so a work can be both fascinating, and frustrating, for the wrong reasons.

Which brings me to Paul Cornell's London Falling. The opening novel in what is clearly intended to be a longer series. its the story of four police officers being dragged into the dark underside of a magical London, to fight and evil (as the book cover says) only they can see. As a core setup its pretty clever; the modern police procedural, the vast diversity that is London, and the weight of history that a more mystical and dangerous approach to magic can bring. And perhaps the biggest single problem with the book is that Ben Aaronovitch wrote it first.

And its an unfair comparison, actually. Rivers of London is doing a different thing, in a different way, and the comparisons are largely surface. Unfortunately, I think that surface came to matter to me; Peter Grant is a much more engaging central character, and Aaronvitch's prose is jokey and clever in a way that pushes buttons that Cornell's style doesn't. Objectively I think I like Aaronvitch more than I should, as much as liking Cornell less than it probably deserves. But like I say, it's a surface similarity, and as you go down, the differences are more pronounced.

London Falling has a lot of elements fighting for space, especially in it's early going. It's a smart move to have a bunch of characters who acquire their abilities a certain way in as they end up well established, and at odds with each other in a lot of ways, before circumstance forces them together. That disparate element is a central tension in the novel and I liked it all, especially as the perspectives shift around chapter to chapter. The main issue with the characters really was that there didn't seem to any I actually liked, at least until the books pretty clever last act twist.

That said I do wonder if the shifting perspectives is the reason the book lacks much in the way of flair - some pretty horrible things happen but the prose doesn't really lift them off the page. It's all a little too matter of fact in places, especially the really, really odd semi-flashback for the main villain which can't seem to decide if it's supposed to humanise her a bit (it really doesn't) or if it's just there to raise the stakes a bit. She's a cool villain otherwise though, unashamedly nasty and a nice modern take on "Witch" archetypes.

So in the end, I liked London Falling and I'll definitely get the follow up. I do worry (slightly) that part of the reason I feel slightly puzzled by it is that on paper I should have eaten it up and I can't quite work out why I didn't. Which is one of those "its not you, its me" moments and I can't call out the book for it!