Tag Archives: urban fantasy

London Lit: Neverwhere

I can’t believe how long it’s taken me to finally get around to writing this entry. If I’m going to be meta about it, this is actually one of the first entries I planned to write, and that must have been, what, two and a half years ago? Daaaamn.

So yeah, Neverwhere. One of the best-known works of urban fantasy and one of the best-known London novels, I think I’m being fair when I say these things. Neil Gaiman’s first novel and my personal favourite.

The story is fairly simple – our protagonist is the slightly Arthur Dent-esque Richard Mayhew, a relative newcomer to London. One day he comes across what he thinks is a wounded homeless girl and offers to help her, only to swiftly and unwittingly find himself drawn into a bizarre and fantastical version of the city existing below and around our own – London Below. Worse, the girl – Door – is being pursued by a couple of bizarre and apparently time-travelling assassins. And so we find outselves journeying through London-as-filtered-through-Neil-Gaiman’s-brain.

If any of you saw the superb Gaiman-penned Doctor Who episode, ‘The Doctor’s Wife,’ you’ll recognise the hallmarks. Strange people living in a thrown-together world and plenty of whiplash between scary and funny. If it was a movie, it would probably be directed by Tim Burton. Hence we get bizarre scenes like the visit to Earl’s Court. That is to say, an actual Court held by an Earl. A medieval court on an Underground train. There’s also an Angel called Islington and an order of Black Friars. Oh, and you get to learn the real reason why you should Mind the Gap.

For those of you familiar with the history and mythology surrounding the city, there’s even more. From abandoned Tube stations to a throwaway reference to Gog and Magog (blink and you’ll miss it), it’s very clear that Gaiman’s done his homework in researching his fantasy world.

My first exposure to the phenomenon, oddly enough, was not via the book. It was over a decade ago, on TV. You see, Neverwhere was originally developed as a fantasy TV series at the behest of none other than Lenny Henry. This was long before the revival of Doctor Who, and so the general attitude towards fantasy on TV was that it was all a little bit silly. As a result, the whole thing looks a bit cheap and naff. Which is a pity, because it’s really not. There is some superb location filming, including the use of Battersea Power Station, HMS Belfast, Down Street Station and the old Post Office Underground. The cast features some interesting before-they-were-famous faces, including Paterson Joseph, Tamsin Greig and Peter Capaldi (as the aforementioned Angel Islington). It was a bit weird, to be sure, but it piqued my curiosity and I went out and bought the book. And I was hooked. I’m told that the version in print today differs somewhat from that 1997 publication, so I should probably buy the new one as well. Not that I’m a fanboy or anything.

It’s not the only urban fantasy set in London, nor is it even the first. But it is perhaps the best-known and tends to be very highly rated – China Miéville, for instance, lists it as an influence on his own London fantasies.  I think the reason for its success is that it never takes itself too seriously.  The characters are strange, often scary, but strangely likeable – I want to see more of the sinister Croup and Vandemar, for a start.

As I say, Gaiman is clearly familiar with the folklore and history of London, but you don’t need to be in order to enjoy the book. It’s my experience that a lot of the more well-read authors want you to know just how clever they are and their work suffers as a result. In the case of Neverwhere, a passing familiarity with the city will see you just fine. And having read it, you may want to increase that familiarity.

That’s a thought – has anyone ever done a Neverwhere tour?

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Filed under 20th Century, Film and TV, Islington, Literature, London, London Underground, Occult, Paranormal, Psychogeography

You’re Kraken me up

Ah, lazy bank holiday weekend, I’ve been celebrating with a substantial fried breakfast and heinous amounts of coffee. Be still, my beating heart – and it probably will. But that’s not what I’m here to talk about.

I’ve just finished reading China Miéville’s Kraken, his most recent work of urban fantasy, you see. It’s taken me a while – I do, as I think I have said before, have a reading list as long as my arm.

I’ve talked about Miéville before in these pages, but to sum up – he’s a fantasy author with something of a cult following who writes work set primarily in an urban environment. Kraken, like his earlier works Un Lun Dun and King Rat, is set in a strange alternate fantasy version of London.

Our protagonist is Billy Harrow, a curator at the Natural History Museum. One morning, he discovers that one of the Museum’s star exhibits, a preserved giant squid in a tank, has vanished without trace. Almost immediately, Billy finds himself dragged into an utterly bizarre underworld of cults and magic, the target of a police unit dedicated to investigating weirdness, a church that worships the Kraken and a gang leader who happens to be a living tattoo. Oh, and the Apocalypse is coming. Make that Apocalypses.

What I would say marks this book out among Miéville’s work is the fun he has with it. He did have a few laughs in Un Lun Dun, but like so many adult fantasy authors who try to break into kids’ books, they came across as forced. Kraken, on the other hand, is written with a kind of 2000AD sensibility, a real sense of deliciously black humour. We are introduced to the Londonmancers, magicians who might best be described as pro-active psychogeographers. The Tattoo’s henchmen are the Knuckleheads, whose name is rather more literal than you might expect. Wati, an ally of the protagonist, is a spirit who can manifest in any statue or carving, right down to a Captain Kirk action figure. And there’s the rather disturbing question of what actually happens when you teleport a person…

For someone who’s made his name subverting the fantasy genre (he once described J R R Tolkien as “a wen on the arse of fantasy literature”), the author does get a lot of mileage out of playing with clichés. The best (and funniest) example of this might be when the foul-mouthed police magician Collingwood goes after Wati using spirits literally created out of copper stereotypes (“bring this little toerag in, overtime, nonce, slag, guv, sarge, proceedin long the eye street”).

This is London fantasy in the grand tradition of Neverwhere – Miéville has acknowledged his debt to Neil Gaiman in the past, and in particular has noted the similarities between Kraken’s Goss and Subby and Neverwhere’s Croup and Vandemar. However, unlike many works of London fantasy, this one plays off the incoherence of the city – the fact that London cannot simply be summed up according to any particular mythology or structure, that it’s many different places coexisting at once, perceived in many different ways by many different people.

As a Miéville book, it’s much more lightweight than most of his other work. If it has a major fault, it’s that there is perhaps too much going on – so much is thrown in by way of crazy ideas and characters that it’s hard to track down the central core of the book. When the big revelation comes at the end, it doesn’t make you think, “Of course! Why didn’t I realise that?” so much as it makes you think, “Eh? Where did that come from?”

In short, if you’re hoping for another The City and The City, you’ll be disappointed. But if you’re looking for a work of urban fantasy that’s intelligent and gripping and doesn’t take itself too seriously, then it comes highly recommended from me, for what that’s worth.

Here’s to the upcoming release of Embassytown…

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Filed under Literature, London, Occult, Paranormal, Psychogeography

Unseeing for beginners

I’ve just finished reading a rather interesting novel. I have a reading list as long as my arm (though admittedly, I don’t have very long arms and I’m not including my collarbone or hand in that estimate), so it’s quite nice to actually read something simply for enjoyment. I miss doing that.

The book in question was The City and the City by China Mieville. This is a slightly bizarro novel that’s rather hard to categorise. Inevitably, it’s shelved under ‘Fantasy,’ because China Mieville is a fantasy author and therefore is not allowed to write in any other genre. But it’s not really fantastical. It’s set in a fictional place, true, but so was Hard Times. Beyond that, though, there’s no magic and no monsters – like the Gormenghast trilogy, it seems to be counted as fantasy whether it deserves it or not. Meanwhile, Salman Rushdie includes magic and demons and ghosts but is not fantasy. Go figure.

The book is set in two fictional city-states – the vaguely East European Beszel (which should be written with accents) and the vaguely Middle Eastern Ul Qoma. These cities are very different, culturally and economically. Beszel is in a slump, while Ul Qoma is an up-and-coming power. Beszel enjoys a friendly relationship with the USA, while Ul Qoma is blockaded. Ul Qomans and Besz wear different clothes, use different alphabets, eat different food, speak different languages, even the way they walk and gesture differs between the two cities. And to be in the wrong city without a permit will bring down the wrath of Breach, a sinister and mysterious police force – if you’ve breached, there is no measure that is not in their power to use against you.

But here’s where things get weird – Ul Qoma and Beszel occupy the same space. Certain areas belong to one city, and others to the other. Weirder still, there are areas of “crosshatching,” belonging to both cities. The boundaries between the two nations are purely psychological, with citizens of one being trained from birth to ignore or “unsee” the people, buildings and traffic of the other, with Breach maintaining the mental division by force.

The story revolves around a person found dead in Beszel, but apparently killed in Ul Qoma. And apparently no breach has taken place. Inspector Borlu of the Extreme Crime Squad investigates, and discovers that something very, very strange is going on. I won’t spoil the ending, but suffice it to say that, like so much that Mieville writes, this one will mess with your head.

Now, you may be wondering why I’m talking about this book when it has almost nothing to do with London. It’s not set in London, it’s not even set in a place inspired by London (unlike most of Mieville’s other fantasy). The reason I think it’s appropriate is that, while it’s not a story applicable specifically to London, it’s one that’s applicable to the urban condition as a whole.

The concept of two different nations whose boundaries exist purely in your mind is, on the face of it, freaky-deaky. But think about the concept of “unseeing.” Think about it next time you walk through the city. Think about all the things around you that you simply ignore because they don’t concern you. On an obvious level, derelict buildings. Shops you don’t use. Streets you walk past but not along. How about the stuff you ignore on a cultural level? I don’t use the mosque. I pay no attention to the R&B night posters. I walk straight past the Polish delicatessens. The council estates might as well not exist. There’s no reason I should bear these things especially in mind, but equally, there’s no reason why I should be ignoring them. How can I consider myself citywise when there’s so much of the city, even within areas I know, about which I’m ignorant?

The concept of a hidden world that we ignore or don’t see is nothing new in fiction. Works like Mieville’s own King Rat, Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere and hell, even Harry Potter use hidden corners of London as secret places. Yet The City and the City is, as far as I’m aware (tell me if I’m wrong) the first to actually suggest that there’s nothing magical going on there. And in that regard, it suggests that the responsibility to see or unsee is entirely our own. What aren’t we seeing? What are we being told to ignore?

In future, if anyone asks me what psychogeography is, I think I’ll just hand them a copy of this book and tell them to ask me again in a week.

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Filed under Arts, Geography, Literature, Only loosely about London, Paranormal, Politics, Psychogeography