There are two types of urban fantasy novel; those where the magic and supernatural are up-front and in your face, and the protagonist is usually steeped in those elements; and those where the fantastical are hidden and discovered by our heroes, who then need to deal with the consequences of having their reality shattered. Paul Cornell’s London Falling can be found in the latter camp. It reads like a police procedural novel; a crime thriller. Only the criminal is not of our world.
Indeed, the story begins with DI James Quill successfully arresting major crime figure Rob Toshack, with the help of deep undercover operatives Costain and Sefton. However, Toshack is murdered in custody in extremely bizarre circumstances. Almost unbelievable, you might say. With the help of intelligence analyst Lisa Ross, Quill and his team start the investigation into the mysterious death. Here’s an odd thing. Some argue that football is England’s national obsession, and yet it rarely features in fiction. I can’t think of any genre fiction of any kind that has football as a major plot point. So credit Cornell for seeing the obvious and maintaining originality at the same time. Someone is killing footballers. Specifically, anyone who has scored a hattrick against West Ham United. And something connects this serial killer and Toshack.
The three coppers and Ross begin to see the power of London. They are gifted, or cursed, with the Sight. Investigations lead them to realise that the suspect in the murders was the same who killed Toshack, and that she is no ordinary woman. Using traditional police procedures and their new gift, they realise that this woman can bend space and time, and even alter memory. She commits the most personal of crimes against DI Quill and as time runs out, West Ham take to the pitch. And who is the smiling man and what is his involvement in it all?
Cornell is best known for his Doctor Who tie-in novels and previous ventures into science fiction, comic books, and non-fiction writing. He can clearly write. What he does particularly well is drama and atmosphere. He gives a real sense of how these ordinary people are drawn into extraordinary circumstances. The police apply commonplace procedures to extraordinary crimes. The characters are not clichéd and he writes them dealing with their new powers and scary situations as we ourselves might react. He has taken an almost traditionally English horror trope and updated it without it feeling hackneyed and boring. Yet I found the whole less than the sum of its parts. It was somewhat un-engaging. The perspective changes between the four main protagonists frequently in the short and punchy scenes, often within chapters. Sefton and Costain almost felt interchangeable. While they had significant differences in characterisation, I’d occasionally forget who was who. These switches in viewpoint left the narrative stuttering. London doesn’t quite work as a character either. Cornwell tries to imbue the city with magic – nowhere else in the story is magical (when the characters look south away from the city, they see nothing) – within its history and its foundations. His attempts feel a little vague. You don’t feel any power in the text or in the places he describes. The other issue with this type of urban fantasy is that the magic and supernatural elements often jar with the real world inhabited by the main protagonist. Without giving away spoilers, for example, when the nature of the villain is revealed and her crimes are made public, the reaction of the general public and the media is far from believable. There is real magic in this fictional world but there are too few references to real cultural supernatural films or books or characters. Which is odd considering the references to football.
What Cornell has steered away from is the typical what if Harry Potter was a… concept. Credit for that. Our protagonists have not been granted hidden magical powers of their own (other than the Sight itself), and there is no Gandalf-style figure to guide them. Instead he has produced a well plotted and character-led supernatural drama. He has created an honest story. He has set up a nice, if not quite there-yet, universe for our heroes to deal with the supernatural. He has created a few interesting characters that react in a believable way to the magic around them. And he has set up a possible series of crime thrillers with urban fantasy elements. An enjoyable, if far from perfect, venture into magic.