TT: London’s Shadow Side

Looking for the Wednesday Wandering?  Just page back one and wander with me through the wending ways of book titles.  Then grab your flashlight (or torch) and join me and Alan as we take a step in the the urban fantasy side of London.

Anything is Possible on the Shadow Side

Anything is Possible on the Shadow Side

ALAN: One of the striking things about Neverwhere was that Gaiman’s characters were actually personifications of the city of London itself, an interesting conceit which has also been embraced by another British writer, Ben Aaronovitch.

Aaronovitch has written a series of semi-comic novels about Peter Grant, a young constable in the Metropolitan Police who, following an encounter with a ghost, becomes the first official apprentice police wizard in fifty years. In the first novel (Rivers of London) Grant has to deal with personifications of the actual London rivers (Thames, Fleet, etc.). All the novels are structured as police procedurals but they are nevertheless urban fantasies in the sense that we’ve been using the term. And it helps that they are very, very funny.

JANE: These sound good.  I may need to give them a try.

ALAN: I’ve also been very impressed with a series of novels by Simon Green. He’s mostly known as a hack writer of fairly trashy fantasies (many of them with bad puns in the title), but he’s also written a brilliant series of gritty urban fantasies featuring John Taylor, a classic pulp fiction private investigator who is based in the Nightside – an avatar of London where it is always 3:00 a.m. The Nightside itself is definitely a small area of the real London, yet it is clearly much larger than London itself.

The Nightside books are very dark and cynical (in the best hardboiled detective tradition). They are often funny, even when dealing with tragic circumstances and they are full of SF/F tropes with lots of mythological references. They are like nothing else I’ve ever read and I love them.

JANE: Now that’s  really interesting.  I must admit, I was only familiar with Simon Green’s work from the fantasies you mention.  These sound much more to my taste.  Can you give me the title of the first one?

ALAN: The first book is Something From The Nightside. I’m sure you’d love them. However, you should be aware that the series has twelve books in it and it is absolutely essential to read them in order. A friend of mine started with book number six, didn’t understand a word of it and gave up completely…

However, don’t worry – there may be twelve books in the series, but each is quite short (at least by modern standards) so reading them is not an onerous task at all.

JANE: (Scribbling down titles with mad haste…)  Go on!

ALAN: I’m also very fond of a trilogy of remarkably subversive YA novels by Michael de Larrabeiti. They are known as the Borrible trilogy – and the first novel is simply titled The Borribles. The eponymous borribles are runaway children living rough on the streets of present day London. However the city absorbs, adopts and protects them. Eventually, by some never properly explained mysterious process, they are “borribled” and their ears become long and pointed. Borribles are constantly battling the forces of law and order and if they are captured by the police they will have their ears clipped, which presumably turns them back into normal children again.

Borribles appear to live forever, barring physical catastrophe, but they continue to look like children for the whole of their lives. One borrible remarks in passing that he remembers the old queen – it’s not clear whether he is referring to Victoria or to Elizabeth I, but in either case, he’s obviously very, very old.

JANE: Subversive?  Why?

ALAN: The books deride the safe and somewhat dull adult world, and they glorify the wild, scruffy and rather anarchic world of the Borribles. Materialism is constantly being sneered at. The Borribles lead very fulfilling lives even though they have no significant material possessions at all. Adults, who crave material wealth, are always presented as the enemy. The borribles value comradeship and cooperation above all else, and whatever they have is available to anyone. Borribles live a very extreme left wing lifestyle and I can easily imagine Karl Marx giving them a high five! The books also deal with some uncomfortably mature themes, such as trying to decide which causes are noble enough to die for and which are not.

JANE: Reminds me, actually, of some of the early Charles de Lint urban fantasy, particularly  the short stories.  Prompted by our earlier discussion, I started re-reading Dreams Underfoot, and the same themes of mutual caring and anti-materialism are dominant there.   Jilly repeatedly states variations on, “On the streets, we look after our own.”

As de Lint has ventured into YA, he seems to have abandoned this earlier sensibility.  I’ve wondered if he fears promoting a “subversive” lifestyle that in reality would not be nearly as enchanting as it is in his stories.   I mean, even in the stories where a kid on the street gets in trouble, the fairy folk come to the rescue in the eleventh hour.  That makes for a satisfying story, but…

Do you have any other suggestions for Old World urban fantasy I might add to my list?

ALAN: Michael Moorcock published Mother London in 1988. It was presented as a mainstream novel (indeed it won the Whitbread Prize, a prestigious literary award) but it flirted with urban fantasy as it told the story of the city of London in a series of vignettes from some very unreliable narrators – three outpatients from a mental hospital who may be psychic and who may be hearing the voice of the city as it tells its story through them. Some people might describe the story as magic realism rather than urban fantasy – but I’m a huge Moorcock fan, so let’s give him the benefit of the doubt.

JANE: Perhaps in this case one person’s magical realism is another’s urban fantasy?  Surely the city telling its story is about as “urban” as the fantastic can get.

ALAN: 1988 was a good year for London. In that same year, Christopher Fowler published his first novel, Roofworld. High above the city, those discontented with the dehumanized existence of urban life below have joined an alternative society that has thrived in the skies since at least the 1920s.  Currently it is under the leadership of former physician Nathaniel Zalian. But now the existence of Roofworld is threatened by Chymes: madman, necromancer, and leader of a gang of drug addicts and skinheads.

JANE: Sounds both creepy and interesting.  I may need to give Roofworld a try, though I must admit, I’m more familiar with Fowler as a writer of horror.  I don’t usually read horror because if it’s good – well, it scares me!  I have enough nightmares without help.

ALAN: Yes indeed – Fowler went on to carve out a very successful career as a writer of horror novels (though his short story collection City Jitters has many elements of urban fantasy). However, for the last few years, he has been writing a superb series of urban fantasy detective novels about Arthur Bryant and John May who are employed by Scotland Yard’s Peculiar Crimes Unit.

Bryant and May (there’s a lovely pun there for British eyes) have been working together for many years and they are close friends despite their different approaches to the cases they work on. Bryant is very much an alternative lifestyle man. He gains his insights by consulting witches and psychics, and by reading arcane books about everything from ancient religions to the history of forgotten London landmarks. May, on the other hand, is a modern man who likes to play with his gadgets. He is very pragmatic and has little time for all that magic nonsense, though he can’t argue with the results!

JANE: That sounds rather like team in the X-Files.  If I remember correctly, one was a believer and the other solidly materialistic.  I could be wrong…  I mostly heard about the show second hand.

ALAN: Me too! I don’t think I’ve ever seen an episode of the X-Files. What a lot you and I have in common!

JANE:  Well, I hope one of our readers will fill us in.  Now, I’m going to have to ask you to interpret that pun about Bryant and May…

ALAN: The firm of Bryant and May was founded in the nineteenth century (by Francis May and William Bryant) to manufacture safety matches. For generations of British smokers, the words “matches” and “Bryant and May” were almost synonyms. There was a definite feeling that if it wasn’t manufactured by Bryant and May, it wasn’t really a proper match. Sadly, the company no longer exists. It became a casualty of both the decline in the popularity of smoking, and various company mergers.

JANE: Great pun… and a lovely cultural window.  Thanks!

As we’ve been having this discussion, I’ve thought of something that I should have put in my earlier definition of urban fantasy.  The city in question should be contemporary —  not a flirtation with the past.  For example, Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks is definitely urban fantasy, but her Territory, which is set in the Old American West, is not.  Urban fantasy should be entwined in the here and now of the author, not in once upon a time.

ALAN: That’s a good insight and I definitely agree with it. Now that you’ve reminded me of the title, I find that I do actually have Territory on my shelves and I remember reading and enjoying it. But I never once thought of it as urban fantasy, so I suspect I must have subconsciously come to the same conclusion that you’ve come to. Thank you for putting it into words – I think it’s an important distinction to make.

JANE: Now…  With that in mind, let’s move on to discussing the new urban fantasy – aka Buffy Fic!

6 Responses to “TT: London’s Shadow Side”

  1. Louis Robinson Says:

    ‘the here and now of the author’ – I think Jane’s identified the element that we were all talking around a couple of weeks ago.

    Interestingly, that could make Frankenstein & Dracula ‘urban fantasy’ if it weren’t for the fact that the locale isn’t, AFAICT, an essential element of either. That, and the fact that neither author was really _inserting_ the fantastic elements into their here-and-now. Shelley, in fact, if she’d been aware of our current classifications, would have said she was writing science fiction.

    • janelindskold Says:


      Also, that “essential element.” I think the best urban fantasy has some sense of the urban element being important to the characters. It might be the personalized London or it might be that the characters are involved with the “real world,” but it’s not just a question of set in the city vs set in the country or suburbs.

  2. Heteromeles Says:

    How to deal with Bordertown, or Harry Potter?

    More seriously, how much of the 60s, 70s, and 80s are in the Once Upon A Time era, at least for the Millennials?

    If someone wrote a fantasy set in the 1960s, it could easily be seen as a traditional fantasy if it was set in a commune in the New Mexico Mountains, but what about if it was set in Watts?

    • janelindskold Says:

      I think the place needs to be an element to be urban fantasy. DeLint’s Newford has a soul — she actually talks to characters.

      it’s been a long time since I read “Bordertown” but it comes closer than “Harry Potter.” Harry Potter isn’t urban fantasy — indeed, it comes closer to the idealized pastoral, small town settings of classic fantasy.

      As I said above, it’s more than the setting being urban, it’s the urban having an identity of its own.

  3. Paul Says:

    I’d toss in Mark Helprin’s “Winter’s Tale,” set in a mythological New York City. Re the “X-Files,” you are quite right: Mulder (the guy) was a believer, Scully (the woman) was the skeptic – although not, I think, by the end of the series.

  4. Fred Says:

    With reference to Simon Green – I will grant you much of his fantasy is rubbish but you really should give “Blue moon rising”. “Beyond the Blue Moon” and “Blood and Honour” a go. The Blue Moon ones form brackets around the admittedly potboiling Hawk and Fisher “Haven” stories, but are much better. If you can forgive the aching arms and sweat dripping into the eyes in the somewhat over-extended battle scenes.

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