London Falling by Paul Cornell – review

By on January 29, 2014

london falling cover

Cops are supposed to be rational, critical thinkers.  In order to protect us, they’re supposed to be far above flights of fancy. They can certainly be very much in tune with their instincts, but imagination that isn’t based on cold, hard reality is better left to the realms of the civilian populace.  Or, at least, that’s what most of us would like to think. It’s more comforting to recognize that the monsters of the world are human and therefore both fallible and mortal.

But what if they weren’t?

Officers Quill, Costain, and Sefton are involved in an undercover investigation of the mob boss who’s running London.  They’re trying to understand how, exactly, this kingpin has managed to not only effectively take over the whole of London’s underworld, but also do so with a minimum of bloodshed and a near-supernatural ability to avoid being charged with any crimes.  Everyone knows that Toshack is a criminal. Proving it, though, is increasingly more difficult than it should be for even the most barely competent police force.

The investigation leads them to a peculiar house with a very sinister resident.  When they raid the place, along with an analyst named Ross,  they end up developing the Sight.  It’s not just unnerving. For the four involved, this dubious gift comes very close to breaking them as they struggle to understand not only what they’re seeing but what it all means.

Soon enough, they come to the conclusion that they can use their newfound abilities to help them crack the case and bring the necessary parties to justice.  What they don’t quite realize is how much more they’ll discover using the Sight over the course of their investigation.  London is teeming with any number of strange entities. Not all of them mean the crew harm, but most of them are much less than friendly.

Paul Cornell’s London Falling is a mix of detective procedural, horror, and fantasy.  The author never lets readers forget that the central characters are very much a team of detectives trying to solve a case. Of course, whether or not you could really call them a team remains in doubt for a good third of the book. They’re a special squad thrown together under extraordinary circumstances, and they definitely need to prove themselves, given what has happened thus far during their case.  A suspect dying in custody is never good for the policemen involved, and, given their suspect’s history, the stakes are even higher.

This is urban fantasy with that grungy, old city feel that makes a person compelled to follow the main characters down dark alleys and into the hidden, seedy underbelly of the London magical community…provided it’s done from the safety of a comfortable seat, preferably with a warm beverage at the ready.  The creatures and spellwork that the detectives encounter most often are of the sinister variety, which is to be expected when the hunt for a serial killer is a central point of the plot.

Quill, Costain, Sefton, and Ross are a diverse set of characters, each with their own motives and their own back stories.  They all have their reasons for desperately wanting to resolve the case, some of them more noble than others.  Those back stories, however, give each character a unique drive towards reaching their goal.  Despite the fantasy underpinnings of the story, those motives are very relatable because they’re so firmly anchored in reality.  These are three men and a woman who have families and histories that either propel them forward or so thoroughly shaped them into who they are that this dogged pursuit of a heinous criminal is the only sensible course of action for them.

What gets interesting and, I think, cool, was the use of soccer hooliganism and team devotion not only as a central theme but also as a very important key to the whole story.  As someone who’s lived in a country where football means an entirely different game, there’s a certain level of fanaticism that I couldn’t help getting exposed to.  That said, I ignored it as much as I could because I just didn’t care.  I have to say, though, that in London Falling the way that kind of devotion comes into play in the story is absolutely brilliant.  It makes sense, given what the readers are told about how magic works in London, and in the larger scheme of systems of magic throughout the fantasy genre.

There’s some gore and some blood.  Naturally, there are some incredibly gruesome scenes.  A serial killer is involved in this story, and that’s very important for readers to understand. This is not a happy book.  It’s dark and compelling and highly engrossing, but, honestly, it’s not cheerful.  If you want a pick-me-up, it’s probably better to go have a slice of pie and some coffee somewhere warm and cheery.

However, if you like mysteries and if you like your police stories to have cops who are most definitely human, who make mistakes, who get into situations that are way over their heads, and who just keep working the case because they need some closure for themselves, then you’ll definitely like London Falling. I’d most certainly recommend it to the friends I know who appreciate genre mash-ups, as well as those who do like a good police procedural type story that doesn’t dwell so much on the procedure part of it and, instead, focuses on the policemen (and women) involved.

You’re not going to read anything much worse than you’ll see in an average episode of Bones or CSI or Criminal Minds, but you do need to be aware that this is the kind of stuff you’re getting yourself into picking up this book. It also just happens to have magic and magical creatures in it. It’s that slight step to the left of reality that so much of my favorite urban fantasy has.  It feels like there may be a series of books, even though this one does have the investigation tied up at the end. If there are more of these forthcoming, then I look forward to them very eagerly.

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