London Falling by Paul Cornell. Or, Ashes, Ashes, We All Fall Down

London Falling

December 2014
Recommended for people who like urban fantasy, police thriller
 2.5 to 3 stars

I sought out London Falling as it was recommended by Ben Aaronovich, who writes my very favorite Peter Grant books.

But this didn’t quite work.

The coming together of an investigative team? Police procedural? Thriller? Serial killers? All ingredients that sound appealing to many mystery readers, but I’m betting the juxtaposition here won’t work for most. Personally, I don’t lean too far into thriller territory, but there are some exceptions. This isn’t one.

Cornell kept my attention with a fast moving plot and interesting writing. The narrative drops the reader down into the end of an on-going investigation, so it takes a few pages to find one’s bearings, particularly if one isn’t familiar with British police terms. A glossary in the back is helpful. I was particularly fond of the vivid descriptions that make the magical seem plausible, and capture the confusion of people confronting it for the first time:

The stairs, right in front of her, were particularly challenging. It was as if you could see underneath the stairwell and yet up it at the same time. The up-and-down pattern of the stairs seemed to be overlaid on the surface of your eyes. But it was still contained within a discrete space. It was like a Picasso painting of a stairway.”

London plays an important role in the story, and its rich and varied scenes lend a nice sense of setting. Characterization of people, however, is a little weak. The third-person narrative jumps between the perspective of Quill, the Detective Inspector leading a two year-long undercover operation; Costain, the lead undercover officer who might be sampling too much product; Sefton, a junior undercover officer; and Ross, an analyst. While Cornell should get credit for putting together a team that is diverse in more than the traditional ways, their ‘voices’ don’t attain much individuality or style, only a difference in history and personal issues that they are bringing into the scene. Additional short narratives only serve to further confuse the voice issue. That said, Cornell does a nice job of making the Evil in the book foreboding and horrorific:

She looked at him as if it was astonishing and humiliating to hear her name coming from him. She laughed, and it was a witches’ laugh. Not like witches did in children’s television. That was only a distant, safe memory of this. Her laugh sounded like small bones caught in an old throat. As if she was on the verge of choking, only she wasn’t feeling the threat of that–only you were.”

I enjoyed the magic system and the process of the officers attempting to comprehend a world they were unprepared to find. The attempt to delineate their knowledge on a normal Operations Board had a nicely realistic touch of taking the unfamiliar and trying to find a pattern.

Most significantly for me, the combination of Evil’s purpose and method was very, very off.  A side road into how Evil began created some false sympathy in a situation where none was deserved, and confused a modern storyline with historical trivia that broke continuity, as it had little to do with current events. Plotting was partially redeemed by an unexpected twist that brought the problem home.

Come to think of it, I tried Jeaniene Frost because author Ilona Andrews periodically squees about her books, and that was a miss as well. Consider my lesson learned. Whether the authors are friends or blurbing for professional reasons, it’s not a reason to read the book. This isn’t a complete miss; there’s enough to tempt me into the next book when it appears, even if I wouldn’t buy it.

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About thebookgator

avid reader and Goodreads reviewer looking for a home.
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13 Responses to London Falling by Paul Cornell. Or, Ashes, Ashes, We All Fall Down

  1. stephswint says:

    I liked this a bit more than you did. i read it for the same reason – Aaronovitch. It was very rough in the beginning and I almost did not continue. It grew on me. I liked the magic system a lot, and once the paranormal side of the investigation started it got much better for me. I’m very interested in the sequel. I hear the writing problems get better too.

    • thebookgator says:

      Glad you enjoyed it, Steph. Another person also mentioned that the writing improved in the second book. The juxtaposition of the Evil purpose and method was a sore spot for me–it was almost absurd, except became too personal to be so. But I suppose the supernatural can be as stupid as the human. Still–revenge through football?

      • stephswint says:

        revenge through football was wierd for me too:) especially when you boil it down to the simple phrase – “revenge through football”

      • neotiamat says:

        Weirdly enough, I actually liked the juxtaposition of purpose and method. For more or less the exact reason you mention — the supernatural is allowed to be just as stupid as the human. And it felt like a change from the usual “Dark Evil Plot to RULE THE WORLD” thing.

      • thebookgator says:

        That’s cool. I get that. The supernatural can be stupid too. Buy why distract us with her backstory then? For me, it didn’t work. If it was an attempt to humanize her, it didn’t translate well because of the goal (soccer–har har). I would have understood if she wanted revenge on the world. But a team of the country that brutalized her mistress and her? I wonder if there’s a particularly English angle I’m not understanding. What was your take on the flashback?

  2. thebookgator says:

    I have a talent. 😉

  3. neotiamat says:

    Whups. This is what I get for not setting the Notification commenter on. SORRY! Anyway, I will attempt to make up gross tardiness with detail.

    Anyway, the flashback scene is actually far and way my least favorite in the book, though I think it’s a case of “good idea, poor execution.”

    The concept of a football witch actually struck me as a very good one, as mentioned. It’s a refreshing change from the usual run of Dark Overlords or sexually-deranged serial killers. It’s a witch who is unabashedly evil, Satanic even, but with a kind of comprehensible internal logic and methodology. She’s just a big, nasty, dangerous serial killer. The idea of football related evil also makes sense to me, but I think it’s a more British thing — football-related violence was *extremely* bad in the 80s, to the point that Thatcher set up a ‘War Cabinet’ to deal with it, and even in the 2000s, I remember we had riots after sports victories, with property damage and even a death. Plus it’s enormously meaningful in the UK (to the point where in some cases, your team reflects long-standing ethno-religious divisions, especially up in Glasgow). So the whole concept of supernatural football violence was one that, when I read it, I thought “This is genius, why has no one else done this.” The link to the Boleyn Grounds and the Tudor era was also a neat use of London’s limitless Weird History. So the *idea* was good.

    …But the flashback just didn’t work. A lot of what I enjoyed about this book was the sense that you had these four more-or-less mundane coppers thrown into the fray against incredibly powerful, albeit constrained occult forces, and muscling on through on the strength of logic and procedure and know-how. There’s a sense of mystery, of trying to figure out how the Rules of the Game work. But the flashback revealed too much, it felt too jarring and sudden. After scraping together clues all book, reasoning out from drips and drabs, suddenly the protagonists basically get an encyclopedia entry on the villain’s backstory. Likewise, the backstory felt… the witch was far, far too vile to really become a sympathetic villain (she was a child murderer a hundred times over), yet what else was the purpose of the backstory (complete with rather gratuitous rape)? For that matter, none of the protagonists, if memory serves, were all that inclined to view it sympathetically. I suspect that the real reason is that Cornell had a neat backstory for his villain but couldn’t think of a good way to explain the Boleyn links to the audience otherwise. So… clumsy writing.

    I’ll also note that Book 2 also has this kind of jarring flashback scene, though it’s handled a *little* better (still far from great, but better).

    • thebookgator says:

      Thanks for stopping back, no matter how long. I think you described the problem with the flashback perfectly, the idea of ‘drips and drabs’ suddenly flooded by an immersive, explanatory flashback. That is exactly it–I’ve always struggled to identify why. Thank you. I agree, the witch was too evil to be humanized by it, but I don’t remember why the Boleyn link was needful. Was it, or should the author just have saved it for another book?
      And thank you as well for the football explanation–it makes much more sense to me. I have indeed wondered as I read English authors these days (Griffin, Aaronovich, Mieville, Cornell, Carey), if I’m assuming too much culturally. Obviously, geography and idioms are different. But I suspect you’ve hit on a large, cultural consideration, the geography with sports. Of course, it exists in America as well, but I’m largely immune to sports here, and there isn’t as much opportunity to mix teams and fan bases.

      • neotiamat says:

        I think the reason for the Boleyn link was that it provided an explanation for why this random faerie tale witch was so interested in football — and strictly speaking, as an explanation it works quite nicely (why does the witch care? cause they built a football field right over her home!). So I think it was a necessary link, and I don’t think it could have been put into another book (the arc villain is the Smiling Man, the Witch is pretty much gone and done), but it could have been handled much more neatly.

        And yeah, America has its share of sports violence (Philly fans are especially notorious for it, though Boston has its share), but the association of the two was much stronger in the UK — pubs would put up signs that said “No football couches allowed”, that is, no buses full of football hooligans. Organized groups of football fans (Firms) would actually arrange to have big and violent fights with rival firms, with bloodshed regularly and periodic deaths. This is also something of an 80s thing, various measures put in place since then have massively reduced the violence of the sport. But to a British person of a certain age, football has a kind of cultural association that might be compared to, I suppose, rap music in the US? I’m reaching here.

        Also, I find it vaguely amusing that I have read every one of the authors you have mentioned.

  4. thebookgator says:

    Really, in America, everything is violent. I had just looked up stats for or a paper last night, and WHO reported in 2009, our intentional fatal injuries are twice the U.K.’s.

    I suspect that one of the only reasons football/basketball violence isn’t worse just because fans would have to travel so far to get to the games–it removes a certain amount of drunken spontaneity. Also, allegiances are divided between college and pro, as well as sport, so that likely somewhat descalates the focus. Rather interesting though. Many people are rabid fans, but they fan in their own homes, or a local bar, where one is less likely (not at all, really) to run into the opposing fans.
    So… what do you think of Kate Griffin? I think I like her and Aaronovich best (of the modern UF bent). I just finished Kraken. Might have to chew on my review a bit.

  5. neotiamat says:

    I tried the Matthew Swift series about a year ago, I think, or possibly two, but didn’t really get into it. I think it was the whole amnesiac hero / extremely slow start-up / nothing is explained nature of the book that put me off. I got through about forty pages and put it down for lack of interest, though I’ll probably make another run at it at some point.

    I’m extremely fond of Aaronovich, especially Books 1 and 3 — they’re probably some of my favorite modern UF at the moment. Book 5 I was a little “eh” on, mostly because it seemed like a huge break from the increasingly fascinating ongoing plot, though it did have its moments.

    Kraken… I also took a run at reading it, but I just cannot get into Mieville for the life of me. I’ve tried Kraken, I’ve tried Perdido Street Station, it seems like the kind of thing I would enjoy greatly, but something about the writing makes me wander off (I suspect I am coming off as abysmally inconstant here). It’s been a while, so my memory is off, but I think it’s the lack of any really engaging (and more importantly) sympathetic characters. There’s no one like Peter Grant or Felix Castor to really latch onto and enjoy. I don’t even remember who the main character of Kraken was, though I remember the Police Witch and the somewhat dubious cultist/bodyguard. His writing is also too unrelievedly grim, I think. The Felix Castor novels are astonishingly dark, but they have elements of black humor in them that keeps it from wearing you down. Mieville’s writing just feels tiring after a while.

    Then again, I have a weird love for Benedict Jacka’s Alex Verus series, so maybe I just have horrible taste. 😉

  6. Pingback: The Severed Streets by Paul Cornell. | book reviews forevermore

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