Dream London – Tony Ballantyne

ImageI went into Waterstones the other day (because god damnit now I’m earning money I’m going to buy books in actual bookshops, rather than avoiding them like dens of temptation) and made three purchases. One was the most recent book in a series I like (The New Watch, fifth book in what I swear once seemed like it was going to be a trilogy), one a book I knew I ought to read (that was The Ocean at the End of the Lane) and then one that looked interesting. I like this tactic of book purchasing. It means I expand my reading into things I might not have bought because I hadn’t heard of the author or no one had recommended it to me. Sometimes it ends terribly, but most of the time it ends pretty well, either because I’m very good at picking things I like, or because cover art really does reflect what’s going on inside. I’m not ruling either theory out. This was, thankfully, one of the good ones.

Dream London is, as I expected, another flavour of urban fantasy alt-London, and a rather better one than the last I read (The City’s Son, which you may remember I thought was awful). It does a lot of the same things as the other books in the alt-London style, but it does them well and in a slightly different direction, and for that I am very pleased. But that’s not really what makes the book great. I’ll get to that in a minute. What I think it does rather better, at least for the first two thirds of the book, than the City’s Son, is it doesn’t make great pains to explain everything in clear detail. It hints. It leaves you with mysteries and confusion. It vaguely understands that subtlety is a thing it might want to invest in. You don’t really get any clear explanations of anything much, even when someone actually explains something. It’s not the sort of story where a thing has happened and then we get to the bottom of it. A thing has happened, yes, and that is quite the central focus of the book. But it’s not what the book is actually about. You think it is, right up until it becomes clear that the book has a whole different point, and that point is the main character.

First thing I have to say about him is that he’s a dick. Not in the lovable rogue way, though that’s how he characterises himself, but actually a manipulative small-time criminal. A lot of the story is about how he finally realises that he really is just a nasty piece of work (after half the book full of people telling him that it’s the case), and him deciding whether or not he wants to do something about it. But because it’s sort of first person (ish… he talks about himself third person sometimes), how you view him as a person morphs along with how he views himself. At the beginning, he really does seem to be a rogueish ladies’ man (like heroes of most novels set in the past, where women exist to be seduced/rescued/used as a mobile catering service) with charm and charisma and the gung ho attitude needed to save the day. But that image of him dissolves as he begins to realise that he’s just a charming scum bag pimp, who may not hit his girls, but that that’s not much to be proud of. It’s not that you don’t have all the information at the start, but the way it’s all put together, and the way excuses are subtly provided, shift the blame away from Captain Wedderburn (the “hero”) for a while.

He starts as the hero of the story and is slowly disabused of the notion that he’s anything more than another pawn in the game. It’s really very pleasing. I don’t want to spoil the end of his character development, but it ends brilliantly and is, as far as I’m concerned, the point of the book.

If you want to nitpick, an awful lot of the plot does go… if not unresolved then at least unexplained. This is not a book for the sci-fi reader, really, because they want to know the why and the how. This isn’t really a book for people who just want to know the what the hell? But it is a good book, and a well-constructed one, if you want to see a really non-standard character arc set in a beautifully bonkers London where I don’t think even the author knows what’s going on.
I make a lot of the story of the main character, but that isn’t to say that those around him aren’t worthwhile. There are a host of great supporting characters, but because of the way the narration works, they do fade into the periphery. And for all that the main character is a traditionally macho man, the rest of the cast do not reflect that attitude one bit. It adds to his sense of not fitting in with his own self-image and it is beautiful. Everyone is both very real and also very suited to the unreality of their setting.
In short, well done Mr. Ballantyne. I will read more of your work.
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About readerofelse

A student of a redundant, useless and thoroughly interesting subject and reader of many books, particularly fantasy, science fiction and plenty else besides.
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One Response to Dream London – Tony Ballantyne

  1. Pingback: A Darker Shade of Magic – V. E. Schwab | A Reader of Else

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