I read this first about a year ago, meaning to ‘blog about it, but I was intending to discuss it with some people who were also planning to read it, and so thought I should withhold until they’d finished. Well, that never happened, so the post never happened. So I read it again last night/this morning, because I have very little to do at the moment.
Because apparently they are LEGION at the moment, this is another magical-London book. I’m not sure if something counts as urban fantasy if it’s set in the early 19th century, but it’s also that if it does. I suppose it must, really, if urban fantasy exists as the alternative to grand, epic fantasy à la Lord of the Rings, and I’m not sure really what else this would count as. Anyway. It’s slightly different from the other ones I’ve been reading, because it’s also a multiple worlds, so at least I’m getting some variation in my sticking to this genre. And, if anything, it’s more about the multiple-worlds than the magical-London.
The story follows Kell, one of a very small group of people who have the magical ability to travel between worlds, of which there are only four. His travels are confined to London, as he is in the employ of the royal family of one of the worlds, and must travel between to maintain correspondence with the royalty of the other Londons. Only Kell breaks the rules about what he’s allowed to take through with him… and of course trouble and adventure ensue.
As an idea and as a plot, it’s all really rather good. Schwab handles some broader ideas that have been used a lot very well, and twists them enough to make them seem shiny and new. Her magical Londons aren’t, ultimately, that innovative, but the way she’s pulled bits of different genres together (much like Tony Ballantyne’s Dream London) makes them feel more so than they really are. There are a lot of elements of the familiar in her plot, a lot of tropes or nearly-tropes, but the story itself is slightly less predictable, and I was definitely gripped all the way through. The pacing is also rather nice, and I struggled to put the book down for fear of breaking its spell. I think, more than anything, what she’s excelled at is keeping things simple with her setting. While we do get some exposition and explanation, she’s minimised it where possible, so while things don’t feel mysterious, we’re not overly cluttered with information either. And likewise, by limiting her fantasy universe to four alternate Londons, there’s not so much to keep straight in your head that you can’t stop to appreciate what she has done. This simplicity is visible throughout the book, be it in her use of characters or descriptions, and it gives the whole thing a sense of understated elegance, which is pretty nifty.
That being said, it sort of spills over into the characterisation of her leads, and there it feels less elegant and more sparse. There seem to be gaps to skip over in how you get a sense for the characters, and it sometimes leaves their actions odd and mysterious, if never quite out of character. You don’t really get a sense for them as people, or not enough, and it makes them feel rather bare. It’s not completely void – it’s not like how I felt reading The City and The City for instance – but it just feels slightly flat.
I also… and there will be those who mock me for this… don’t like the female lead. Some of the time reading it, I felt like we weren’t supposed to like her, but some of the time… it was hard to tell. She’s one of those characters that’s all hard edges, having lived a hard life, and I think we’re supposed to sympathise with her background and forgive her pragmatism and ruthlessness because of it, knowing that they’re tempered by the main character’s emotions. But I can’t. She’s just slightly… too unfeeling, too cold, too selfish. I struggle to care about her, or to understand her, and I struggle to tell how much of this is a deliberate choice of the author’s and how much is just poor characterisation. I want to be generous and assume it’s just a choice, but I can’t quite convince myself. The main lead Kell, *is* a little better, but there are still gaps and holes, which lead me to my less charitable conclusion. But at least with Kell, I want to know more. I like him a little, and want to give him a chance to be better and to give me things to care about. Lila? Not so much.
The big surprise for me, rather childishly, is the fact I like the US covers more than the UK. This never happens. The one above is the US one, and ties in beautifully with the simplicity of the contents. The UK one, however… Well, there’s nothing wrong with it, and I suspect I’d like it just fine had I never seen an alternative. But the US cover is just so LOVELY. As it happens, I have this on Kindle, so it matters not one bit, but were I ever to purchase it in hardcopy, I suspect I’d go out of my way to acquire the US version. I suppose it’s just because the US version actually stands out, whereas there is absolutely nothing special or interesting about the UK, even though it incorporates a lot of the same ideas and features (the colour scheme, the London maps, the emphasis on Kell’s coat).
Overall, it’s a slightly unsatisfying book, because of the character failure, but not so unsatisfying that I won’t read the sequel, or other works by the author. If anything, I suspect a sequel, and more page-time, would fix a lot of what bothered me about it, and give me the depth I needed to really really care. And indeed, it wasn’t so bad that I wasn’t prepared to reread it, for the sake of a ‘blog post. A lot of my grumbles may be founded on the fact that I’ve now read so many alt-London/urban fantasy London books that the whole genre is starting to feel samey. I may try to take a bit of a break an-… oh wait no. Because I need to read The Wicked + the Divine vol. 3. But after that. Maybe.