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London Falling by Paul Cornell
Review by Drew Bittner
Tor Books Hardcover  ISBN/ITEM#: 9780765330277
Date: 16 April 2013 List Price $24.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK

Links: Author's Website / Show Official Info /

When a long-term undercover operation nets the big fish, only to see everything fall apart in a horrifying way, London's Metropolitan Police are at a loss. So detective inspector Quill is assigned the two undercover operatives-- Costain and Sefton--along with intel analyst Lisa Ross, to make sense of it.

But what they find goes way beyond conventional police work. No, this is something else entirely...

In Paul Cornell's debut urban fantasy London Falling, this odd quartet investigates what appears to be an impossible murder, only to be stymied; their only suspect is an elderly woman who's a passionate fan of the West Ham football team. Mora Losley is their only lead, however, and the only one who might possibly explain the strange behavior of gangster Rob Toshack.

Toshack, who assembled his criminal empire quickly and ruthlessly, through means that the cops cannot figure out, was in deep with someone. The trick is figuring out who. As the investigation leads to a house with many secrets, Quill and his team come across an oddly significant pattern...and get the shock of their lives when they are imbued with the Sight.

Suddenly London's dark secrets are there to be seen. Ghosts and horrors walking the world alongside the living, whispering in their ear or spying upon them. Little by little, in their own ways, the foursome come to grips with the unwanted talent they've been given--and track down Losley, who is far more than she seems. The team begin to treat this as a whole new operation, setting up objectives and tying Losley to a number of horrifying events going back a long while. Before long, they realize that they are up against something truly inhuman--with something even worse backing up Losley.

The investigation expands, even as they face defeat on several fronts: Sefton endangers the team with a risky experiment, Ross gets her fortune told, Quill grapples with a failing marriage, and Costain peers into a personal abyss. Meanwhile, Losley is murdering football players and conducting dark rituals involving...well, let's let the readers make that discovery.

If Quill and his team cannot master their new talents and evolve beyond being ordinary police officers, then they--and London itself--are doomed.

Cornell writes a gripping tale that accelerates smoothly and steadily across its pages, until it is virtually racing at the end. London itself is a character in this tale, as the mechanics of the supernatural hinge greatly on the location and its sources of eldritch power, with the characters slowly but surely sinking into that vast underworld. It is a visionary take on the interaction between the supernatural and crime, particularly organized crime, and the hellish nature of Toshack's bargains resonate in the most uncanny ways.

As in Lovecraft's mythic stories, Cornell has assembled a group of people and endowed them with the potential to become involved in this new world of crime and predation. They endanger themselves in every way--physically, mentally, spiritually--yet they are cops through and through, with a dedication and determination to punish evil where they find it. The fact that these lawbreakers are not exactly human barely deters them.

Cornell does a great job of setting out how cops would investigate what appears to be a disconnected but steadily growing number of crimes. They pursue leads, question suspects, round up clues and delve into research wherever that may take them; Cornell is effective at presenting the frustrations and difficulties of police work, that it is often one step forward and two back.

Each character has their own flaws and complexities, making them vividly realized and impossible to reduce to "the thug" or "the wisecracker" as often happens in groups of characters. Sefton struggles with the conflict between his personal life and his professional life, foreshadowing his need to resolve being "an initiate" and making several important discoveries; Costain is under suspicion of corruption by Quill, which plays an important role in his arc as he must make a number of hard moral choices; Quill finds a gulf yawning between himself and his wife, for reasons he cannot fathom but which become inextricably tied to the case; and Ross learns that her own history, and reasons for becoming a cop, make it the most important thing in her life that she helps solve this case.

The nature of the supernatural here is very different as well. Although the story uses a conventional term to identify Losley, the actual feel of the unnatural here is much more like Clive Barker's Hellraiser movies or the roleplaying game Kult, with their own intricate mythologies and surreal intrusions of the unnatural into the mundane. Cornell delivers moments of true horror as the heroes race to prevent a series of increasingly horrible crimes that come ever closer to where each of them lives, until the climax where sacrifices must be made and terrible chances taken to stop the cycle of evil.

Readers in search of a bold new voice in urban fantasy (or urban horror) will be well rewarded by spending time with Paul Cornell. Having mastered the worlds of television (Dr. Who) and comic books, as well as becoming a contributor to George R.R. Martin's Wild Cards series, he's bound to be a superlative novelist as well. Here's looking forward to his next book.

Highly recommended.

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