July 07, 2016

London, the Heart of the Urban Fantasy Empire

by Miranda Phaal

Modern London has become the capital of the new urban fantasy empire.  Although a contemporary setting is not a requirement of urban fantasy, what makes the subgenre so appealing is its blend of the old and the new.  The ancient historical and literary -- and, most importantly, rural -- tradition of magic is adapted to a new setting: the city.  The supernatural is thus made less fantastic, and more familiar.  With urban fantasy, the reader need not conjure up an unreachable realm long ago and far away to immerse herself in the world of the novel and experience its magic.  All that is required, at least for the city-dweller, is to step out the front door.

Urban fantasy makes the impossible credible in our own world. Typically, it does this by taking tenets of traditional or high fantasy, placing them some distance back in the history of the imagined world, and deducing how they would have evolved over time to function in a contemporary urban environment.  Something old becomes something new.

It is no coincidence that about half of all urban fantasy novels since the subgenre's inception have been set in London.  Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere and a handful of other subsequent seminal works in the subgenre have no doubt influenced other authors to write about London's magic, but that magic was already there.

No city churns together the new and the old, the grittily real and the majestically fantastic, quite like London does.  In the nineteenth century, London was the world’s largest city and most important financial center, as well as the heart of the largest empire in history.  From the city's founding by the Romans in the first century A.D., through the Viking invasions and the devastation of the Black Death, London's early history was fraught with violence and upheaval.  The still-extant Corporation of London survived the Norman Conquest and has remained at the core of a strong mercantile vein through the city’s history, of which the East India Company (established by London merchants at the dawn of the Age of Imperialism) is also a part.  Early Modern London saw almost as much bloodshed as its medieval forebear.  The Great Fire of London razed most of the medieval city in 1666.  The failed Gunpowder Plot left Guy Fawkes and many of his co-conspirators drawn and quartered.  Jack the Ripper prowled the streets of Whitechapel in 1888, and Sir Robert Peel's Metropolitan Police at Scotland Yard struggled against a rising wave of crime.  Literary greats from William Shakespeare to Bram Stoker, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley have called London home.  The Industrial Revolution, the London Underground (the world's first underground railway) and the city's "pea soup fogs" were the backdrop of a particularly brutal time in London's history, but the city's traditional institutions survived, adapting to modern times by fits and starts.  London's incredible perseverance through the Blitz was a trial by fire of just how much Britain and the people living in its capital valued their history and way of life.  London's rich history and culture have consistently demonstrated a simultaneous reverence for tradition and a progressive drive to embrace the future.

The city itself is a physical manifestation of those two trends.  London is perhaps the most iconic city in the world, but it has collected its icons over many centuries, from the Tower of London and Westminster Abbey dating back to the eleventh and thirteenth centuries respectively, through the famous London Underground roundel, black cabs and red telephone boxes of the last century, to newer icons such as the London Eye, the Gherkin and The Shard, which all came into being within the last twenty-five years.  During World War II, the Blitz ravaged London like a wildfire through a forest, destroying much, but making way for new growth amidst the old.  The modern city with an ancient and very present past is the perfect place for traditional fantasy to shed its skin and slither in amongst the cobblestone streets and sodium lights.

As a setting for so much urban fantasy, one might expect London to have become a tired subject, but each author has managed to find different facets of the city to explore.  Several authors see the enormous and diverse city as a place of chaos, and approach it from a law enforcement standpoint, drawing on the history of the Metropolitan Police Service (the Met), the first professional police force in the world.  Ben Aaronovitch's Rivers of London series follows the investigations of constable Peter Grant, apprentice to Inspector Nightingale, the head of an old and secret branch of the Met devoted to solving magical crimes.  While the setting is modern, Aaronovitch's magic is traditional in flavor, with ancient secret societies, literal ghosts of the city's past, personifications of nature (the River Thames, for example), grimoires and Latin incantations, and the magicians' master/apprentice relationship, which causes some initial friction between the protagonist of West African heritage and his "Master."  It is the integration of ancient magical practices with modern police work that makes Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London series so compelling, and which provides the dynamo for works like it, such as Paul Cornell's Shadow Police series.

Other authors engage London's history more directly by choosing a historical setting.  V.E. Schwab's new Shades of Magic series takes place during King George III's reign -- at least in Grey London, the version of London that most closely parallels our own out of Schwab's four.  Red London is the capital of a flourishing magical empire and the home of the series’ protagonist, Kell. White London’s magic is draining away, and its inhabitants fight viciously for the scraps that are left.  And Black London was, at least according to legend, consumed by its magic and sealed off from the three other realms long ago.  Kell is one of the few who can travel between the three remaining Londons, and a name is one of the only things that the cities share.  Each iteration of London is very much a product of the its own realm's magic -- in magic-rich Red London, almost nothing is permanent as the skyline changes with the daily trends, and in White London the air smells of blood.  Each London, to some extent, provides a look at a different aspect of British imperialism, and its consequences.  Similarly, Jonathan Barnes' Domino Men duology begins in Victorian London with The Somnambulist, and then jumps forward to modern London in The Domino Men when the creature with whom Queen Victoria made a Faustian bargain for the fate of her empire returns to collect its debt.  Barnes forges into the blood and shadows of the politics of the imperial capital, embodied best by the monstrous men kept in the cellar of 10 Downing Street.

Another popular method authors use to explore London's magical side is the creation of an alternate London.  Three of the subgenre's most prominent works do this: Gaiman's Neverwhere, Simon R. Green's Nightside series and Mike Carey's Felix Castor series.  Gaiman constructs "London Below," the magical community situated literally beneath London in the network of old ruins, Victorian sewers and abandoned Underground tunnels.  There is little interaction between the two Londons, not least because the inhabitants of London Below are effectively invisible to their counterparts in London Above.  In the same vein as Gaiman's London Below is "the Nightside" in Green’s series.  The Nightside is a secret, bizarre netherworld located in the heart of London, despite being larger than the city itself, and shrouded in perpetual darkness.  In the Nightside, futuristic technology and the supernatural thrive side-by-side, and almost anything can be bought--for the right price.  Carey, on the other hand, creates an alternate London very different from Gaiman's or Green's.  The Felix Castor series is set in a near, post-almost-apocalyptic-but-not-quite future in which the dead, demons and were-kind have risen in droves, but are kept in check by people like London-based freelance exorcist Felix Castor.  Carey's London is openly engaged in a struggle with the supernatural, and all are affected.

A large part of what makes urban fantasy so compelling as a subgenre, however, is the relatability of the setting.  It is almost always set in our world as we know it, and an alternate or hidden London is a step removed from the one we know.  Like Aaronovitch, Benedict Jacka succeeds in bringing to life a vibrant, magical community throughout real-world London in his Alex Verus series.  Also like Aaronovitch, Jacka relies largely on concepts of traditional magic plucked from their historical and high fantasy origins, tweaked and bent in a few interesting ways, and then plopped down into modern London, as seer Alex Verus must track down a magical artefact from the ancient war between Dark and Light mages, all the while doing his damndest to avoid being caught up in the machinations of mage factions both light and dark.

Kate Griffin's Matthew Swift series is among the best (and certainly one of the most underrated) works of urban fantasy to date, because she expands upon a relatively unexplored form of magic: urban magic.  Fritz Lieber's concept of megapolisomancy which he began to develop in the 1940s with stories such as "Smoke Ghost" and "The Hound," is an early example.  Lieber wrote of megapolisomancy as a pseudoscience, and believed that the buildup of artificial "city-stuff" either created or attracted extremely dangerous entities known as paramentals.  Cities, to Lieber, were dark places of cancerous growth and psychological entropy, but also sources of great power to those foolhardy enough to harness them.  Kate Griffin takes quite a different approach.  While the city does have a mind of its own, it is simply a manifestation of the next stage of life, and urban magic is a neutral force.  As Robert Bakker, (Matthew's teacher) explains it, "Magic is life. Where there is magic, there is life; the two cannot be separated… And in this new time, the magic is no longer of the vine and the tree; magic now focuses itself where there is most life, and that life burns neon." Griffin's urban magic is based on the principle that magic -- like the people and creatures that use it -- adapts and changes. In Griffin's re-imagining of real-world London, The Whites are a clan of magicians who can only be found by taking the last Circle Line train, and who watch the city through their graffiti which, occasionally, comes to life.  The Bikers can bend the laws of space and time to cover miles in a second.  Fairies have tin foil wings, vampires screen their blood donors for communicable diseases and attend support groups, bloodhounds are creatures not to be trifled with, and the gods of the city are the Bag Lady, the Beggar King, Fat Rat and Lady Neon.  Matthew, an urban sorcerer, can pull electricity out of the power mains, scry through the eyes of pigeons and urban foxes, send a hex via email, cast a barrier spell using the legalese on the back of his Oyster card, walk along the old city walls to commune with London itself, and on top of all that, he happens to be partially possessed by godlike creatures born of all of the life people have poured into the telephone lines ever since the first "Mr. Watson, are you there?".  Like London itself, Griffin's urban magic is a vibrant and dynamic blend of old and new -- and that is what makes great urban fantasy.

All of the authors mentioned in this article -- and many more -- have built upon the great foundation of traditional fantasy.  As much as modernizing those traditions keeps urban fantasy fresh and interesting, the subgenre is nothing without its history -- just like the cities that provide its essential settings.

No comments:

Post a Comment