Wednesday, 3 September 2014

London, and the rest of Britain

I'm looking for some book recommendations. Specifically, can anyone recommend to me a recent (last 20 years or so) urban fantasy novel by a British author which isn't primarily set in London?

I ask because I've read four different urban fantasy stories by three different British authors this year, and all of them were largely based in London: Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere takes place almost entirely within London; Catherine Webb's Waywalkers and Timekeepers trot the globe a bit, but come back to London a lot, and her A Madness of Angels (published under the name Kate Griffin) is quite openly a serenade to the city; finally, I recently tried Samantha Shannon's The Bone Season, and the furthest it gets from London is Oxford, except for one flashback.

Now, sure, London's a big city, especially for such a small country. It's the seventh-largest metropolitan area in the world by population, and by the figure given in that list accounts for almost a third of the British population. Also of interest are its place at 29 in the list of most populous urban areas and 23 in the list of cities proper, according to which it accounts for almost a sixth and over an eighth of the nation's population respectively.

So we should expect a pretty large portion of British authors to be from London and its general region and thus naturally inclined to write about the city. But assuming my sample is random (it's not, of course, particularly since two of the books were forwarded to me by my sister, who now lives in London), who's writing about the other 40-50million Brits?

And when I say that these books are set in London, I don't just mean that they're set in London the way some Hollywood films are set in London - Big Ben or the Tower of London floating by in the background every now and then. I mean that every single one of the books I've listed had at least one moment where I felt like I needed to have a map of the London Underground to hand to understand what was going on.

The Bone Season, which is freshest in my memory, has two lengthy sections, including a chase scene, set in and around Seven Dials. I'd never even heard of the place until I read the book, but the chase scene gives you the name of every street the characters run down (without saying much about which directions they turn). I'm confident I could trace the whole route on a map, but I was completely lost trying to follow the action without a map.

I talked last week about how I tend to underdevelop locations in my books, but I think this problem of too much detail (or the wrong kind of detail) is as bad. I don't remember struggling with Raymond Chandler's L.A. or Tom Clancy's Washington like this, or indeed with the entirely fictional cities in the fantasy novels of Brandon Sanderson and Scott Lynch. In Mark Chadbourn's Age of Misrule trilogy, there's a sequence in Edinburgh which felt much more accessible, about the closest I can remember to what I'm looking for (though I gave up on Age of Misrule not long after, for unrelated reasons).

There's a cultural dimension to the problem, as well, when dealing specifically with London. The city's size relative to the rest of the country means it has a tendency to suck economic and cultural activity towards itself. There are plenty of fantasy novels set largely in rural Britain - by authors like Dianna Wynne Jones and Alan Garner - but the novels I'm aware of about British cities outside London tend to be more of the Trainspotting variety; many things, but not fantasy in the genre sense.

So if you do know of urban fantasy set in a non-Londonish bit of urban Britain, please let me know. Some of the projects I'm working on at the moment are urban fantasy, and I'm interested to see how other cities get represented.

No comments:

Post a Comment