Dream London by British author Tony Ballantyne creates a London that is slowly and inexorably turning into something…else. Immediately intriguing and engaging, this bizarre and inscrutable cityscape provides the backdrop for a really interesting story. This is a really great melding of urban fantasy with the sort of Lovecraftian creeping horror, as the stalwart (except not really) hero Captain Jim Wedderburn tries to figure out what is happening to the city, and struggles between opposing forces with agendas that aren’t what they appear to be.
In Dream London the city changes a little every night and the people change a little every day. Captain Jim Wedderburn has looks, style and courage by the bucketful. He’s adored by women, respected by men and feared by his enemies. He’s the man to find out who has twisted London into this strange new world, and he knows it. But the towers are growing taller, the parks have hidden themselves away and the streets form themselves into strange new patterns. There are people sailing in from new lands down the river, new criminals emerging in the East End and a path spiralling down to another world. Everyone is changing, no one is who they seem to be, and Captain Jim Wedderburn is beginning to understand that he’s not the man he thought he was…
Before I get into the review of the book itself, I just want to point out that as far as I’m concerned, Joey Hi-Fi can pretty much do every book cover from now on and I’d be perfectly happy. Seriously, the level of detail and subtlety in his cover art is just mind-blowing. His covers are almost enough to make me buy a book all on their own. All right, now that that’s out of the way.
Over a decade ago, when it was the newest cool thing, I read Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves and about the only thing I actually liked about it was the story furthest in, the Navidson Record, about the house which was mysteriously changing internal dimensions in a sort of creepy way. I find the idea of the rules we generally accept as ‘how things are’ quietly and subtly changing on us to be supremely disquieting. I’m the sort of guy that is very relieved to find out that 2+2=4 any time I check. So the transformation of London by Ballantyne really pulled me into the story.
There’s a scene that is almost played for laughs but which was seriously creepy, where Captain Jim is working I suppose semi-undercover in the main building of the new city, ‘rationalising’ numbers. He’s given a list of numbers and factorizes them. 8 is four times two, 17,666 is eight thousand eight hundred thirty-three times two, and when he gets to 17, he says it can’t be divided rationally. He’s told to think about it again, and then of course, 17 is two times green. The person with him sort of shakes his head slowly and says “I’m sorry, it’s part of you now.” The last section of that chapter is him counting to ten in his head: “One, red, two, blue, a feeling of setting out on a journey, three, a feeling of fulfilment, yellow, four, five, orange, six, cyan, seven, eight, green, nine, purple, ten.” I may have shuddered a bit. This is -exactly- the kind of slow push to strangeness that is just absolutely great!
My main criticism of Dream London might not even count as a criticism. Jim Wedderburn as a character falls into the reluctant hero box, bordering on the anti-hero. He’s a pimp, he’s selfish, he’s a bit of a dick. Now…part of that is on purpose because that’s the kind of character that is called for in this setting, and part of that is an element of the way the changing city is also changing the people in it, but he passed a little bit into the jerk uncanny valley. There was really nothing to redeem him, so he became less interesting to me. Even anti-heros are supposed to be root-for-able, but he just sort of sits out all the important bits, and keeps on being a goon. I mean…I’m not sure whether I’d have been any happier if he underwent a dramatic heroic transformation, but there you have it. He was a great jerk, up until he was still a jerk when my literature brain wanted him to stop.
I’ll also put out a fair warning, this is not a very kid-friendly novel. There’s a good bit of violence, a little bit of sex, recreational and professional drug use and some phenomenally creative and wonderful profanity, which puts it squarely in the ‘Fantasy isn’t just for kids’ camp. I do appreciate the increase in speculative fiction being written with an adult audience squarely in mind, but as little as I’d like to ever see books start having ratings, I could see this one being bought for a kid or teen on the strength of the cover art and the back-cover blurb, and then shocking some poor parent.
You’ll enjoy Dream London if you’re into the slightly more gritty darker fantasy like you get from a Chuck Wendig (Blackbirds) or a Mark Lawrence (Prince of Thorns). There’s a certain element of the Lovecraftian-style darker fantasy in here as well which almost feels a little like some of the older Stephen King.