Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Microreview [book]: Dream London by Tony Ballantyne

Ballantyne, Tony. Dream London. [Solaris, 2013]

The Meat Pie

Well here we are dear reader in another fantastical version of a modern city, warped for your delight, taking you away into a wonderland only one imaginative leap from your own humdrum reality. I am led to believe by other bloggers out there with more savvy than me that this is what we should be calling Urban Fantasy, a moniker that makes me think more of my desires for a garden flat not too far from the tube for under half a million pounds... Or of a time when London's nasty prat of a mayor is booted out. But I digress..

This particular 'UF' is of this same city, suffering under the effects of some strange and constant mutation. Each night streets shift, houses grow, move or disappear, neighbourhoods shrink or expand. Exotic monkeys and birds roam the night streets, and trendy bars and pubs revert to taverns and inns of the old days. Indeed, the chief result of these mysterious goings-on is that London is succumbing to its past in both landscape and behaviour. The city we are led through, dubbed 'Dream London', has more in common with a steam punk Victorian dystopia than any Orwellian future world. I was reminded as much of graphic novels like From Hell as much as sci-fi films like Dark City or Franklyn. 

It is the transformation of people's roles and personalities more than anything that Ballantyne is concerned with. The hero and narrator is a former soldier, James Wedderburn, who, as the story begins, is working as a benevolent pimp to young women in a seedy corner of town. He is standard anti-hero material, selfish and jaded, but with the smarts and charm, and deeply-hidden golden heart, to be a good guy really. Or so I think we are supposed to think. And whilst James is pleasant enough company, and a suitably cynical guide to this strange world, the fact that he is fully engaged with the morally dubious world around him, working prostitutes and dealing with murderous rivals, and yet acts so apart from it, so confused by it, left me a little detached from the tale. I couldn't quite connect with the idea of Dream London as a functioning reality in which James really lives. Indeed the first few chapters exacerbate this dislocation, suggesting that perhaps this is all a halluciagenic dream in the mind of James. 

This would have been a fun way to carry-on the book - one man's perception of his own world, distorted by imagination. Yet as various players in the battle for control of Dream London attempt to force James to join their side, and he finds himself dragged into a struggle to expose and defeat the powers behind the city's transformation, the story is realised as a full-blown fantasy epic, of which James is really only a small element, and often a passive bystander. The secret of how London came to be so warped is the source of much of the tale's mystery, and Ballantyne describes this decaying world rather excellently, making me want to stroll its streets and wander its fragrant markets. Some reservations, however. For example, the way women are reduced in status and power to become whores standing in doorways like some adult version of Oliver Twist may be a fair assessment of the repugnant sexism that is only slowly being diluted in our real world. But the idea society would so quickly revert (the changes have been going on only for around a year) beggars belief, and this is reenforced by almost all the characters save James having seemingly fully embraced this new situation, almost as if they were never in existence before. I sort of wished the real world was some distant myth, whispered of but only remembered by the old. It would have made the set-up more convincing for me at least.

But enough of logic and believability. There are giant salamders, blue monkeys, a character in the form of an orange frog man, an angry spy, an obstinate and foul-mouthed toddler with eyes in her tongue, towers with horrifying vortexes and a chasm to another world. That's my Christmas wish list sorted. This is a fun and fantastic place, and would be a great location for a series of books. I just wish the path the protagonist took showed us more of it, and have lent us more understanding of it. As he reaches the climax of the story, Ballantyne throws in marching bands, missle attacks, orgiastic killer statues and towers of evil ants. And we get some idea of what caused the changes. But I just didn't quite buy it. Dream London - the place and the novel - remains a delightful enigma, a wild and imaginative arena, and not an alternaverse (that isn't a word but should be) I could be convinced by, but one I thoroughly enjoyed visiting.

The Math 

Baseline Assessment: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 for the wild and imaginative details; +1 for Mr Monagan the ever-faithful orange frog man

Penalties: -1 for not solving the disconnect between hero and his surroundings; -2 for the disappointment of the final pages, which seem to kill the idea of a book two.

Nerd coefficient6/10. Still enjoyable, but the flaws are hard to ignore