Why is the Magic Always in London?

Have you noticed how fantasy and sci-fi set in Britain are predominantly set in London? Especially if it’s set in a city, you’re almost certainly going to be in the capital. Why is that?

Infinite Cities, Yet All the Same One

Darker.jpgI love London. I lived there for a year when I was teaching, and it was a great year. There’s a lot of amazing stuff in the British capital, and the atmosphere in the heart of the city is like nowhere else in the UK.

Similar things can be said of many other British cities. From gentle, sleepy Norwich to cheery, in-your-face Newcastle, to the northern bustle of Manchester. Sure, London has a particularly high density of people and attractions, but any British city has plenty of stuff you could set a story around.

I ended up pondering this as I read V. E. Schwab’s A Darker Shade of Magic. Schwab’s fantasy novel is set in several different Londons that lie parallel to each other, accessible by magic. There’s a familiar idea here – the idea of hidden cities alongside the one we normally see, and it’s an idea that seems to be particularly associated with London. From Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere to China Miéville’s Un Lun Dun, the fantastical Londons pile up thick and fast. Not to mention all the mechanically powered Victorian Londons of steampunk.

It’s starting to annoy me. I love London, but I love other British cities too.I want to see the attention spread around more.

So why isn’t it?

Because London’s Important. Duh.

OK, yes, there’s an obvious factor. London is a huge and important place. With seven to eight million people living in the greater London area, it’s several times larger than any other British city, and one of the largest conurbations in Europe. It has a wide variety of interesting locations for writers to shove into the background, or more rarely make substantial use of. It’s hugely powerful – it may not be the global capital it was in the Victorian age, but it’s still one of the most influential cities in the modern world, with a specialist financial sector that punches far above its weight.

Then there’s the familiarity. People have heard of London. They’ve seen it on the TV. They have a good idea of what it represents. Writers, whether for the page or the screen, don’t have to familiarise readers with London every time they set something there.

And that’s where we get into the part that really interests me.

Specialisation Breeds Specialisation

Geographers have long noticed a tendency for local specialisation to be self-reinforcing. There’s no particular reason in the here and now why Paris should be a centre for fashion, nothing fundamental about that city’s location and resources to encourage this. But somewhere along the line, it got ahead of the curve on fashion a little. The fashion industry grew, which meant there were jobs there. That drew in the talent to work for existing fashion houses and meant that when those people started their own businesses they often did it in Paris. Even outsiders started setting up business there because that was where the skilled workers were. That brought in more skilled workers which drew in more business which… oh look, a self-reinforcing cycle! Now Paris is about fashion because Paris is about fashion.

It’s not unique. Look at the tech industry in Silicon Valley or the City of London, that city within a city committed to high finance.

I think we’re seeing the same thing with fantastical Londons. People have got used to the idea that London is a strange and wonderful place. Because fantasy writers have set their stories there, readers are pre-prepared to accept London as a magical place. That gives an advantage to writers who set their fantasies there, as the readers are receptive. That means more London fantasies, which means more readiness for London fantasies, which means… oh look, another self-reinforcing cycle!


And of course much fiction exists in response to other fiction. People who read and like London fantasy will be inspired by it to imagine their own fantasy Londons, to show how they would do it. Which means… you get it.

The Good, the Bad, and the City

So is this focus on London a bad thing?

I guess that depends on what you want. Much like geographical skill specialisation, it lets us build on what’s come before, enriching the discussion about what a single city could hold. But it also means that we’re missing out on potential fantastical depictions of other cities.

It also connects to a bigger issue of London’s relationship with the rest of Britain, and whether politicians are neglecting other regions in favour of the capital. Which assumes that they’re even considering the whole capital, and not just that totemic financial centre. And then we’re into a can of tribalistic worms I shan’t get into here.

Ultimately, this pattern in literature is unlikely to change anytime soon. For better or for worse, London and magic have become intertwined.

What do you think? Do you enjoy reading stories set in London, and if so what’s it’s appeal? Do you have favourite depictions of other cities in fantasy and science fiction? Let me know in the comments.

After Londinium – a historical flash story

Picture by Jorge Elias via Flickr creative commons.
Picture by Jorge Elias via Flickr creative commons.

The ashes of the city were still warm underfoot. They felt gentle against Luigsech’s skin, until she trod on something broken beneath them – a snapped bone or shard of pottery. Then she was reminded of the destruction they had brought to pass here, unleashing their rage upon the people living within the invaders’ walls.

She had thought that vengeance would help her feel better about losing Seisyll, but she was still as lost as she had been for months. The ashes were meant to hold something, anything to soften the blow. That was why she had come back here, axe still in hand, while the rest of the army formed up behind their queen and marched on. But the ruins were too empty, too quiet to bring any comfort. The black stain of ashes would forever scar this land, but it could not drive away her grief. Walking here just left her feeling hollow inside.

The wind blew, lifting ash from the base of a fallen pillar. Perhaps that was what she needed to do, to imitate the wind and dig deeper.

Kneeling, she sank her hands through the ashes, flinging handfuls aside. The air around her becoming a grey cloud, until her fingers touched upon something strange and angular.

Carefully now, she brushed the ashes from its surface, revealing a fallen statue. The man it depicted had been handsome before they tore him from his plinth, smashed chunks from his face and scoured his building with fire. What remained still had a stark beauty, with the remnants of smooth lines and perfectly carved muscles.

Tears ran down Luigsech’s cheeks. She had never seen such a breathtaking work of art, and she had played a part in destroying it. How many more things of beauty had they ruined? She had wanted to create balance for Seisyll’s death, but all she had done was bring more loss.

She pulled off the fur in which her chest was wrapped and used it to brush the ashes from that beautiful, broken face. Then she worked her way along the prostrate form, flinging aside the ashes that covered his belly, his pelvis, his legs.

At last she came to his feet and saw what he stood on. Another body, this time a rendition of one of her own people, trampled underfoot. She didn’t know if it was the way he was carved or just her fond memories, but this man looked so much like Seisyll that she wept again.

This time the tears were hot with anger, her breath coming fast in her rage. It sickened her to think that people capable of such beauty should use it to depict the terrible things they had done. She felt ashamed that she had wept for these people, ashamed and angry.

Snatching up her axe, she pounded at the smug face of the Roman, smashing away what remained of his beauty in a frenzy of blows.

She had helped to ruin something wonderful, and it had all been worthwhile.

* * *


If you enjoyed this story then you might also want to check out my collection of historical fiction, From a Foreign Shore

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Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch

I’ve been meaning to read Rivers of London for a while. I’m intrigued by the idea of hidden cities lurking beneath our own, both literally and metaphorically, and this looked like it would play on that theme. I’ve not read much urban fantasy, but this looked fun and a bit different, and I’m familiar enough with London for that to add to my interest. I don’t know how original this is by comparison with other fantasies in modern settings, but it worked for me.

Rivers of London follows policeman Peter Grant as he’s drawn into a world of supernatural danger and politicing. It’s rich and convincing in its detail, including that on police life and London’s history. I don’t know if it would stand up to an expert in those fields, but I’m no expert, and Aaronovitch convinced me he knew what he was doing. In fact, that was one of the biggest lessons I learned from this book as a writer – do more research. The throw-away details and the real-sounding depiction of the nuances of police life really sucked me in, even when dealing with the unreal.

Story-wise, this was pretty familiar. An apprentice drawn into an exotic life, growing out from beneath the wings of his master. A mysterious power to be thwarted. A crime with limited suspects. A hint of love triangle on the side. Nothing innovative, but nothing wrong with that. The parts combined well, it was easy to follow and cracked along at a good pace.

And strangely, I’m struggling for more to say. There was nothing that stood out as wrong with this book, and nothing that leapt out and made me go ‘holy cow, I must talk about that!’ It was good enough that I’ll probably read more Peter Grant books, and at the end of the day, isn’t that a success for a novel?

Overall, worth reading. I enjoyed it, I’ve learned a bit, now on to the next story.

Have any of you read it? What did you think?