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.


If readers don’t stick with you past your opening lines then the rest is irrelevant. Everwalker wrote a great piece about this, and I recommend that you check it out. Based on an idea from Scott Bell, her approach is to start with the character and a sense of forward motion.

American Gods

To take an example from Neil Gaiman’s extraordinary American Gods:

‘Shadow had done three years in prison.’

In those seven words we have the character, we know something about him, and we get the sense that things are changing – he ‘had done’ three years in prison, and now presumably he’s coming out. Things are changing.

American Gods

Gaiman’s opening also raises lots of questions. Why was Shadow in prison? What will he do once he gets out? What sort of person has a name like Shadow? It gets you on the hook and reels you in towards the rest of the story.


‘But wait,’ I hear you cry, well-read reader that you are. ‘What about Neuromancer by William Gibson, possibly the most famous opening line in science fiction? That doesn’t have character or forward motion. You’re a fool Knighton, a fool and a fraud!’

And it sure looks like you have a point:

‘The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.’

But even Gibson, having delivered that killer line, then cuts to character and motion:

‘ ‘It’s not like I’m using,’ Case heard someone say, as he shouldered his way through the crowd around the door of the Chat.’

Voila, character and motion, Case in conflict with the crowd as he tries to get somewhere. And the following lines tie character and setting together, showing what sort of place Case spends his time in and how he perceives it. That opening line might not directly introduce Case, but it does tell us something about his world and the way he sees it, and this is a story that’s a lot about exposing that world to us through Case.

More like guidelines

‘Rules are there so that you think before you break them.’ – Terry Pratchett

Any guideline needs to be treated with some flexibility. Gibson achieves the same thing as Gaiman, he just waits for the second sentence. But he also varies it – his story is about taking us into a completely different world, and it needs to sell that difference from the start. Gibson’s selling us alienation, Gaiman the brutal truth of a man looking to move on from his past.

What are your favourite opening lines, both that you’ve read and that you’ve written? What do they give the reader to keep them reading? Share them below, lets see how well this rule holds.

Reading with feeling

‘One reviewer didn’t even talk about the plot, just about how the book made him feel.’ – Neil Gaiman

It’s a funny thing about novels – a huge part of the experience is how they make you feel, but we’ll often discuss our thoughts on them rather than our feelings.

The Neil Gaiman quote above comes from a Q&A session. What’s interesting to me is that, even to Gaiman, that review stood out. We’re used to reviewers talking about structure, about descriptive skill, about plot. But how often do they mention the many different emotions the book evoked? Yet that’s what many people will read the book for.

It’s often the same when we talk about our favourite characters. If I’m discussing Game of Thrones with my brother (it comes up at least once per conversation) we’ll talk about the things characters did – Tyrion said something funny, a Stark did something noble but stupid again. We’ll talk about theories on where the characters are heading (what GoT fan hasn’t discussed Jon Snow’s lineage?). But have I ever said out loud that Petyr Baelish fills me with queasy unease and guilty admiration? That my 95% rage at Joffrey is tempered by 5% pity at his messy upbringing? That my pride in seeing Arya grow up is mingled with real worry at what sort of person she’ll become?

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qmHyJhQvdIE&w=560&h=315]

queasy admiration all the way

These are feelings the author has set out to inspire, and yet when we analyse a book we’ll often ignore them. Perhaps that’s just a matter of habit, born of education and reading others’ reviews. Perhaps it’s because our feelings are subjective, and so it’s harder to argue our case. Perhaps it’s because they’re not entirely consistent, and admitting our own inconsistencies is a difficult thing to do. After all, who wants to admit they feel a little sorry for Joffrey, when he spends his whole time being so awful?


Next time you’re discussing a book, take the time to feel as well as to think. To poke around in ugly emotions. Maybe step back into thoughts again and work out why. I started when I read that Gaiman quote all of twenty minutes ago, and I’m already interested in the results.

Now I’m off to watch some Game of Thrones. I’m feeling the need to go hate Petyr Bealish. It’s just so satisfying.