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Ashana Lian's Fantasy Lab

Fantasy and Fantasy Writing from every angle: fantasy and sci-fi novels, films, artwork, superhero cartoons, children's and YA books, manga, anime, video games and comics. Put the microscope on 'Geek Culture'.

Saturday, 10 May 2014

Book: Dream London by Tony Ballantyne

HELLOOOOO and welcome to the 2014 Summer Fantasy Book Challenge! After a long time of not having read any 'proper' fantasy books (or to be honest any book for fun, seeing as I still read critical texts for university) I am very excited to bring this feature to my blog. As always, I write what I feel and unless stated, these posts are not spoiler free. So don't get mad if you find out that Ned Stark dies. LOLjk. He does though. But not in this book. =P

This first choice was going to be Tigana, but this is now likely to be next week's. This week's choice...


Dream London review

Author: Tony Ballantyne
Publisher: Solaris
Published: October 2013
Fantasy Sub-Genre: Goodreads - Urban. Me - Slipstream.

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 in Dream London the city changes a little every night and the people change a little every day. 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.

The concept of this book was just CRAZILY, crazily incredible. I picked it up off the shelf at Foyle's Westfield on Thursday and knew immediately it was the one I wanted to buy, (choosing it over The Night Eternal by Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan - I'll get to that later this month). Dream London is about a man called Captain Jim/James Wedderburn (debatable) who finds himself  investigating this curious, twisted London that keeps shifting all the time. The towers keep growing taller, the river Thames grows wider, strange creatures quietly turn up in the city, its impossible to leave, and most disturbingly the people change and don't even realise it.

This book, I'll admit, started off shaky. It was difficult to connect with this - somewhat arrogant - protagonist, but his sense of humour and (begrudging) acknowledgment of his faults glossed that over a bit. I felt like the first few pages were very 'explainy'. That's a word I really dislike and I don't use it as a positive adjective. I just felt there were better ways to draw the reader into what was going on, but what we got was good enough. It did get better. It was SO refreshing to read a fantasy not filled with typical mystical garbage - the old evil priests, bad magic, unpronounceable names thing. No disrespect - that was how I got into fantasy in the first place. But I'm a bit tired of it.

Dream London is so distorted from how London actually is that there's scope for some absolutely beautiful imagery in there. There was this one description about the half-moon almost piercing London on it's 'horns' - almost gothic, darkly beautiful. And there's this great quote by Rudoph - [Dream London] 'is what you get when science is explained by artists. Something which looks beautiful, but doesn't make any sense.' (p.151)

Dream London gives people the roles in society that apparently it wants them to have, meaning that certain ages, races and social groups are all bound by those roles. Also, the men are 'brutalised' and the women degraded - a majority of the women in Dream London are either cleaners or prostitutes. New arrivals in the city can hold onto their personality for three weeks at moment, because they start to conform without even realising. Even Jim Wedderburn, who looks after the prostitutes of Belltower End, finds himself coming across things that alienate or disgust him. It was uncomfortable at times, reading about a world when women have been reduced to such a pitiful and meaningless existence. Given what we find out about the ants, I think it makes sense. Didn't make it any less uncomfortable though. Also I just finished a bit of university work on The Handmaid's Tale... well, you know how that goes. A lot of misogyny about, huh? Not in itself, but the representation. When I try to think about what it means, I eventually get lost in the complicatedness of it.

Okay. Onto one of my favourite bits!

I really marvelled at the chapter where Jim goes to learn accountancy and suddenly realises, when he tries to count to ten, that the numeric sequence now goes - '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.' He can't think how he knows the sequence, and yet when he does mathematical sums, they work. Because he know it's not right and can't figure out how, he's instantly pulled into a deep depression. I thought it was really interesting. It was made very eerie when the mathematicians all end up committing suicide. It made Dream London feel very malevolent.

One very interesting point of this book was Jim trying to convince himself of who he is. When he was defending his bullshitty actions, it was easy to empathise with him until he's confronted by a scathing yet rational character like Bill. As awful as she is, what she says makes so much sense that it makes him seem like he's in denial - which would makes sense if Dream London was getting to him too. Another aspect I love is the shifts that Dream London puts into effect. The Egg Market and the Truth Script were great, the Fortune was interesting although it was a little pointless as I expected it to be of more use to Jim than it was.

Favourite character - its tempting to say Bill (I call her Billie-J in my head so I can remember she's female... yeah, I cheated, idgaf) for the first half, but I grew to dislike her insincerity. I must say Mr Monagan, the happy orange non-human. His innocence and childlike optimism is just so endearing and I can't help but adore his character. Second favourite is Rudoph because FINALLY, he is the character that brings the clarity. He helps us start to make sense of all the creepy non-logic going on in this messed up city, and his wealth of knowledge was refreshing. My favourite quotes are from him.

The Verdict

Actually, I'm dithering between a three and a four. Three suggests mediocre - it isn't. It's more than that. It is a passive but enchanting type of fantasy that gives your wacky right brain a lot to imagine and your sober left brain a lot of interesting concepts to think about. For that, I want to give it a four.

3 Sha's.

Buuuut ultimately I end up on a three, because the one thing that makes the book so amazing is the very same thing that holds it back. The one issue bugging me about this novel is that the protagonist doesn't find the action - the action finds him. Which isn't a problem. The adventure DOES normally find the hero. But the dreamlike set of events in this ever-changing London take the drive away from the story.

Because Dream London changes, expands, shrinks, and creates intoxifying illusions and allures, it casts uncertainty cast over everything including where the plot is actually going. There's no real way for Capt. Jim to fight back or hold his ground against multiple enemies in a city that you can't escape and changes all the while. He's distracted, enchanted and manipulated - and even at the end , the part meant to be the climax, things comes together with difficulty, like trying to get fog into a jar.

So with that, I gotta say I did enjoy this experience, and I would recommend it. Just... well, yeah. ^



Fantasy Food For Thought
[Jim] said "How could you work in there? Didn't the numbers drive you mad?" 
"Not if you understand what's really happening up there," said Rudoph. "Dream London isn't a fantasy, Jim, it's science fiction." (p.138)

I really liked that quote because it made me think about the line between magic and science. Magic, the unexplained - science, the explained. Or further, if you want to take it there, the line between Fantasy and Sci-Fi. Rudoph saying that was pretty iconic because NOTHING made sense in Dream London. The idea that there was still a logic and rationality to something that was ultimately nonsense was an idea that stuck with me. Kinda like saying Wonderland still has it's own, self-contained logic.

Not gonna lie though, another thing this book makes me consider is the roles of men and women in fantasy fiction. I tried to leave that alone but it was hard. Anyway, I thought about it, topic closed.

And finally, this made me think of fantasy societies. I am highly interested in laws, politics, religions and customs of fantasy societies... though I prefer when it doesn't completely take over the wonder of the fantasy element (often in Low Fantasy). 'London' is in the title for a reason - its about the city. It's about the citizens' relationship with the city, what the city does for itself, and how the city relates to Other Places. It draws attention to the hidden web that strings that fantasy world together.

Ashana Lian .

P.S. Next up... Tigana!

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