Hammers On Bone, by Cassandra Khaw

A hardboiled detective.  A resourceful boy in dire straits.  A killer spreading like sickness through the poor side of London.  Forget good prevailing over evil.  Sometimes, the best you can hope for is the lesser of two monsters.

John Persons should know better than to take things at face value, and it’s not just because he’s a private investigator.  But when the snot nosed kid shows up at his office demanding–not requesting–help to protect his younger brother, Persons finds he can’t say no, and just as quickly finds himself caught up in a plot much larger than one body-snatching monster on the lose in the slums.

Like all good short fiction, this novella makes double use of language in a squishy kaleidoscope of color, motion, smells, sounds, and gut feelings.  It draws a beautiful metaphor for the idea of justice and protection of innocents, asking, through the existence of a man-shaped monster determined to solve crimes and vanquish demons, what we really give up when we relegate protecting the populace to a detached–and often dangerous–policing force, when community outsources its role to an arm of capitalism instead of taking responsibility for its own members.

It’s also just a really well-developed twisty horror noir on its own.

Khaw narrates through the voice of Persons himself, whose own personality is reflected and refracted through the mind of the man he’s inhabiting.  Creating a noir inflection without resorting solely to tropes and repetition is no small feat, and Khaw’s prose is delightfully anchored in the horrors Persons has seen and perpetrated in his long life.  This is the kind of writing one could spend a lifetime mastering, and is a pleasure to get one’s tentacles on.

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A Darker Shade of Magic, by V. E. Schwab

In
a world where the color of your eyes—one of them, at least—can pull you from
poverty into the royal palace, Kell is little short of a prince.  Magic is the force that moves the world
in Kell’s London, and part of what makes it so wondrous.  And he should know, being one of the
few in all the worlds who has seen them all.  White, Grey, Red, all except for Black London, of course.  Lila Bard is a thief and pickpocket
living in the London Kell knows as Grey, dreaming of getting out of her life of
poverty, of having a ship and all the world at her fingertips. That dream seems
pretty far off, until Lila picks the wrong pocket, and gets more than a trinket
to fence.

Kell
and Lila’s adventures take them through all of London’s permutations, from the
all but magic-less, to the cup overflowing with magic of all kinds, to the
world where magic is a hunted creature that might very well turn around and
hunt the person trying to capture it. 
Along the way they learn more about themselves, battling their inner
demons as well as the servants of a dark magic trying to use them on its way to
greater power. 

Schwab
has written a true page-turner that relies on characters who are willing to
make snap decisions.  Combined with
the novel’s meditation on the nature of magic, good, and evil, this is an
impressive feat.  The story finds
its strength in two main characters who can think on their feet, and whose
quick movement through the worlds doesn’t seem contrived or rushed.  Readers get to savor the implications
of Lila and Kell’s experiences and relationships, while the characters
themselves get down to the business of saving the world.

With
all the Londons to explore—and the implications of the parallel worlds they
link, this novel is bigger on the inside. 
Fans of time travel and portal fantasy alike will enjoy the speculative
nature of A Darker Shade of Magic.  Lovers of London-based fiction or
alternate history should definitely check out this novel.  It contains some of the classic themes
of magic fiction, tipping slightly into the horror side of the fantastic, and
leaving plenty of room for speculation and imagination.

NW, by Zadie Smith

Most novels are about people, their struggles and conflicts
and relationships.  NW is about a place—specifically the NW
post code of London.  Just a little
north of the museums and parks and palaces that London is known for is a part
of the city that is defined by the people who live there now, not its history
or appeal to tourists.  In NW, everyone knows everyone, communities
are close-knit, almost claustrophobic, and trying to overcome one’s past is
nothing so simple as moving south of the river, or even changing one’s name.

Natalie
Blake and Leah Hanwell are the entry characters to NW’s twisting streets and maze-like estates, outlined by the
secondary stories of Nathan and Felix. 
The women are trying to overcome not only their origins but the
traditional gender roles that push them towards lives of domesticity, while
Nathan and Felix deal with the twofold hazard of being both black and male in a
society that always adds the two together and gets “criminal.”  The stories in NW could take place in many parts not only of England but also the
United States, however the way that Smith writes places the reader squarely in
a world she obviously knows well, making the reader feel all the cramped
council flats, the dirty streets, the crowded tube carriages. 

Within
the grim yet comic irony of Margaret Atwood, Smith weaves the epic fatalism of
Ernest Hemingway, and the geographical groundedness of James Joyce to create a
novel where dreams of something else collide with reality, over and over, in
much the same way that characters repeatedly collide with each other until the
simultaneously explosive and mundane conclusion.  Smith’s characters are richly realized and yet starkly
written, expertly drawn by the ways in which they act and interact with each
other.  Like Carver or Hemingway,
Smith uses language sparingly, allowing her characters to speak for
themselves. 

Readers
looking for a novel that isn’t afraid to broach difficult or awkward topics,
yet maintains a reverence and respect for the frailties of the human condition,
will fall in love with Zadie Smith’s scalpel wielding in cross-sectioning a
complicated community in NW.  Readers who enjoy stories set in London
will be fully immersed by the world Smith creates, and the vibrancy of her
characters.  Those interested in
stories of second-generation immigrant communities can’t help but be fascinated
by Smith’s rendering of complicated individuals seeking both escape and
validation from their families and origins in a novel that encompasses many
complicated layers of human nature and desire.

The Quick, by Lauren Owen

Though the streets of London are dark, dismal, and
threatening, Owen has created a vividly illustrated cast of characters in The Quick, a novel that traces its grim
roots to Stoker, Wilde, and other authors of the now-famous Victorian
period.  In a city where the undead
stalk the streets and prey on the unawares, Owen’s creations burn brightly to
the bitter end.  And beyond. 

The
Quick
begins modestly as the story of
Charlotte and James Norbury, young children growing up in a great empty house
in Yorkshire with a rotating cast of governesses and servants to raise them
while their father is in London on business.  He returns to Askew Hall only in time to pass away, and for
his sister to take over management of the estate.  The Quick is a
novel in three parts, and for some readers it may feel a bit too disjointed,
but is worth the effort to meet the many compelling personalities in and about
London.  Many years pass and
readers are introduced to James as a young man, finishing at Oxford, going to
live in London to be a writer, and taking an apartment with another young man,
Christopher Page.  And things
spiral deeper and deeper into the dark side of London.

 Owen
spins her tale of undead existing among the living with care, hiding away her
secrets like the painting hung behind a door at the top of the stairs,
parceling out information in hints that will keep the reader interested even
over the course of the novel’s 500-plus pages.  In revelation after revelation, Owen builds her case for the
undead like Sherlock Holmes himself—when you have eliminated the impossible,
whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.  When, after the death of their aunt, Charlotte
can’t get in touch with James, she travels to London and instead finds quite a
different situation than she’d expected, and must make decisions she’d never
thought possible. 

The Quick is not just another novel
about vampires, but is a long exploration of the nature of desire: how it can
influence people in ways they could never have anticipated.  Readers of classic English literature
will enjoy the deft touch Owen shows when developing the mood and atmosphere of
her novel and its homage to Oscar Wilde and Bram Stoker.  Those who enjoy seeing an idea
developed from multiple points of view, with care paid to how the same
situation can be viewed differently depending one’s relation to it, will be
attracted to the individuals of the story and how they move through the
plot.  Even though she hides Charlotte
away for nearly a third of the novel, Owen builds out her cast of characters
with strongly developed and interesting women, refreshing in a type of story
generally dominated by men. Both the women and men are drawn to the center of
the plot, forced to rely on their wits and talents to survive.  The final third of the novel is perhaps
drawn out more than necessary, but The
Quick
is still an engrossing and compelling read.