“Dream London” by Tony Ballantyne (2013)

Leave a comment

“Crunch crunch crunch.”

Many of the world’s finest cities are built on grids: New York, Barcelona, San Francisco, Paris, parts of Edinburgh and much of Rome. London, however, is not quite like that. With so many dead ends, cut-throughs, alleys, curves and very little regulation regarding street naming, there’s a theory that it’s been built like that specifically to confuse tourists. Or maybe it’s just to slow down any army that returns to take its nations stuff back from the museums. Dream London take this to a whole new level, and as I’m really missing my visits to the capital this week, it seemed a good place to spend a little time.

Dream London is not the London we once knew. The city changes a little bit every night, and the people change a little every day. The parks have disappeared, the Thames is now an impassable mile-wide waterway, the towers are gaining new floors with alarming regularity, and you never know if you’ll wake up to find your house next to a pub or a train station, or even if your house still exists. No one knows why this is happening, and have even less idea of how to stop it. Enter, Captain Jim Wedderburn. A former soldier, he left the army and is now struggling to make ends meet in this twisted version of his old home. He looks after a cohort of prostitutes and does his best to keep out of trouble, but Dream London has a way of making you into someone new.

Wedderburn’s fame is large, and when two rival factions seek him out for help against one another, he finds himself torn in two. Does he follow the Cohort into the legendary Angel Tower, the thousand-storey skyscraper that seems to be the centre of the changes, or does he join Daddio Clarke and his army of captive followers who all possess eyes on their tongues and send foul-mouthed little girls in to do the dirty work? Elsewhere, Dream London has given Wedderburn his fortune and he learns that he will soon betray one of his friends, and another will betray him. There’s no escape, the parks are getting bigger – even if no one can access them – and something terrible is coming. But this is a city where nothing is ever the same two days running, so how on Earth can it ever be put back together?

With shades of Neverwhere and Jasper Fforde abounds, this is a riotous romp through a fictional London that still seems oddly familiar. This must be what it’s like to be a first-time visitor to the city, with roads and train stations that come and go as they please, an inconsistent skyline, and people everywhere only out for themselves. Dream London seems to slowly be sinking back into a place of Victorian values, where workhouses exist and women are relegated mostly to either selling sex or cleaning floors. It’s not a bad life for everyone, but it very much depends who you are. Ballantyne does amazing work at spinning this mythical city on the page and bringing it to life. The complications of trains that never take you where you want, least of all out of Dream London, the obsession with eggs of the people who live near the fabled Egg Market, and the astounding reveal of who is behind it all are strokes of genius.

One of my favourite inventions is the Angel Tower, which is hiring people to rewrite the laws of the universe. On the Writing Floor, whatever is written becomes fact and shifts the city into a new shape. Anything from here that then gets moved to the Contracts Floor is immutable and unchanging. The Numbers Floor is the most interesting, however. There are no prime numbers in Dream London, and so Wedderburn is hired to prove this. When looking at the numbers, his mind begins to be affected by the city and he realises that there are other numbers between the numbers we know. As of now, seventeen has always been two times green. This is beautifully followed with the chapter titles, which insert the colours (and one two occasions, mere sensations) into the running order. A madcap idea that is executed with true skill.

Sharp, interesting characters, a well-defined world, and some utterly believable silliness. What isn’t to love about this?

Did you know that as well as reviewing everything I read, I also write novels, too? My books blend black humour with light horror, crossing genres with ordinary characters dealing with extraordinary circumstances. Head over to wherever you buy books to take a look at my two offerings. The first, The Atomic Blood-stained Bus, introduces you to a cannibal, an ex-god and the last witches of Britain, while the second, The Third Wheel, follows Dexter who is tired of being single while all his friends get married and settle down, but has a change of priority when aliens invade the planet. I hope you enjoy!

Roald Dahl: Three Novels

5 Comments

So, while this year I started re-reading Douglas Adams, I also pencilled in another go over Roald Dahl’s back catalogue. I read one of his adult collections last year, and in enjoying it, it made me nostalgic for those of my childhood. I was going to wait until I’d finished Adams, but instead I decided to make a little dent in the collection this morning and powered through three before lunch. Here, therefore, are short reviews for three of the shortest in Dahl’s oeuvre.

The Magic Finger (1966)

“The farm next to ours is owned by Mr and Mrs Gregg.”

The Magic Finger is possibly Dahl’s weirdest, and given what it’s up against, that’s certainly saying something. The plot is tiny, featuring an unnamed girl who has the ability to point her finger at people when they make her angry and punish them in supernatural ways. She vows never to use her powers again after accidentally giving her teacher whiskers, but when she sees her neighbours have been hunting again and killed a beautiful deer, she uses the magic finger on them and gives them a taste of their own medicine.

While the story isn’t perhaps his most memorable, its brevity is full enough with the qualities you expect from him. It’s dark, somewhat macabre, and given a vitally important moral that almost certainly turned more than a few children vegetarian, for a while at least. As with all the books though, the real magic actually comes from Quentin Blake’s gorgeous illustrations. While sketchy and perhaps derided by those who don’t understand the style, they fit perfectly with the tale. I love that the story gives us absolutely no indication of how the heroine got her powers, when else she’s used it, or what she’ll go on to do with the rest of her life. It’s a slice-of-life that’s bizarre and treated as totally normal, making it even more fun.

Fantastic Mr Fox (1970)

“Down in the valley there were three farms.”

This is probably one of his most famous stories. In it, Mr Fox and his family are besieged by three evil farmers, Boggis, Bunce and Bean. When the farmers reach breaking point with Mr Fox stealing their animals to feed his own family, they decide to dig him out of his hillside home. Mr Fox, however, is much smarter than them, and while they have left their farms to hunt down their enemy, the animals of the forest set about ensuring a bountiful feast.

Again, the short story is wonderfully illustrated by Blake, and the characters shine through. The villains here are particularly revolting – although still nothing compared to the third story listed here – and starkly memorable. Once they’ve set up position on the hill awaiting Mr Fox to reach desperation and come out to find some food, the drama abates, and while there are a couple of other threats installed later, they don’t seem to have the same heft as the three farmers.

Nonetheless, this is one of my favourite Dahl books. While not perhaps actually as dark as some of his others, it’s still a really engaging story and one worth returning to due to its morals about sharing, community and obsession.

The Twits (1980)

“What a lot of hairy-faced men there are around nowadays.”

If there was ever more proof needed that fashion and style trends are circular in nature, the opening line of The Twits is evidence enough. I was going to say that the rest doesn’t really apply, but then again, it’s about incredibly vile, stupid people doing incredibly vile, stupid things, so maybe there are parallels to modern society?

Mr and Mrs Twit are retired monkey trainers who now spend their days playing mean pranks on one another, commanding their caged monkeys to do tricks upside down, and painting glue on trees to catch birds for their weekly Bird Pie. It seems that no one can stop their deranged activities, until one of the monkeys comes up with a plan to get revenge.

They are two of the most disgusting characters in literature, and not just in Dahl, but oddly engaging. The moral here is about being a good person, and contains the famous analysis that it doesn’t matter what you look like, but people with good thoughts will always appear beautiful, while nasty, toxic thoughts will poison you and make you look unattractive. There’s more than a touch of surrealism about this one, but it’s also quite funny, and I particularly enjoy the scenes where Mrs Twit believes herself to be shrinking thanks to a prank by her husband that’s actually pretty well executed.

All in all, in diving back into Roald Dahl I’m realising that there’s perhaps a lot more of these books than I thought. I’d never really associated any of them as having morals, save for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which really lays it on thick, but these are definitely books that have something to teach you. While aimed at children, and notable as much of Dahl’s work is for having adults who are fundamentally useless, there’s definitely cause for adults to return to their childhood and have another look at these unusual, dark and yet somehow charming stories.