Beneath London by James P Blaylock

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Beneath London by James P Blaylock

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Category: Fantasy
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Stephen Leach
Reviewed by Stephen Leach
Summary: An enjoyable mystery set in a fantastical version of Victorian London.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 416 Date: June 2015
Publisher: Titan Books
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1783292608

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The collapse of the Victoria Embankment uncovers a passage to an unknown realm beneath the city. Langdon St. Ives sets out to explore it, not knowing that a brilliant and wealthy psychopathic murderer is working to keep the underworld's secrets hidden for reasons of his own. St. Ives and his stalwart friends investigate a string of ghastly crimes: the gruesome death of a witch, the kidnapping of a blind, psychic girl, and the grim horrors of a secret hospital serve the strange, murderous ends of perhaps St. Ives' most dangerous nemesis yet.

Beneath London is an interesting mix of genres. While the setting is a steampunk vision of Victorian London, Blaylock weaves in elements of fantasy and horror while setting up a compelling mystery plot. I was impressed by how focused the writing of the novel was as a result: many fantasy novels tend to cram in detail after detail in an attempt to worldbuild, but Blaylock resists the temptation to do this and instead focuses on ably developing the large cast of characters. While this is the second in a series, I very rarely felt as though I'd missed something.

The characters aside, it should be noted that this book would be nothing if not for its excellent setting. London is vividly-imagined, as alive as any of the characters, and right from the first page I felt as though I was walking through the gloomy, smoky streets, or descending into the damp, muggy underground below. Steampunk relies so heavily on these tropes that they can descend quickly into trite parodies of themselves, but Blaylock writes them so sharply you'd think he invented them.

St Ives makes for a good protagonist. The obvious comparison to Sherlock Holmes was always in my mind while I was reading this, but St Ives manages to feel distinct, sharing Holmes's genius while possessing far more humanity and warmth. While he wasn't the most interesting of characters, the frequent insertion of humour helped offset this and made him much more likeable. Alice was one of my favourite characters: she's every bit as clever and inquisitive as her husband, and was never reduced to being a damsel in distress, and I liked this.

A good hero needs a good villain, and Klingheimer was definitely that. One of the best parts of the book is the spine-tingling description of the Elysium Asylum frequented by him: I wasn't expecting the book to be quite so dark, and yet I found myself gripped by the vivid descriptions of the surgery enacted. The fact that such places actually existed in Victorian times only adds to the horror.

One criticism I would make is that we don't spend all that much time below the ground: I felt there was so much more of the world below London to be explored, but we only saw a glimpse of it. The way the parasitic fungi growing below the ground was described helped me to picture them perfectly, and I really wanted to see more.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to the Bookbag.

For further reading, if you're in the mood for something with a similar steampunk theme, I'd suggest Fever Crumb (Mortal Engines Quartet Prequel) by Philip Reeve, which follows the adventures of a young girl in a futuristic version of London.

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