Most of us know better than to judge a book by its cover. What with some marketing departments’ manifest need to mislead, this is a useful rule of thumb... albeit one easier said than done. But for Tony Ballantyne’s new novel? Maybe make an exception, because Joey Hi-Fi’s starkly stunning cityscape tells the same terrific tale Dream London does.
Take a closer look, if you like. This isn’t London as we know it, no, yet a great many of the capital’s architectural landmarks are present... if not necessarily correct. There’s Big Ben at the centre, standing triumphant at the edge of the Thames. To the left of it, the distinctive domes of St. Paul’s Cathedral catch the shadow of several crooked cranes; and to the right, there’s the Shard, and the Gherkin as well—all rendered in grayscale most grave.
But there’s something very wrong with this picture, isn’t there? Never mind the fact that these distinctive buildings are arranged strangely. Instead, look above and beyond the iconic clock. What’s that massive skyscraper doing there? Why in the world are blood red tentacles pouring out of its peak? And wait a second... is that a gargantuan ant?
Yes. Yes it is.
It had started out as a glass skyscraper, that was obvious, but over the past year it had grown taller and taller. The top had started to bulge and had turned from glass and steel into something else. It looked like a plant budding. I wondered if those were vines or creepers I could see, spilling down from the top of the tower.
Fully twice as tall as Big Ben, Angel Tower has 1204 floors, and a new level is added every day. It obviously doesn’t belong, yet all of Dream London has come to revolve around it regardless. Why? Well, that’s what Ballantyne’s book is about, at bottom.
No one can say with anything resembling certainty why the city is so different today, though most residents at least remember when the changes came. It’s only been a year—no time at all in the scheme of things—but London is essentially unrecognisable now, as are most of those folks unlucky enough to live there. Consider our protagonist James Wedderburn: a soldier of old, his new persona, Captain Jim, is at present engaged in the business of a pimp. He looks after the ladies of Belltower End, and takes pride in the pleasure he purveys; or, to put it more plainly, the sex he sells—and pursues in his own time, too.
But property is at a premium in Dream London; someone has been buying up all the real estate of late, and subsequently squeezing every shilling out of the people who need it. So when a flamboyant man called Alan—also Alphonse—offers the Captain outright ownership of Belltower End in exchange for a few unnamed favours, he simply can’t resist the thought of the profit.
Alan/Alphonse’s emotional motivation, meanwhile, speaks to the way the city has shifted:
“I’m a man whose way of life is being pushed back into the shadows. I’m a man who doesn’t want things to go back to the way they were a hundred years ago when people like me were outcasts. And I’m not alone. This new world is creating winners and losers, and some of the losers still have enough power and influence to try and fight back. We want you to help us.”
Alan/Alphonse isn’t the only figure interested in the Captain’s assistance. Dream London’s double-dealing drug lord, the Daddio, also sends an envoy: namely Honey Peppers, a sweet-looking little girl with the foul mouth and murderous mind of a career criminal. Honey Peppers only promises our protagonist his continued existence, so the crafty Captain promptly accepts the former fella’s offer, and sets about investigating the root cause of all this wrongness.
All roads lead to Rome, of course—or rather the great skyscraper at the centre of the city. If “Dream London is a place where the normal rules of the universe no longer apply [then] Angel Tower is the place where the rules are rewritten.” Thus the Captain uses his new contacts to secure a position on the 829th floor, where it becomes clear that the various changes made to the capital are far more momentous than he had imagined:
I knew that Dream London was changing the shape of the buildings, and I knew that the books were changing, I was used to that. I was used to the way Dream London rewrote the words on the page. It even rewrote people’s behaviour. I had accepted that. People could be manipulated. Who knew that better than Captain Jim Wedderburn and his lovely girls?
But I didn’t realise that Dream London was changing the shape of the numbers as well. That gripped deep inside. It felt so wrong.
So wrong... yet so right!
I dare say Dream London is difficult to get into, initially—the Captain is a hard man to feel for, whilst this world of altered aesthetics, reengineered roles and unfamiliar fundamentals is so deeply disconcerting that identifying what’s wonderful about it, and what’s just window-dressing, takes time—but once you get into the swing of things, Ballantyne’s exceptional new novel goes from strength to strength.
The jaunty plot kicks in quickly, and develops in interesting directions; the pace quickens until readers are rattling along happily like runaway train cars on runaway train tracks; and though questions accumulate, Ballantyne hardly hoards the answers we require, as certain authors without the walk to back up all their talk tend to.
Resolutions are arrived at with refreshing regularity. Just desserts are soon served up on glittering glass platters. This drip-feed of facts and complicating factors, however cracked, helps us invest in the hallucinatory setting despite our incipient resistance to it, and as the tale twists and turns, the characters writhe and wriggle in rhythm. Even the crass Captain seems sympathetic eventually.
Dream London reminded me of Jeff VanderMeer’s Ambergris series, The City’s Son by Tom Pollock, and the Bas-Lag books, too—particularly Perdido Street Station—but in typical Dream London tradition, the opposite is true too. As the Arthur C. Clarke Award-winner Chris Beckett contends in the quote on the captivating cover that demanded I take note of this text, Tony Ballantyne’s masterfully imagined new novel is “unlike anything I’ve ever read before.” Smart, stylish, and as alarming as it is indubitably alluring, Dream London deftly demonstrates that the weird still has a thing or two to prove.
Dream London is available October 29th from Solaris.
Niall Alexander is an extra-curricular English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and Tor.com. He’s been known to tweet, twoo.