The best fantasy books invite you to step foot into a world that feels like a real living, breathing place. Terry Pratchett’s Night Watch ranks in my top five favourite books of all time—a book with not only one of the best characters ever committed to the page (Sam Vimes, of course) but also one of the best cities: Ankh-Morpork. Twenty-five years on and I still want to go to Ankh-Morpork so badly I’d even be prepared to eat one of Cut-Me-Own-Throat-Dibbler’s pies to get there.
Although I suspect you wouldn’t be living and breathing too long if you stepped foot into Ankh-Morpork, the reason it’s such a pleasure to read about is because it’s so fully realised, so immersive, it blurs the boundaries between our perspective as a reader—standing on the outside of the story, looking in… or standing on the bustling streets, ankle-deep in muck oozing from the River Ankh. For me, perfect escapism is a fantasy setting I want to visit—even better is a setting I don’t want to leave.
My debut book, The Nightjar, isn’t set in a world so different from our own. As a portal fantasy, its setting—the Rookery—is based on real-life London: a city I love travelling through and also love reading about. The world of The Nightjar melds together elements of contemporary and historical London life (there are Bakelite phones and Bow Street Runners) and Finnish mythology. I hope it’s a world that readers enjoy as much as I enjoy reading about Ankh-Morpork!
The Nightjar isn’t the first novel to be inspired by London. Here are five other fantasy Londons to escape to—each very (VERY) different. And since The Nightjar blends elements of London from different eras, I thought I’d pick novels set in different decades or even centuries.
Shades of Magic series by V.E. Schwab
This series kicks off with A Darker Shade of Magic, set in Georgian London (specifically, 1819). Not satisfied with the blood, sweat, and tears involved in world-building just one setting, Schwab has created four versions of the city. Grey London, the city with plenty of smoke and no magic (most similar to the true Georgian London); White London, a cruel city of ‘blood and ash’, warped by magic and ruled by power-hungry dictators on marble thrones; Red London, where people and magic flourish together in a healthy harmony, under benevolent rulers; and the legendary Black London, destroyed by its magic and closed off from the others. We follow Kell, a traveller magician and smuggler, as he teams up with Delilah Bard, a Grey London thief, to prevent catastrophe when a dangerous relic from the legendary Black London endangers all four cities.
Smoke by Dan Vyleta
In an alternate Victorian London, the people are marked, literally, by sin. Smoke is expelled from the body and soot appears every time a minor misdeed, act of greed, small fib or criminal transgression is committed. This is a world in which every wicked thought and wrongdoing can be seen by others, and no one can hide what lurks beneath the surface. This London, appropriately, is the London of chimney sweeps, factory smokestacks and grimy slums; the city as soiled as its lower-class inhabitants. Yet there is a ruling class who have learned to restrain their more base desires and live smoke-free, their cleanliness and virtue a sign of their right to rule. We follow two young aristocrats, Thomas and Charlie, as they witness an event that makes them question the rules of their society—and uncover the truth about the nature of smoke.
Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman
This is boss level stuff. The big one. The London-inspired fantasy that spawned them all. Set in the mid-1990s, the story follows Richard Mayhew, a mild-mannered city-worker, whose life is forever changed when he helps the mysterious Door (a girl, not a tall wooden thing with handles) and is catapulted into a strange and wonderful adventure beneath the city. There, in London Below, Richard will find his destiny. Neverwhere plays with London locations and the underground tube network in the most ingenious way—Night’s Bridge, Earl’s Court, Angel Islington, Black Friars are all literal interpretations. A dark and magical world that feels real because… it is real. Sort of.
Rivers of London series by Ben Aaronovitch
The first novel in this series is known as Midnight Riot in the US and Rivers of London in the UK. Published in 2011, this is a present-day actual London—a diverse, realistic portrayal of the city, but with magic hiding around every corner. Peter Grant, a young officer in the Metropolitan Police, is recruited to the Folly, a secret branch of the met police that deals with supernatural and magical crimes. There, he becomes the first apprentice wizard in decades. PC Grant sets out to discover who is possessing Londoners and coercing them to commit murder, while trying to bring peace between warring gods, Mama Thames (and her daughters Beverley Brook, Lady Tyburn, Lea and Fleet) and the older Father Thames. This is a London with magic and ghosts but also the personification of the city’s rivers – who feature here as gods passing as ordinary Londoners. In the same way Neverwhere used the tube map, the rivers here are a brilliant riff on London’s geography.
The Bone Season by Samantha Shannon
Well, we’ve seen some versions of London that stretch right from the Georgian era to the present-day, so now it’s time for a London-that’s-yet-to-come. Set some time after the year 2059, this is an altogether more futuristic city. This book arguably straddles a boundary between fantasy and sci-fi, featuring a high-tech city with gangs committing supernatural crimes; under the fascistic Scion regime, clairvoyance and dreamwalking are punishable by execution. When the lead character and secret-clairvoyant, Paige Mahoney, is transported to Oxford to live under the rule of a mysterious, otherworldy race of beings, Paige finds herself in a position to kickstart a revolution and bring down the cruel Scion government.
Special mentions to other fantasy Londons (not included here for the purposes of exploring different time periods): A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke, The Invisible Library by Genevieve Cogman, the Nightside series by Simon Green, Sixty-One Nails by Mike Shevdon, assorted works of China Mieville & Kate Griffin—and finally, one of my all-time favourite fantasy Londons: Diagon Alley in the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling.
Right, well now I’m off to read Pratchett’s Night Watch for the eighth time—assuming the dog-eared yellow pages don’t fall out. Happy reading!
Originally published in September 2019.
Deborah Hewitt is a teacher and previous ‘Undiscovered Voices’ winner living in Manchester. The Nightjar is her debut novel.