“The Severed Streets – The Shadow Police #2” by Paul Cornell – more horror than urban fantasy

I found “The Severed Streets” to be a surprisingly brutal book. It goes beyond the “Old Bill vs Old Nick on the West Ham Pitch” feel of the first book “London Falling” and crosses the boundary from Urban Fantasy to real Horror.

It continues with the unconventional police unit, all of whom have been gifted with The Sight – the ability to see the magic associated with Old London and used by members of Underground London. This magical community is not glamorous. It’s filled with the poverty, grief and sacrifice that are the price paid for using London’s magic.

The London at the centre of the magic in this book is very different in tone from the London in Ben Aaronovitch’s “Rivers Of London” series. It makes Peter Grant’s London seem calm and hopeful. The London of “The Severed Streets” is a meat-grinder city, where people’s hopes and fears are used to keep them in line while they feed more power to the people at the top. It’s a place of desperation, punishment and betrayal.

The plot, which involves an unstoppable supernatural killer that slices up its victims with a supernatural razor, is powered by a strong pulse of contemporary British politics – circa 2014 but it still sounds current – with the police being cut and division being ramped up via social media and street protests and counter-protests to fuel a right-wing coup. The motivation for the coup would fit the current government. The main architect of the coup wants to replace Parliament with more direct control “because what the people in this country need is someone to tell them what to think”.

The book is well-written. The characters are strong. The magic world is credible. I found the injection of Neil Gaiman into the novel as a character with an active role in the plot distracting and unnecessary. It seemed like fandom to me. Maybe it would have worked better if I was a Gaiman fan.

I felt the book lagged a little in the middle. I was just starting to feel bogged down in exposition of the crime and the culture when the big surprise happened, the tone got darker and I felt like I’d just crested the top of the rollercoaster and was falling to fast to do anything but hold on.

I found “The Severed Streets” to be a deeply depressing book, soaked in sadness. The Shadow Police themselves are a major source of grief and depression. They deceive each other, distrust each other, despise themselves for the deceit and bemoan the distrust. They are reckless and desperate and well out of their depth.

The overall tone of the book took me back to an explanation of sin that a Jesuit Priest once gave me. He said it starts as a loss of grace. It becomes an absence of grace. It peaks with an inability even to recognise grace. By grace, he meant joy/love/hope/, the things God gives us to help us live a worthwhile life. It seems to me that this book is about the loss of grace, especially by the Shadow Police. Some lose all of it, some have grace eroded but not only does no one thrive but the possibility of a grace-filled life has become nothing but an only partially effective self-deception.

I listened to the audiobook version which was skilfully narrated by Damian Lynch. Click on the SoundCloud link below to hear a sample.

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