Every Thursday, Nathan at Fantasy Review Barn leads a group of fellow bloggers on “Tough Travels”, a trip through the tropes that populate the fantasy and sci-fi world, using Diane Wynne Jones’ hilarious The Tough Guide to Fantasyland as a guide.
This week’s subject is “The Big City”:
The secular capital of the boundless Mallorean Empire, Mal Zeth is the seat of Kal Zakath’s power and bureaucracy and home to his vast army. Rigidly stratified, the gigantic city was divided into zones based on everyone’s military rank, or civilian equivalent, each grander than the previous, all tightening inward with with Imperial Palace at the center. The giant city, however, proved a death trap when plague came within its gleaming white walls, as thousands of citizens fell ill and the city eventually had to be burned to contain the disease.
There’s really no better example of the big city in fantasy than Terry Pratchett’s wonderfully detailed Ankh-Morpork. The center of civilization in Discworld, this analog of London is the springboard and setting for the entire series, whether following the Vimes, Carrot and the rest of the City Watch, the tyrant Lord Vetinari or the various guilds that vie for control of the city. Indeed, our first view of the Discworld is this metropolis burning to the ground as Rincewind and Twoflower escape the “inn-sewer-ants” scam that started the fire. We’ll later see magic, technology and pop culture invade the twin cities, as Pratchett richly satires our society.
London has always been a magical metropolis, as documented in classics by Neil Gaiman and others. But V.E. Schwab gives us four Londons — Grey, Black, White and Red Londons. Well, three actually, Black London destroyed itself with unchecked magic. They all share the same name and basic geography (including the River Thames) but are vastly different in their own worlds. Grey London is our world in the early 19th Century, a dreary place where magic is rare. White London is filled with magic and is ruled by a pair of twin despots. Red London is the balance, a beautiful land where the magic and the mundane interact. Kell is a messenger between these worlds sharing communiques between the royals who lead each version of London. And occasionally smuggles goods between them, which gets him in trouble when he comes across an artifact from Black London.
Built on a series of canals similar to Venice and ruled by rival capas that are obvious analogs to the Mafia and the Borgias, the hometown of Locke and Jean in Scott Lynch’s wonderful Gentleman Bastards series, Camorr is a curious blend of Renaissance Italy and an alien landscape. Built on the remnants of a vanished civilization, the Eldren, who left behind the beautiful towers and bridges that provide the breathtaking backbone of the city. Those ancient mysteries are made of magical “elderglass”, which absorbs light during the day then glows beautifully at night. A center of trade, this cross section of rich merchant families and abject poverty proved a fertile ground for Locke and Jean’s con games.
Another fantastic analog of industrialized London here, a Dickensian slum filled with squalor, crime and disease. But it’s among these dismal streets that The Warden has grown up — an army veteran, former policeman turned drug dealer who was raised by The Crane, a mysterious magician who cast a powerful spell to protect the city from a deadly plague. So it’s natural the helpless poor of the community turn to the powerful Warden to track down the serial killer who is preying on the children of the whores and dockworkers of Low Town.
I had to give some hometown love here. Kevin Hearne’s wonderful urban fantasy series about a millennia-old druid living in the desert southwest is fun, but it especially resonates because I know where he’s talking about. The stripmall where Atticus’s bookshop is located? I used to by bootlegs at a record store there. The neighborhood where he lives, near ASU? I remember parking for a Pink Floyd concert back in that little slice of suburbia. And yeah, the pints of Guinness and the fish and chips at Rula Bula are just as good as Atticus and Oberon think. I even know where the light rail station where Atticus meets the Virgin Mary is located. It’s like viewing my teenage years through a gentrified, magic-filled lens.
In Saladin Ahmed’s beautiful debut, Dhamsawaat is an Islamic crossroads of commerce and culture, a second-world analog to the Baghdad of Scheherezade and Ali Baba. His Middle Eastern metropolis is the heart of the Crescent Moon Kingdoms, where dervishes, alchemists, and aging ghul hunters share breakfast and cardamom tea, debate theology and watching the throngs of humanity pass by, and where the mysterious “Falcon Prince” seeks to free the people from the oppression of the Cobra Throne.
Once the center of power on the Continent, from which the Bulikovians and their living Gods, the Divinities, conquered the neighboring island nation of Saypuri, Bulikov is now a shell of its former self. When the Saypuris rose up and slew the Divinities, Bulikov’s glory collapsed as its magic drained away in “The Blink”. Now it feels more like a dismal Eastern Bloc city where the oppressed have become the oppressors, albeit with one curious architectural feature, giant spiral staircases leading to nowhere. The staircases’ purposes are unclear, as is their origin, but they are the trademark of Bulikov and a constant reminder of the death of the Bulikovian Divinities.