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Cari Thomas on Her Favourite Fictional Magical Londons

Posted on 10th May 2021 by Mark Skinner

A bewitching story of forbidden magic and friendship set in a brilliantly drawn magical London, Cari Thomas's Threadneedle is one of the most exciting fantasy debuts of the year. In this exclusive piece, Cari recounts her favourite literary depictions of the capital, from subterranean wonder to Dickensian delight.  

I grew up in the Wye Valley area of Wales. London always felt like a very distant place to me; somewhere equal parts alien and daunting, alluring and magical. It wasn’t until I moved there for work in my twenties that I began to get to know the real London, but a tension remained. I was enthralled by the scale of the city, how much there was to see and do and discover, and yet, I often felt overwhelmed, with a longing to escape back to nature. I think Threadneedle’s magical world was born out of this tension, creating a wild, limitless, magical world hidden within the city. I think that’s London’s magic – it’s a city that inspires through its tensions, unsettles us to create and stirs the cauldron of the imagination with all it has to offer. With that in mind, here are my top five magical Londons in fiction... 

A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab

V.E. Schwab’s A Darker Shade of Magic is electrifyingly original, forking London into four parallel versions of itself. There’s the magically devoid Grey London. The magically vibrant Red London. The magically twisted White London. And the magically obliterated Black London. Don’t let the simple colour names fool you – Schwab builds three complex Londons (the fourth is a shadow land) each with their own histories, mythologies and societies, not to mention the subtle ways in which they interact and intersect. Only the Antari, rare magicians, can travel between the worlds and the plot skips light footed between them, but it’s Red London that stays with you: its glittering red river, its raucous taverns and a magical night market selling all kinds of treats for the imagination.

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Breathtakingly imaginative and fully realised, Schwab’s engrossing story of intrigue and adventure across four magical versions of London opens one of the great modern fantasy series.
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Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman

What is so pervading about the idea of a London that exists beneath the London we know? A shadow city mirroring the one above. Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere captures this idea and takes it to places your imagination will never have anticipated. His subterranean London is a gritty, gungy place of sewers and underground tunnels; a place of magical absurdities such as the Floating Market beneath Harrods or the Night’s Bridge beneath Knightsbridge; a murky home for the lost, the invisible, the outcasts of society. After an unlikely series of events, a very average and wholly cowardly man called Richard Mayhew finds himself there – ‘a hundred feet under the streets of London with the projected life expectancy of a suicidal fruitfly’. With his signature humour and vividly deceptive descriptions, Gaiman catapults his reader on a journey akin to a mad tube ride driven by a villainous, blindfolded lunatic shouting: “Beware of doors!”. It’s a lot of fun.

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Gaiman’s solo debut novel paints a dazzling subterranean picture of an underground London, as cowardly Richard Mayhew finds himself adrift in a world of earls, beasts, angels and many more remarkable beings.
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Sketches by Boz by Charles Dickens

London is a character in all of Dickens’ novels, but in Sketches by Boz, the city is the hero – front and centre of the stage. His first published work, it’s a hectic, detailed and humorous collection of observations and fictional tales of everyday city life and the people inhabiting it. I don’t know whether Dickens has a way of capturing the magic of 1800s London or whether he pours his own magic into it, but, either way, there is a magic in ‘Dickensian London’. Perhaps because it’s recognisable as the London we know today, only stripped of its modern veneer – wilder, rowdier, with a whiff of the pagan still about. A place where the sooted streets are alive with the chaos of life, the clatter of horse carts, the clutter of markets; a place of gaslit alleyways and smoky taverns, gin shops and pleasure gardens; a place where fairs and local traditions still thrive; a place peopled with the kind of larger-than-life characters who go on to fill Dickens’ novels. It’s a London that I can still feel sometimes, curled away in the backstreets or stirring in a rickety old pub, breaking through the seams of the past and spilling out into the imagination.

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The first published book from the great chronicler of nineteenth-century London is a richly evocative portrait of a bustling metropolis and its people rendered in characteristically peerless prose.
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Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell

Senate House in Bloomsbury still gives me the shivers every time I pass it by. A building of imposing might and brutal architecture that hammers home the dread of Orwell’s dystopian Big Brother regime in his infamous Nineteen Eighty-Four novel. The building was in fact the inspiration behind the novel’s Ministry of Truth, where history is rewritten to suit the doctrine of the omnipresent party. The book is set within a fictionalised version of the city, ravaged and war torn, choked with concrete tower blocks and slums, overlooked by the all seeing eye of cold institutional buildings. It is the magic of nightmares, a warped London that exaggerates the aspects of the city that make us uncomfortable: the divisions between the rich and poor, the disempowered and the powerful; the city that lives behind impenetrable walls and closed doors where the decisions are all too often made before we can do anything about them.

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Orwell’s brilliantly bleak future vision of totalitarianism is arguably the greatest of all literary dystopias, contriving to look back to the Stalinist purges of the 1930s whilst simultaneously predicting with uncanny accuracy the worst excesses of the Cold War-era Soviet Union.
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Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J.K. Rowling

The list would of course be incomplete without Harry Potter. Though most of the series is set at the far-flung school of Hogwarts, I always loved the London scenes. In fact, growing up on the series might have been a huge part of why London always held an air of magic for me. No one can imbue a place with magic like J.K. Rowling: the crooked wizarding alley of Diagonalley, magical London buses that can squeeze through any gap, the goblin-run Gringottt’s bank that extends leagues below ground and of course Platform Nine and Three Quarters at King’s Cross Station. The Harry Potter world has that perfect feeling of being entirely fantastical and yet entirely plausible and, for those of us who read and loved the series, it has become inseparable from the city itself.

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From Muggles to Quidditch, Hogwarts to Diagon Alley, the magical journey that launched a billion young readers feels just as fresh, fun and meticulously rendered today.
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