From the slightly skewed to the utterly bizarre, alternate worlds are a staple of science fiction and fantasy. But as different as these parallel Earths can be, some things remain constant. To whit: there are a disproportionate number of alternate Londons (alt-Londons?) in genre fiction. While London is absolutely one of civilization’s greatest cities, it’s not the only one, so you might assume there is an equal number of alternate Moscows, Parises, New Yorks, Tokyos, or Melbournes—but no: London leads the list. Why? It can’t just be its history; though ancient, it doesn’t even come anywhere near the top ten list of the longest continually inhabited cities in the world (or even just Europe). To try to figure it out, we’re analyzing 10 of our favorite alt-Londons in fantasy.
Smoke, by Dan Vyleta
Vyleta’s Victorian England setting looks deceptively like the one that actually existed, with one very big difference: impure thoughts and evil doings cause you to leak black “smoke” as a visual symbol of sin. As a result, the upper classes maintain power by demonstrating a lack of smoke, thus establishing their moral superiority over everyone else. There’s a mystery to the phenomenon, which is relatively recent, and half the fun is tracing how smoke has altered life in this alt-London.
Gilded Cage, by Vic James
Although it doesn’t strictly show us London proper, it’s easy to imagine how the city would different in James’ alternate England, one in which the aristocracy, ironically called Equals, rule through magic and everyone else is bound to serve a decade as a slave to the ruling class—which, if you think about it, is probably exactly what would happen if the rich and powerful could also cast spells.
Neverwhere, by Neil Gaiman
Gaiman’s debut remains a novel you have to mention if you’re discussing alternative, re-imagined Londons. In it, a businessman slips down into the magical underworld beneath London, and while the city itself is just the regular old city you might actually visit, Gaiman’s imagination creates an incredible fantasy world just under the streets, based on the tube stops of the London Underground.
Kraken, by China Miéville
We’re dropping this one in next to Neverwhere because there’s no question China is riffing on his pal Neil’s work, but for that, his uber-weird urban fantasy is no less original. It opens up with the death of a preserved giant squid carcass from the Natural History Museum, and snowballs from there: a cult of cephalopod-worshippers is trying to bring about the end of the world, which kicks every other cult in the city into high gear, as no one wants to die in someone else’s apocalypse. Enter the Fundamentalist and Sect-Related Crimes Unit of the Metropolitan police to help set things right—and keep the gunfarmers, supernatural serial killers, and striking wizards’ familiars in line. The living body of the city is full-to-busting with more oddness than you ever imagined—just ask the Londonmancers, who can split its sidewalks to read its entrails. You know, literally.
Shades of Magic, by V.E. Schwab
Schwab isn’t content to imagine just one alternate London—she imagines four, interconnected yet vastly different. There’s Grey London, much like our own, and lacking magic. There’s Red London, simply soaked in magic and much more fun—and much more dangerous. There’s White London, which has been broken by magic, its lifeforce seeping away ever faster each day. And then there’s Black London—but it’s best not to speak too much about Black London. How these Other Londons are related to each other in this complex, briskly-plotted trilogy is one of the great pleasures of reading it.
Rivers of London, by Ben Aaronovitch
Aaronovitch combines police procedure, murder mysteries, and magic with a sure hand in this urban fantasy series, in which rookie cop Peter Grant is sent to the rough side of the city for wizard training and discovers a darker, more dangerous London than most people are aware exists. Grant’s ability to speak with ghosts makes his investigations easier (and stranger), but Aaronovitch maintains enough grounded detail to sell the alternate aspects, while constructing neat mysteries to boot.
The Drowned World, by J.G. Ballard
One of Ballard’s excellent “disaster” novels (each representing an element; in this case, water), The Drowned World is set in the year 2145 when a combination of climate and solar changes have made London a city submerged: tropical and populated with alligators and mosquitoes. Ballard’s vision seems to get more prescient every day, and the imagery of London’s famous landmarks poking up out of the water remains a sobering one.
Anno Dracula, by Kim Newman
Newman imagines a Victorian England in which Queen Victoria has married none other than Dracula himself. Being a vampire becomes fashionable, leading to a plethora of undead whores—who enrage Jack the Ripper, who turns out to be none other than a slightly deranged Jack Seward from Stoker’s original. Newman buttresses a London going Undead with unstinting detail, crafting a sort of bizarro vampire story where everyone wants to be a vampire.
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The Invisible Library, by Genevieve Cogman
The London visited by Library Spy Irene in the first book of Cogman’s popular series is definitely “alternate,” in the sense that it’s fairly squirming with vampires, faeries, and werewolves. The mysterious book the magical librarians have been sent there to retrieve there has already been stolen when they arrive, and Cogman has a lot of fun playing with Alternate London’s Alternate Criminal Elements, which begin a complex game of violent maneuvers to take control, giving us a deep-dive into her vision of a grim, magical city.
The Bookman Histories, by Lavie Tidhar
Tidhar’s vision of London is one where lizard men rule the world, Professor Moriarity is Prime Minister in their government (Queen Victoria is a lizard as well), and the opening scene involves a mission to Mars via gigantic cannon. An assassin is killing people with booby-trapped books, and half the historical characters you meet turn out to be automatons. Tidhar not only holds this delirious mash of ideas together, he constructs a tight, revolution-tinged plot that hugs the curves on its twists and turns.
Honorable mention: Un Lun Dun, by China Méville
Miéville already made the list, and this one is a middle grade novel, and thus not traditionally in our wheelhouse, but we’d be remiss not to mention his other alt-London, the titular city of Un Lun Dun. It’s an insanely whimsical mirror city inhabited by objects our world’s Londoners have tossed out. The umbrellas are sentient, the fireplugs waddle around like R2D2, the trash cans are not to be trifled with, old milk cartons make adorable pets, and a grimy black smog is taking over everything. Give it to kids as a prerequisite to exploring the other alt-Londons on this list, and hope along with us that the author pens a sequel that takes us to another mirror city (“Parisn’t” is still a good gag.)
Which alt-London would you visit?