Dream London by Tony Ballantyne

(7.5/10) A different type of urban-fantasy London.

Sometimes a character can be written in such a way that it is inherently good or bad – characters like Samwise Gamgee from Lord of the Rings or Regal from the Farseer trilogy come to mind as effortlessly-read good or bad characters. There is no hemming and hawing over their motivations or personality quirks – they are fully realised, three-dimensional characters easily placed on a scale between Ghandi and Hitler. There are of course characters who fail to even rank as one-dimensional, but these are much less common in the ranks of best-selling books. What is not rare, however, are the two-dimensional characters who are said to be good or bad, but fail to display any such characteristics.

Dream London by Tony Ballantyne gives us one such character, Captain Jim Wedderburn. For much of the book he resides in the flimsy character-building state that all books require a character to start off in – that place where their actions, quirks, thoughts, and personality begin to describe the sort of character they will turn out to be by the end. Samwise Gamgee was not obviously a good character the first moment we saw him – it was the culmination of all his actions and thoughts that helped us to see him for who he was by the time the book was done. Similarly Regal required his actions and treatment of FitzChivalry to show the reader his true dark nature.

Such is not the case with Dream London, and it suffers for it, amidst a story that is at once fascinating, captivating, and enthralling.

Captain Jim Wedderburn is so undefined for the majority of the book that it leaves the reader somewhat uncertain as to any of his motivations for any of the actions he takes. Lapses into the third-person are humorous, but confusing, while his actions always appear to be good and virtuous, until we are told that they are not. Very little is done to undermine the way he is portrayed except when the author speaks through the words on the page and tells the reader what to think.

Subsequently, by the end of the book you are left feeling unfulfilled and confused – was the outcome what we wanted, or did Captain Jim need to fall further, if he had fallen at all.

This character-flaw is disappointing, considering the intricate and colourful world Captain Jim is depicted within. Dream London is an altered London, very different from the London we have read about, visited, or live in, and no one can guess exactly when it started changing. But change it has, and now the parks have slipped towards the centre of the city, buildings have grown, and no one has noticed that St. Paul’s Cathedral has been shrunk. Men, women, and minorities are all squished into their assigned roles, and everything is getting a little … sexy.

From the moment you step into the first page of Dream London, you are left wondering just what is going on – and the slow pace at which answers are dealt is beautifully done. There isn’t magic, so much as there is fantasy – a world that is easier, sexier, and built for the modern human; sex, appetites, and greed.

Tony Ballantyne isn’t new to the world of writing, but he is new to full-length fantasy writing. Whether his other characters exhibit similar undercooking is not something I can or will comment on, and for the most part, the characters that fill out the world around Captain Jim Wedderburn are complex, mysterious, and engaging. My favourite, the 17-year old Anna, lives up to her full potential, and leaves you wanting much more.

If only Captain Jim had been allowed to show us his true colours, without us relying on the author to inform us how to think of him.

Dream London was a good, quick read, a little disappointing, but not completely without worth or recommendation. If you want to dip your feet into a different type of urban-fantasy London, then Dream London is definitely for you.

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