Tim Lebbon (www.timlebbon.net)
Titan Books (titanbooks.com)
Angela Gough’s life is happy and normal until the day her boyfriend, Vince, leaves for work and doesn’t come back. Mysterious notes through the door, which may be in his handwriting tell her to stay away, not to look for him, but Angela isn’t about to let him disappear out of her life without so much as an explanation. As she digs, she finds that her boyfriend is not the man she thought he was. He works for one of London’s biggest crime bosses and seems to have a secret life outside the one he shares with Angela. As she finds herself digging into the dangerous black market for ancient relics, pieces of creatures that should never have existed outside the pages of myth and legend, she soon discovers that there is more to London than the domain of humankind.
Relics is the start of a new urban fantasy series from genre legend Tim Lebbon. It’s a familiar plot – partners keeping secrets from each other, until one discovers that the other works for a criminal overlord, or is a Russian sleeper agent, or whatever the twist happens to be. In this instance it’s the gangster, but Lebbon twists slightly further, adding a dash of the supernatural to what might otherwise be described as gritty Britcrime. All of the ingredients are here: the man with a deep secret; the mob boss that he works for, and the rival mob boss who wants his special skills. It all sounds like your run of the mill London noir, until you factor in what exactly Vince does for Fat Frederick Meloy: he’s a relic hunter, a man with a special talent for finding old, rare artefacts, things which should not exist, and for which rich people will pay a fortune in order to add it to their collection.
At the centre of the story is Angela, a Bostonian living and studying in London. She shares a compact flat with her boyfriend Vince, and life is good, at least until Vince disappears and her world begins to fall apart. What makes Angela’s persistence and temerity believable is the fact that her study is focused on gangs and gang warfare. It also gives Lebbon the chance to give us some background on the darker figures – Meloy and Mary Rock – in a natural fashion, without the need for pages of backstory and exposition. While Angela is the central character, the story is told from the points of view of several other characters as well – Vince himself takes centre stage for much of the book; and Lilou, a nymph whose life Vince saved, gives us some insight into the state of mind of London’s lesser-known inhabitants, a group of so-called mythical creatures who call themselves collectively, the Kin.
Surprisingly, one of the book’s most engaging characters is gangster Fat Frederick Meloy, a man whose nickname no longer fits the bill. When we first encounter Meloy in the narrative, he comes across as a stereotypical London gangster. Lebbon, however, builds him into a larger-than-life character who, for many of the scenes where he is present, steals the show. A collector of the ancient relics himself, we see many sides of this complex man, despite the reputation that has grown up around him: at once the childlike glee whilst in the presence of his collection and the barely-contained violence that simmers beneath the surface. Meloy’s opposite number, Mary Rock, is a much more sinister character and we soon discover that she is not content to deal in ancient relics; she has discovered that the Kin still exist, and has developed a thirst – and a client-base – for something a little more fresh, something harvested from the fresh corpse of an angel, or a nymph, or a satyr.
Despite the supernatural elements, Relics does still feel like something of a contemporary crime novel. The London of Relics is, for the most part, the London of our own world, though Lebbon does explore a lesser-known face of the city, presenting a side of it that might fit well with the location of Gaiman’s Neverwhere or Mieville’s King Rat. Yes, there are creatures here that shouldn’t exist, but the story feels grounded in the real world through the evocation of London, and the realistic, empathetic characters that populate it.
Tim Lebbon is the quintessential genre author (which genre? All of them!) and Relics is the latest in a long line of unmissable books. Darkly thrilling, with more than a dash of black humour, it’s a novel that could easily be devoured in a single sitting, and is probably best enjoyed in this way. An excellent start to a promising new series, this is Lebbon at the top of his game.