It’s easy to see why London inspires so many writers, especially fantasy writers. It is an immortal city, where the old and new sit side-by-side in surprising comfort. Ruins of the Roman walls of Londinium can be found but a stone’s throw away from a 19th century pub and a 21st-century skyscraper. It truly is one of the most remarkable things you can and will see, especially when you’re an American. Our idea of “old” is nothing compared to London.
One of my favourite fantasy novel series’ in recent years is The Bone Season by Samantha Shannon. Whenever I wish to feel under-accomplished, I just remind myself that Ms. Shannon and I are the exact same age and her imagination and painstakingly detailed worldbuilding is on a level that I cannot fathom. No, really, just look at the first book in her series: it’s got glossaries, charts, and maps.
And it is of this series that I think about as I wander down Monmouth Street towards the intersection point of the Seven Dials. Like the centre of a wheel, the spire at the heart of the Seven Dials rises high into the surprisingly sunny sky. The gold of its sundial flashes in the light, and the blue of its face seems even darker and more rich in colour. It seems fitting that I would be looking up at a sundial, given how I had spent so much of the day before musing about time and the past within the halls of the British Museum. Here, right in the open, this comparatively small monument to time stands straight and tall to remind me of each fleeting moment.
These words echo through her head as she races down the winding, cobbled streets of London. Her boots echo and clatter against the stones, and she curses the loud soles, wishing them to silence themselves. Oh, that she could disappear within the shadows, but no, the agents would find her nevertheless. They would emerge from the echoes and take hold of her.
Her heart skipped a beat, knowing the horrid fate that awaited it if the agents took hold of her. How one of their hands would plunge into her chest, grasp at the beating organ and squeeze down hard, harder, harder…until death bloomed within the cavity of her ribcage in that place where a heart used to be. She turns around the corner of the obscure passage so quickly that she nearly topples over, nearly barrels into a couple that makes their way towards their awaiting carriage. She doesn’t apologize. She doesn’t have the time.
There — the sun! It flashes atop the dial at the top of the great spire that sits, dead centre of the Seven Dials. It calls her home, calls her back to where she may yet be safe. That place beyond the reach of the agents, the place where her debt means nothing. That’s what they say, anyways. She’s heard the whispers: that the dials is the heart of it all, the heart of Time itself. There time is everything and nothing, and the Chronagents have no sway. They cannot cross the border into the heart of their power, for fear that they themselves will be ripped apart.
Lungs are on fire, she is so close…so very close. A shout behind her, she’s right there — she leaps for the spire…
It could be easy to get turned around here in the Seven Dials, but it’s rather like the old saying of “All roads lead to Rome,” because I always figure I can turn around and find my way back to this intersection. There is, as Dickens said, “enough around [me] to keep [my] curiosity awake for no inconsiderable time” here in the Seven Dials, though my destination is elsewhere. I am headed towards a different end, yet the Dials is a place I feel drawn to visit, as if the spire at its centre is a magnet, drawing this poor iron-blooded human in.
I imagine the world that Ms. Shannon creates in her series, where past and future meet in strange harmonic dissonance, and when I look around at the intersection of the Seven Dials, it all makes sense. This is an immortal city, where things are always changing and shifting, yet the past remains. It is more than visual, it is palpable, like a thin sheet of phyllo lain atop another to continue building and adding. It brings everything together more tightly, turning the individual into the collective, and yet should one individual within the middle fail, it all crumbles apart in the end.
A bell rings to toll the hour and take my own passage out of the Dials, out of the world of the clairvoyants and syndicates from a fictional past-like future. I carry on, shoes clacking on the stones, and smile at this place that feels weirdly like home.