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The Borrible Trilogy:
The Borribles, The Borribles Go for Broke, Across the Dark Metropolis

by Michael de Larrabeiti

(TorUK: Macmillan, £8.99, 726 pages, paperback; April 2003; ISBN 0330490850.)

There are now quite a few novels in the SF and Fantasy pantheon claiming the status of classic, and some of them actually cover scandeserve that accolade. One of these latter novels is The Borribles.

Michael de Larrabeiti had exactly the right upbringing to be an author: born in Battersea, his father was a Basque, and after leaving school he worked in film, travelled, travelled some more in exotic places, then read French and English in Dublin and, later, in Oxford. Eventually he gave all this up to devote himself to writing.

If you haven't yet read The Borribles, you are missing not just a classic but an all-time classic. This trilogy of books, published here in one volume, relates the mud-spattered, hilarious, sad, gritty, exciting and altogether surreal tales of those infamous London creatures the Borribles. A Borrible is a child... sort of... with pointy ears and a suspicious disposition, who lives thieving and free-wheeling in all the hidden, forgotten and filthy places of London. Borribles are not grown-up but nonetheless they live forever, unless, that is, they are caught by Borrible-snatchers or members of the SBG--the Special Borrible Group of the Metropolitan Police Force. Clipping the ears of a Borrible dooms them to adulthood and a life of 9-5 drudgery. Borribles live for freedom, for exultant theft and freebootery, for the joy of inhabiting the streets at night. There are many Borrible tribes all over the capital city, each with their own characteristics: devious, pollution-hardened Wendles of Wandsworth, Indian Borribles, punk Borribles and even Rastafarian Borribles.

The plots all involve struggle, chase, escape and conflict. In book one the Battersea Borribles discover a threat from their mortal enemies the Rumbles (read, Wombles) who must be destroyed if the Borrible lifestyle is to continue. Thus a party of eight Borribles is assembled by Spiff the leading Battersea Borrible, none of whom have yet earned their names, all of whom are keen to rip the straw out of the vile Rumbles. In book two the Borribles have to escape the clutches of the dread Inspector Sussworth and Sergeant Hanks of the SBG. As grotesques go, these two characters are as brilliantly conceived as anything Dickens could have imagined, the former a fascist with a hygiene obsession, the latter a snot-guzzling, lard-arsed clod-foot. The police were never so well satirised. In book two we also meet Ben the smelly tramp, and enjoy a quite brilliant set-piece finale at the bottom of a mineshaft. In book three the Borribles decide to remove Sam their equine mascot to Neasden, where it is hoped he will survive out of the clutches of the SBG. It is in this book that the author's knowledge of London and compassion for those less well off comes to the fore, as the Borribles meet a clutch of extraordinary characters, including Madge and Hugh the meths drinkers, and the Queen Mum, aka Susan the tramp. The scenes where the Borribles are captured by the meths drinkers are as moving as anything I have read in the field of dark fantasy, the ghastly 'meffos' depicted without sentimentality, in all their disgusting variety. Book three also includes a set-piece in a slaughterhouse, and a superbly conceived finale in an old tube tunnel.

What also sets this novel apart is the wonderful dialogue, steeped in the Cockney idiom--and you know it's the real thing because of the author's background. Every speech is beautifully crafted, every bit of slang in exactly the right place. Cor blimey guv'nor, this ain't yer manor! The humour is laugh-out-loud: Sergeant Hanks pulls out a bogey and declares, "Hmm, first class that one, looks like a well-fed whelk." The tragedy is sincere and affecting, the shadows are black, and the Thames is dark, oily, deadly...

This really is the stuff of fantasy. Forget identikit Tolkien clones, forget sword'n'sorcery, forget heroes with bulging biceps and all the rest of that nonsense. If you want to read something unique, something that will move and excite you, something inspirational, something written with panache, verve and an unwavering gaze cast upon the dark truth of London, read this.

Once read, never forgotten.

Review by Stephen Palmer.

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