Books on London


This isn’t strictly about medieval stuff – more about making the most of your visit to London.

If you’re like most Society folk, you read for fun. There’s a suspiciously large overlap between Society members and folks who read sci-fi, fantasy, cyberpunk and other genre fiction, and we’re generally keen on Learning Stuff.

To prepare for your visit, consider picking up one of the books, series, or authors, that make London part of the story.

If you have a favourite to add, contact Genevieve via theThamesreach list.

Do you want fictional or factual reading?

Fiction list

Fantasy, time travel, cyberpunk and alternate histories: a snapshot selection

If you want to argue about the genre names, the drinks are on you! These are just some of the now burgeoning sub-genre of urban fantasy set in London.

  • Tim Powers’ Anubis Gates is set in a sorcerous London at the beginning of the 19th century.
  • A bear called Paddington by Michael Bond is still much loved; you don’t have to be a kid to enjoy the Paddington books. You canvisit his statue in the station, when you pass through.
  • The Borrible Trilogy by Michael de Larrabeiti covers the stories of pointy-eared urchin tribes haunting southwest London. It’s a bit hard on the Wombles of Wimbledon Common, if you remember them!
  • Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere – you’ll never see the Tube map the same way again. Brilliant alternate-London-under-your-feet story. If you pick only one book to read before visiting, choose this one.
  • UnLunDun by China Mieville – in theory a young adult book, it’s a dark alternate London for a child heroine.
  • William Gibson’s  Pattern Recognition  and  Zero History  have London bases for their plots, and together with  Spook Country  (published between them) form an edgy trilogy, reflecting on the people we’ve become, centred around the technology we use.
  • Ben Aaronovitch’s  Rivers of London, Moon over Soho, Whispers Underground, Broken Homes, and Foxglove Summer are the continuing adventures of Peter Grant, police constable and apprentice wizard. Great stuff; you can follow the characters around Covent Garden and Bloomsbury with your A-Z.

Crime and whodunnits

  • Elizabeth George’s books featuring Inspector Thomas Lynley and DS Barbara Havers are more ‘novels about crime and their investigators’, rather than genre crime novels. Lynley and Havers operate out of Scotland Yard, but journey around the country in their investigations. Don’t judge the novels by the TV adaptations; they don’t come anywhere near doing the novels justice.
  • P.D. James’ long-serving detective Adam Dalgliesh is based at Scotland Yard. A recent read: A Certain Justice is set at a fictional law Chambers at Middle Temple, and is beautifully evocative of the secular mysteries of the Inns of Court. Published in 1998, it predates 9/11, the American war on terror, mobile phones, e-mail and the Internet, all of which have changed the law profession and the pursuit of justice. Reading it now, it feels like a bygone era.
  • John Mortimer’s Rumpole of the Bailey feature Horace Rumpole and his eccentric colleagues in Chambers around Middle Temple and the Old Bailey. The author’s own experience as a barrister shows in his intimate knowledge of pubs and wine bars around the Courts of Justice. Rich with charm and humour at the expense of pompous legal figures.

Historic fiction

  • Edward Rutherfurd’s London – from pre-history to post-WWII. A chunky, satisfying paperback, available from many airport bookshops.  If you enjoy it, follow with Sarum, a novel with a similar scope based around Salisbury and its cathedral.
  • The man on a donkey, HFM Prescott’s  account of the Henrician Pilgrimage of Grace – the popular resistance to Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries. Long out of print, you’ll have to find this in the library, but it’s well worth the search.
  • Neal Stephenson’s The Baroque Cycle (Quicksilver, The Confusion,The System of the World) – set in 17th century Europe, you see Restoration London and follow the great thinkers of the age. Dense, rich, and chewy.
  • Anthony Burgess’ A Dead Man in Deptford  is a fictional view of the life and suspicious death of Christopher Marlowe. Brilliant text, rich language.


You can go on guided walks to follow several of these authors or their characters – an excellent way to learn about the city. Recommended.

Only passing through – books with iconic London settings

  • Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin books, starting with Master and Commander, set in and after Napoleonic war. (OK it’s a stretch to call these London books, but they are brilliant, and the lead characters keep house first in Hampstead, and then in the liberties of Savoy when they’re not sailing round the globe.)
  • JK Rowling’s Harry Potter books: King’s Cross station now has a Platform 9 and 3/4. ‘Nuff said.

Factual reading list

Most of this selection is offered by the consummate Londonist, Lady Edith de Hedingham.

  • The London Encyclopedia  Ben Weinreb, et al. The definitive work on London and reference book of choice for many a London guide/historian.  I treasure my copy and have found it incredibly useful.
  • London Lore – A book about the strange traditions and practices of London.  If you’ve ever wondered about Swan Upping or beating the bounds or the silent ceremony this is the book for you!
  • CAMRA’s London Pub Walks is one of my favourite ‘London walking tours’ books (I’ve quite a number) as it covers bothhistory and the good pubs!  What more could a person want?
  • Peter Ackroyd’s London a Biography is an good general read; I find his style rather pompous, but his history is sound.
  • London City Churches – This is an excellent little book on the churches of the City of London.  If you’ve ever wanted to learn more about St Ethelburga or know which ones are Wren churches vs Hawksmoor churches, or even identify the spires you can see from your office or hotel window, this is great.
  • Any Pevsner book on architecture is always interesting and there are 6 or 7 covering the various parts on London.  Volume 1 covers the City of London.
  • Liza Picard has written several London books over various different ages, including Elizabethan, Restoration, 18th century, and Victorian eras.
  • Clare Tomalin’s book on Samuel Pepys gives a great view of the city in the Restoration and is a cracking read.
  • For some light relief – The Horrible Histories’ Gruesome Guides – London. Don’t knock them til you’ve read one!
  • 2012 addition: James Bowen’s A Street Cat Named Bob is his own story of a guy living hand to mouth busking in London, who turns his life around when he meets a stray ginger tom.