RIVERS OF LONDON by Ben Aaronovitch

I first read this urban fantasy / police procedural hybrid several years ago and really enjoyed it, but for various reasons stopped there with the series. Recently a couple of friends of mine mentioned they had been reading the later books in the cycle (the seventh volume in the series is due out in September) and when a good friend of mine recently gave me a copy of the first, I decided the gods of literature were trying to tell me something! So I decided to re-read it, with a view to actually getting into the whole cycle of adventures featuring probationary policeman, Peter Grant.

I offer this review for Friday’s Forgotten Books meme hosted today by Todd Mason at Sweet Freedom.

“… London is the pick ‘n mix cultural capital of the world.”

Published as Midnight Riot in the US (and what a rubbish, anodyne, ultra generic title that is …), this first volume introduces us to Grant, who is coming to the end of his two-year probationary period as a Constable with the London Metropolitan Police Force. One night a man is decapitated in Covent Garden and while Peter is keeping vigil overnight while the location is secured, he is accosted by a witness to the crime. The only ‘problem’ is that the witness is … well, undead. Yes, Peter is gifted and can see dead people … And so Grant, otherwise a bit of a low achiever, is paired with Chief Inspector Nightingale, the Jag-driving silver-topped cane-wielding officer in charge of investigating the supernatural. Grant and Nightingale investigate several violent deaths that have no apparent motive, while the young apprentice also learns to harness his latent talents. This is the modern world (specifically London) largely as we know it, but a parallel iteration in which magic is real, as are trolls (not the social media kind), ghosts and vampires and in which the river Thames is controlled by two opposing supernatural clans.

“I never worry about the theological questions”, said Nightingale. “They exist, they have power, they can breach the Queen’s peace – that makes them a police matter.”

Grant makes for an appealing protagonist, a callow youth who has much to learn from the mysterious Nightingale (who is apparently not even of the twentieth century) but who is also bright, educated (he studied science) and reasonably well-adjusted, despite his unrequited lust for best friend Lesley. But ultimately, as with any good bildungsroman, he is just sorely in need of experience. As he narrates the tale he describes himself as being mixed race (his mother is West African, his father a Caucasian Englishman) but this proves to have a wider meaning as he also straddles the mundane world, in which he sometimes struggles to fit in within the rigid hierarchy of the Police force, and that of the supernatural. The latter predictably proves to have a set of distinctly arcane rules, some of which will take him years to get to grips with as he goes through his apprenticeship at an establishment known as, The Folly. This is where he goes to live with Nightingale, his dog Toby and their non-speaking feline housekeeper, Molly, as its only other occupants. As the body count goes up and people first give in to unexplained aggression and then have their faces explode or fall off, Grant makes some new friends and several enemies while his magical skills slowly improve (amid a rain of exploding apples and cell phones).

Although there are jokey references to Harry Potter (and Doctor Who and Star Wars come to that), this is a resolutely adult book with strong language and some quite shocking scenes, such as the murder of a husband, wife and their baby child early on, which leaves Peter and Lesley reeling in horror. The book aims to be both contemporary in its urban setting and timeless in its magical excursions, though any deeper allegorical underpinning, intentional or not, never gets in the way of telling a good yarn with energy, wit and plenty of sheer gusto.

“But what if he’s something else … Like the manifestation of a social trend, crime and disorder, a sort of super-chav. The spirit of riot and rebellion in the London mob.”

What the book does especially well is compartmentalise the fantastical and procedural elements so that Grant never loses sight of the need for straightforward police work to track down the villains, even if a little magic is needed to speed their ultimate dispatch. The last third of the book sees Grant separated from his ‘Master’ and pushed out of the Police Force for the time being – and this is where the story really kicks into high gear as we see him having to cope on his own as everything he thought he knew about those around him is put into question and events pull him inexorably back to Covent Garden for an operatic climax.

In the years since I first read this book, the series has been adapted as graphic novels and seem to have really taken off, which is great news as I am very much looking forward to finding out what happens next …

The Rivers of London series

  1. Rivers of London (US title: Midnight Riot, 2011)
  2. Moon Over Soho (2011)
  3. Whispers Under Ground (2012)
  4. Broken Homes (2013)
  5. Foxglove Summer (2014)
  6. The Hanging Tree (2016)
  7. The Furthest Station (2017 – forthcoming)

You can read the author’s blog at: http://temporarilysignificant.blogspot.com/

***** (4 fedora tips out of 5)

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This entry was posted in Ben Aaronovich, Doctor Who, Friday's Forgotten Book, London, Police procedural, Scene of the crime. Bookmark the permalink.

32 Responses to RIVERS OF LONDON by Ben Aaronovitch

  1. stewartry says:

    I adore this series – but I’ve never read a word of it. I let the magnificent Kobna Holdbrook-Smith, with whom I am completely in love, read them to me with the audiobooks.

  2. So glad you reminded me of this series, Sergio. I feel embarrassed to admit it, but I haven’t tried it yet, although it’s not for lack of interest. I really need to at least read this one (which I wanted to read – but didn’t – when it first came out). Thank you for the nudge!

  3. tracybham says:

    Wonderful review, Sergio. I have read the first three of these and enjoyed them a lot. I just recently purchased the fourth in the series, Broken Homes, and maybe will read it in the next few months. I did not know about the graphic novels.

  4. Anne H says:

    I’ll have to try one of these. Meanwhile I’m a dedicated follower of Bryant and May from Christopher Fowler’s Peculiar Crimes Unit. They operate in a slightly less weird London.

    • Thanks for that Anne – I have had the first two books in the Bryant & May series on the TBR for the best part of a decade now – really time I tried them, clearly!

      • JJ says:

        I know a lot of people love Bryant and May, but I find those books so phenomenally dull (and badly written, to boot) — in fact, it was someone likening Aaronovitch’s series to Fowler’s that put me off even trying Rivers of London. My TBR is precarious enough as it is for now, but I’ll file this recommendation of yours away, Sergio, and get to it in about a decade or so when I’ve cleared some space…

  5. Colin says:

    This is one of the crime/fantasy mash-up is one of the big gaps in my reading but that can always be put right. The title had me thinking of Bryant & May (unlike JJ I quite like those books, but there you go) but reading further I don’t see that many parallels. Actually I’m getting a vibe of a book I’ve not read but have just lately acquired, Too Many Magicians by Randall Garrett.

  6. Santosh Iyer says:

    Trolls, vampires, ghosts, supernatural clans, real magic? Not for me. I prefer more realistic novels !

  7. Like Tracy, I have read the first three of these and enjoyed them a lot. I have been getting them from the library, and it’s high time I read the next one, but I’m overwhelmed with reading just now. Fine review.

  8. I’ve enjoyed this series very much, Sergio. Nice to get your point of view. I currently have THE HANGING TREE waiting by my bedside. So far, my two favorites are BROKEN HOMES (which I loved) and FOXGLOVE SUMMER (unicorns!!) which I liked almost as much. A very well imagined and satisfactorily written series.

    P.S. I love the Bryant and May series. Period. End of discussion. 🙂 One of the main things I love about it is that It’s a weird combo of Victorian and WWII hijinks set in modern day London. Kind of. Sort of. Again, an uniquely imagined series with occasional laugh out loud moments.

  9. I love the covers on these books! I’ll track them down now after reading your fine review!

  10. Matt Paust says:

    If anyone could entice me to read something like this, it would be you, Sergio. Your review has me teetering… The covers, too–irresistible.

  11. I read this one, and enjoyed it, but not enough to rush on to later episodes. but there’s something about that collage of the covers that is very enticing… thanks for reminding me of this series.

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