RogerBW's Blog

Rivers of London, Ben Aaronovitch 14 September 2014

Contemporary fantasy ("urban fantasy" gives the wrong idea now, even if it's much more appropriate to this book than to many published under that banner). New constable Peter Grant is about to be sent off to the paperwork unit, but while he's standing guard over a murder scene in the small hours a ghost starts to talk to him. Then things get stranger.

The book is written as a first-person narration, and Grant's voice is self-deprecating and witty: almost too witty at times, but there's enough to him beyond the snarky lines that his character comes out as interesting rather than self-important. He's of mixed ethnicity (Sierra Leonean mother), and this is well integrated into the story, rather than just being casually mentioned to get trendy points. (Indeed, ethnicity becomes quite important during the plot, something quite important in modern London though many writers ignore it or handle it badly.) Conversely, his sexuality is more on an adolescent level than one might hope, and I felt that mention of sex at all was mostly wedged in because it's necessary for a fantasy book these days. (The final chapter is an unfortunate example of this.)

Grant is perhaps a bit too ready to leap into the magical world he discovers; his attitude is more "oh, OK then" than "oh wow". A protagonist who kept saying "I don't believe it" would be far more of a problem, but his affect sometimes comes over as just a bit too flat in the face of gruesomeness; he gets neither excited nor scared. I wonder whether this, and the general "first novel" feeling of having to cram in lots of stuff, are hangovers from the constraints of Aaronovitch's Doctor Who days.

Plotting is the weakest area, possibly because there are two separate problems going on which have only tangential connection. Grant's habit of not explaining what he's doing until after he's done it (and not always then), while obviously helpful in maintaining a sense of immediate tension, robs the overall plot of some of its impact. I suspect that future volumes, not having to introduce the magical world, will do better in this regard.

In any case, while the plots may sometimes sag a little, the writing covers up the shortcomings. I was reminded of the better parts of Christopher Fowler's Roofworld in that there's always a very thorough sense of place, whether it's in Covent Garden market, Russell Square, or the roads round University College Hospital. Aaronovitch has clearly walked across London much as I have, and the result is a song of love for the city in all its messed-up glory.

US vt Midnight Riot. Followed by Moon over Soho.

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  1. Posted by Michael Cule at 10:21am on 14 September 2014

    I've really enjoyed these stories: the feel of London is very strong though my friend who's just retired from the Met doesn't think much of the feel of the police work.

    And the last (so far) in the sequence, BROKEN HOMES, has come to a mid-saga climax and then they've stopped coming out. I'm hoping he hasn't written himself into a corner.

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 08:15am on 15 September 2014

    It's mostly one bloke solving the mysteries rather than a team, which I suspect isn't at all the police way.

    I believe Foxglove Summer is set to come out in November.

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