RogerBW's Blog

The Hanging Tree, Ben Aaronovitch 15 February 2022

Contemporary fantasy, sixth in the series. Peter Grant, Metropolitan Police constable and magician, is back in London, starting with a magic-related drug overdose and following clues to the Big Bad.

Well, it's a lot better than Foxglove Summer. But it's very firmly another middle volume, in that modern series style: we want you to read the series in order, so there is mention of the Big Plot, but when the Big Plot is over the series will be over, so what we have left of it gets more and more thinly spread as the number of books increases. The progress here could be summed up in two clauses, and you can say "oh, if only X hadn't happened I could have caught him" as much as you like; the vaguely alert reader knows perfectly well that catching him was never on the cards.

Another problem is that here in book six there are now quite a lot of amazingly powerful magical entities in this world, and it becomes increasingly clear that their powers are limited not by any actual in-world limitations but by what the plot needs them not to be able to do at the time. The bones of artifice are showing very plainly through the flesh of snappy conversation and people being cool.

Aaronovitch continues to take casual swipes at anything "posh", always going for the easy option ("they don't like the things we like, get 'em") rather than ever considering any actual problems of power and who wields it on behalf of whom. (Hint, Peter: you're a policeman. Who decides how much money the police get? What are their priorities for what the police should do?) And while he's proud enough of his research to point out at the end that The Jeremy Kyle Show was no longer on air at the relevant date but he couldn't resist using it anyway, he has a school for girls called just "St Paul's" (which is used informally, but because there's a closely related school for boys nearby, it's "St Paul's Girls' School" in any sort of formal context), which has boarders (with "dorm rooms") – which the real one has never done. Even though he's got the correct term "Paulinas" for its pupils. Presumably he used a real school because after the collapse in quality of recent books he was trying to get back to the real London geography that worked so well in the first book in particular, but frankly a made-up school would have been less distracting.

I can't help noticing that while Grant still mentions people as "white" when they are (because he isn't) he never describes any other ethnicity.

But the basic problem here is that this all feels facile. We need these cool scenes, so we'll make up those bits of connective tissue to get us there. Here's a dribble of ongoing characterisation for the series reader, there's the teaser to remind us that there'll be another book, but while the prose isn't distractingly hard to read my attention was never grabbed by it. So my disbelief was never suspended, and so in turn I noticed things like the errors surrounding SPGS, or "I could smell old petrol and fresh carbon monoxide" (hint: one of those things does not have a smell, and while Peter might be speaking casually he's also trying to update magic for the modern era so it's exactly the sort of thing he'd need to be aware of).

Eh. Many people love this book, and this series. Cool people doing cool things and having cool conversations: what's not to like?

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Previous in series: Foxglove Summer | Series: Rivers of London

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