Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch is the first of his Urban Fantasy series set in London. The books feature Peter Grant, a mixed race policeman and apprentice wizard with an eye for the ladies and an inquiring mind. The series is hugely enjoyable and funny, each book has a case to solve and the characters develop over the series arc, which by book five is starting to dangle some interesting possibilities.
“Right, I thought, just because you’ve gone mad doesn’t mean you should stop acting like a policeman.”
The story begins in Rivers of London where Peter is a probationary constable with the Metropolitan Police. He wants to be a detective and thinks he’s about to be saddled with a desk job, but then inadvertently takes a statement from a ghost who witnessed a murder. This brings him to the attention of Inspector Nightingale, the only officer to be based at The Folly, a specialist unit responsible for investigating all crimes with a supernatural element. Peter joins the unit and begins his magical training while trying to crack the murder case.
There are two main plot threads that run through Rivers of London: the bizarre pattern of murders that begin in Covent Garden and the turf war that erupts between Mother and Father Thames. The delicate politics of working with mythical beings with real power provide some of the most enjoyable moments in the book. The story has a strong first person narrative told from Peter’s perspective and he has an engaging and likeable voice, with a very dry, British sense of humour. Peter may be the first apprentice wizard since the end of World War Two, but he’s a typical lad in many ways, especially around women (perhaps he’ll grow up and mature as the series progresses). He’s also a bit distractible and crap at being a copper, as his friend and colleague, Lesley points out:
“New Year’s Eve, Trafalgar Square, big crowd, bunch of total wankers pissing in the fountain – remember that?” asked Lesley. “Wheels come off, wankers get stroppy and what were you doing?”
“I was only gone for a couple of seconds,” I said.
“You were checking what was written on the lion’s bum,” said Lesley. “I was wrestling with a couple of drunken chavs and you were doing historical research.”
“Do you want to know what was on the lion’s bum?” I asked.
“No,” said Lesley. “I don’t want to know what was written on the lion’s bum, or how siphoning works or why one side of Floral Street is a hundred years older than the other side.”
“You don’t think any of that’s interesting?”
“Not when I’m wrestling chavs, catching car thieves, or attending a fatal accident,” said Lesley. “I like you, I think you’re a good man, but it’s like you don’t see the world the way a copper needs to see the world – it’s like you’re seeing stuff that isn’t there.”
“I don’t know,” said Lesley. “I can’t see stuff that isn’t there.”
All the characters are well-rounded and distinctive, whether human or magical. Lesley is blond and perky (even in a stab vest), but she’s smart and a better copper than Peter (and has one of the most interesting, and unexpected, character arcs in the series so far). Nightingale drives an old Jaguar, carries a silver-topped wizard’s cane, and is unfailingly dapper and enigmatic – and may be older than he looks. Molly is the Folly housekeeper and seems to drift rather than walk. She has sharpened teeth like razors and never speaks, and tends to cook far more food than is strictly necessary.
And then there’s the rivers of the title. The whole series blends urban myths and folklore, and Peter meets all kinds of magical creatures who pass for normal if you don’t know what you’re looking for. The rivers are genius loci, or ‘spirits of a place’ – personifications or embodiments of the spirit of the various rivers running through London. So Beverley Brook is the Goddess of that river and the daughter of Mama Thames. The fact that Mother Thames is Nigerian makes perfect sense in context.
Alongside the standard police work, Peter slowly and carefully learns how to do magic, and discovers that he’s sensitive to the trace (or vestigia) that magic leaves behind in the atmosphere. Nightingale uses a system of magic codified by Isaac Newton and wants Peter to learn the magic spells (forma) by rote and stick to the rules. But Peter can’t help experimenting because he wants to understand how magic works from a scientific perspective.
“We did an hour of practice, at the end of which I was capable of flinging a fireball down the range at the dizzying speed of a bumblebee who’d met his pollen quota and was taking a moment to enjoy the view.”
The consequences of using magic are clearly shown too – it tends to destroy circuit boards and causes hyperthaumaturgical degradation. In other words, it shrivels your brain: “one of the many reasons why magic has never really taken off as a hobby.” This may be why Nightingale warns Peter not to let his curiosity get the better of him, but there could be another, darker reason connected with what happened at Ettersberg in World War Two.
The tone of the book may be light-hearted and fun, but the events are quite grisly. Overall, there’s a good mix of the mundane and the magical, but the magical never overwhelms the ordinary so the story feels totally believable and grounded in reality. I particularly enjoyed the bit where Peter enters the ghostly realm and travels back through the history of London. There’s a nice contrast between the methodical admin of police work and the chaotic results of dealing with magic where the normal and magical worlds overlap.
There are five books in the series so far, with book six due in June. I would recommend reading them in order because there are plot details that unfold sequentially and they probably wouldn’t make much sense if you haven’t read the earlier books. Here’s a quick look at the rest of the books:
Moon Over Soho: lots of hanging around in jazz clubs and some genuinely scary moments and gruesome discoveries. Lesley deals with the consequences of the last story, and we meet the Faceless Man, an “ethically challenged magician” who becomes an ongoing antagonist in the rest of the series.
Whispers Under Ground: exploring the sewers of London and the ‘people’ who live there. This is where we discover there are many different types of magical being. It features an FBI agent, but I wasn’t convinced she had a real function in the story except to run around with a gun.
Broken Homes: explores how magic and architecture overlap and gives a whole new dimension to sick building syndrome. Excellent wizard fisticuffs in a barn where Nightingale finally shows what he’s made of, plus a wicked twist at the end that you’ll never see coming.
Foxglove Summer: set in the countryside rather than London, and a chance for some multicultural jokes. We learn more about the fae and discover a whole new dimension of reality with clues to what Molly actually is. Peter and Beverley Brook finally get together, although I think he might regret going for a swim.
The Hanging Tree – due in June 2016: back in London for more fun with the rivers. Perhaps we’ll discover what’s hidden behind the secret door in the Folly basement protected behind a demon trap. Is it connected with what was found at Ettersberg? Or will we have to wait – there’s another two books to come after this so…
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