Book Reviews

Fantasy Reading List: the Rivers of London series

Rivers of London

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.”

“Like what?”

“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 SohoMoon 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 GroundWhispers 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 HomesBroken 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 SummerFoxglove 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 TreeThe 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…

>Visit Ben Aaronovitch’s blog for more

>See the whole Fantasy Reading List


11 thoughts on “Fantasy Reading List: the Rivers of London series

  1. I don’t mean to nitpick, but that specific RoL character’s name is spelled “Lesley” – “Leslie” is the masculine form of the name.


  2. Such a trove of awesome books with so many metaphorical and spiritual journeys 🙂 I might grab one or two when I see them. Thanks for the review and analysis 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. BTW, notice how whenever Aaronvitch makes a token attempt to fill in a character – usually at their first appearance – he does so via the cardinal literary sin of telling rather than showing? Then when an opportunity arises for the character to actually demonstrate their personhood he generally flubs it and they revert to empty plot markers.


  4. Well, I just finished it and I can’t really say I’m impressed.

    I appreciated Aaronovitch’s cynical asides about policing in general and the Met in particular. I suspect that if I was a London resident with great fondness for its waterways and the area around Covent Garden I would have got more out of it too. His prose is competent and he knows how to lay hooks in the plot.

    But his characters are all non-entities, even by the standards of the genre. I didn’t come away feeling I knew even the first person narrator much less any of the secondary characters. That was rammed home forcefully by Leslie’s rather grisly fate. She’s the narrator’s primary romantic interest and perhaps the second most featured character but neither I nor the narrator was affected by what happened to her. That’s because she never rises from plot element to person-hood. Most of the other coppers are barely sketched stereotypes, distinguishable from each other only by name. As are the majority of the supernatural beings.

    If he’d written it thirty years earlier he would have gained credit for the original synthesis of light-hearted fantasy and police procedural, but that’s been done to death in recent decades. Pratchett’s stories about The Watch show how well it can be done if you make a little effort with the characters.

    And even by permitting himself massive latitude in development through an almost entirely new ‘magical universe’ (thereby allowing almost any twist he cares to insert) he was unable to make the plot coherent or consistent. By halfway through I felt I had no stake nor interest in the outcome, something I consider the mark of a particularly lame police procedural.

    At one point the narrator (and perhaps the author?) reveals he’s a Dungeons and Dragons tragic. I think Aaronovitch’s ideas would be more suited to a role-playing game than a novel.

    (BTW, Ettersberg was the site of a Nazi concentration camp. The idea that the Holocaust was an attempt to draw on necromantic power to aid the Nazi war effort is another one that has been well and truly raked over by other fantasy authors and RPG designers).


    1. I think the characters get rounded out as the series progresses – some of them, at least. Perhaps it comes down to whether or not you enjoy the narrative style. That kind of snarky attitude can be distancing. But I agree about Terry Pratchett – he gets the balance just right.

      I enjoyed the books anyway – a light, easy read. Fine for a bit of distraction and fun.


      1. I’m OK with a snarky narrative style and I’m even alright with poorly drawn characters if there’s some other kind of payoff for reading but in the first novel at least I didn’t find one.

        The decent humour in the early part shows promise but it fades away about a quarter way in. Maybe after the baby is murdered Aaronvitch decides it’s inappropriate.

        The plot initially looks to be going somewhere but ends up all over the place like a dog’s breakfast. How did he know Molly could project him back through time and why did he think that would help? What narrative purpose did his visit to his parent’s home serve? How come a cop with fails in science A levels and no Latin is able to recognise the era, location and rank of someone simply from the name ‘Tiberius Claudius Verica’? How can a truck load of alcohol resolve a turf war between ancient gods who don’t seem to be short of resources? Why is a hostage exchange more ‘symbolic’ than a marriage? Pulling plot development out of a hat without explanation might be OK occasionally in SF&F and very occasionally in police procedurals but after Nightingale is shot and Grant deduces Leslie is involved that seems to be all Aaronvitch is doing.

        And he doesn’t handle action scenes too well either. A real life riot may appear as a disjointed jumble of chaotic images but you’ve got its personal impact on you to give it continuity and narrative tension. Aaronvitch’s riot is more like the sort of slapstick Mel Brooks used at the end of Blazing Saddles but without the humour or self-conscious irony.

        The prose made it light and easy to read at the start and there’s no shortage of ideas on offer but as I came to realise it was going nowhere with them completing it became a chore.


        1. Re. the “Tiberius Claudius Verica” point, this is something that betrays your nationality and lack of knowledge of the British school system – no offence intended, but this is so. Any fellow Brit who had been to school here since the 1970s would have been able to make that deduction from the name if they remembered anything from school – we get the Romans, Tudors and Victorians especially drummed into us at school, even though it’s at the expense of other things. That is not an error on Aaronovitch’s part. Perhaps his US editors should have included a note on our school system if this is such a sticking point for you. I never got A levels and never had Latin as a subject at school, but I would have known that, too. It’s just part of a standard secondary school education in England and Wales
          over the second half of the 20th century (Scotland and Northern Ireland have slight differences in schooling). (For the record, Peter may be a year or two younger than I am, but I doubt much more than that.)


        2. My take on it was that Peter had a particular interest in history, regardless of his failures in school exams.

          I went to school in the UK during the 70s and 80s and I don’t remember a damn thing 😉


    2. Like most series, the stories don’t actually start to get “good” until book 3 or 4.

      I enjoyed the first one, but it was only “OK”

      I continued and I’m glad I did, because they get better and better as the author finds his stride. It’s well worth carrying on and not stopping at the first book.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I like the quotations, the first one made me really laugh. This author is now o my reading list, sigh…. I have no idea when these books will get to the head of the list… Oh dear…

    Liked by 1 person


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