Rivers of London
(US title: Midnight Riot)
Published 2011 390 pages
Summary (from the book jacket)
My name is Peter Grant and until January I was just probationary constable in that mighty army for justice known to all right-thinking people as the Metropolitan Police Service (as the Filth to everybody else). My only concerns in life were how to avoid a transfer to the Case Progression Unit - we do paperwork so real coppers don't have to - and finding a way to climb into the panties of the outrageously perky WPC Leslie May. Then one night, in pursuance of a murder inquiry, I tried to take a witness statement from someone who was dead but disturbingly voluble, and that brought me to the attention of Inspector Nightingale, the last wizard in England. And that, as they say, is where the story begins.
Now I'm a Detective Constable and a trainee wizard, the first apprentice in fifty years, and my world has become somewhat more complicated: nests of vampires in Purley, negotiating a truce between the warring god and goddess of the Thames, and digging up graves in Covent Garden… and there's something festering at the heart of the city I love, a malicious vengeful spirit that takes ordinary Londoners and twists them into grotesque mannequins to act out its drama of violence and despair. The spirit of riot and rebellion has awakened in the city, and it's falling to me to bring order out of chaos - or die trying. Which, I don’t mind telling you, would involve a hell of a lot of paperwork.
Rivers of London (note: the US version is published by Del Rey and titled Midnight Riot) is Ben Aaronovitch’s first foray into original urban fantasy fiction – although his previous writing credits include screenplays for the Dr Who TV series and various TV tie-in novels – so it’s fair to say that he has previous form (as members of the Constabulary might say.)
Rivers of London is a highly original British urban fantasy novel. It is as British as mugs of hot tea and bacon rolls from greasy spoon cafes, or drunken beer and curry fuelled Friday nights. The story is built on a firm foundation of London geography and history; Brits and London residents (the two are not necessarily mutually inclusive) will enjoy this refreshingly unvarnished, yet affectionately drawn, version of our crowded, smelly capital city with its piss and vomit strewn streets. Non-Brit readers, perhaps with a more idealised view of the world, may not understand the British way of mocking the things we love and our great affection for things and places that we’ll freely admit are just a bit crap. For this reason some readers may be completely baffled by the humour and writing style of Rivers of London – they may just not “get” it.
The story is narrated in first person by PC Peter Grant. He is a likeable protagonist and an inspired mixture of cluelessness and base cunning. His self-effacement goes a long way to make him appear harmless, yet he isn’t stupid and comes up with more than one cunning plan during the course of the story. In comic writing there is a fine line between having a protagonist who is inexperienced and a little bit clueless (leading to situations where hilarious hijinks ensue) and a character that is too stupid, and annoying, to live. Peter Grant is never in any danger of crossing over the wrong side of the line and this is what makes Rivers of London a joy to read. His narration style includes a lot of colloquialisms, meaning that book is written in keeping with the way a reasonable educated young man from London would actually speak. There are also numerous references that I’m not sure international readers will fully understand (but the in jokes at the expense of the Daily Mail are pretty much standard stuff in Britain.)
Through Peter’s eyes, readers are introduced to a magical London where trolls sleep under bridges alongside homeless people, vampires suck the life out of everything they come into contact with and the River Thames and its tributaries all have distinct personalities. The mythology is unique and sparingly revealed – a good trick that leaves a lot of the detail up to individual imagination and avoids the world-building information dumps that plague some fantasy novels.
In addition to great characterisation and imaginative mythology, the story keeps up a good action- and mystery-packed pace and its lightly comic style is sustained from start to finish without becoming tedious. This, to me, makes Rivers of London something approaching a work of genius. I have to confess to reading several of Tom Holt’s comic fantasy novels, however I usually drop out two thirds of the way through when the joke wears thinner than the soles on my oldest walking boots. Ditto for Terry Prachett, and even the late great Douglas Adams was a struggle once I was out of my teenaged years. The point I’m trying to make here is that writing comedy is hard and sustaining the effort through a full length novel is even harder but Ben Aaronovitch has pulled it off with Rivers of London.
I loved Rivers of London but as a Brit, a fantasy fan and an occasional reader of Tom Holt it’s hardly surprising. It would be easy to draw parallels between Rivers of London and J.K Rowling’s Harry Potter books or Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files (they both feature wizards!) but that isn’t really fair because this book isn’t the same. It’s not better or worse – it’s just different and is uniquely doing its own thing. Readers looking for it to be Harry Potter grown up or Harry Dresden in London will be disappointed. After all, Peter Grant isn’t Harry Dresden, London isn’t Chicago, and readers who think it should be probably need to stick to reading books by Jim Butcher.
Rivers of London (or Midnight Riot for our US readers) is highly recommended for anyone looking for some urban fantasy fun with a real life spin, the sights and smells of London just ooze out from between the pages. This book should be essential reading for anyone who has ever seen anything inexplicable or strange on the streets of London – which would be just about everybody who’s ever been there, really.
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