Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch

(2011-01-27)

Rivers of London/ Midnight Riot by Ben Aaronovich

Published by Orion UK/US (Review copy received)

Published January 2011

392 pages

ISBN: 978 0 575 097568

Review by Mark Yon

Quite an interesting one, for the Urban Fantasy market.

Here we meet Peter Grant, probationary constable in the Metropolitan Police Force of contemporary London. Facing a transfer to the Case Progression Unit (administrational Armageddon for a career), he is instead assigned to Chief Inspector Thomas Nightingale of the Economic and Specialist Crime Department. This means, in reality, that he is now Detective Constable Grant, the first trainee for the last wizard in England.

His first case occurs because Peter, rather by accident, interrogates witness Nicholas Wallpenny about a decapitation in Covent Garden. All well and good, you might think, but Nicholas is a capricious lurker and a sneak thief. Oh, and a ghost from the nineteenth century.    

Things go rapidly downhill for Peter and his colleagues from there and it is not long before Peter’s dealing with ghosts, feuding gods and goddesses, vampires and demonic possession.

In a slightly creepy Lovecraftian twist, we find that behind all these initially random incidents there is something darker, deeper and more insidious at work – a invisible malevolent thing, that seems to want revenge by inciting violence and unrest amongst the masses of London. Something that Peter and Chief Inspector Nightingale must stop.

There’s a vaguely romantic entanglement as Peter tries desperately (but without success) to woo fellow trainee WPC Lesley May, described as ‘outrageously perky’. Further in support we have the incredibly Northern copper, a grumpy Gene Hunt -a-like Chief Inspector Seawoll, who has a long history of disliking Nightingale and consequently now views his protégé with suspicion. As a result, Peter’s life is generally made difficult.

Partly reminiscent of Gaiman’s Neverwhere, part Mike Carey’s Felix Castor, this is an entertaining romp that doesn’t come across too badly. The first-person perspective and tone is light, much lighter than Carey’s books, for example, though this is interspersed with some quite nasty violence: a baby thrown out of a window, people having their faces explode.

As can sometimes be the case, handling the comedy aspect of the tale can be tricky. There is the odd misstep (clue: describing an attraction towards a motherly female as ‘fighting the urge to fling myself to my knees before her and put my face between her breasts and go blubby blubby blubby’ doesn’t exactly endear itself, even if it is an old sitcom joke) and this can unsettle a little. So too the incident towards the end involving vagina dentalia.

It can be difficult balancing humour and bloodshed.  Aaronovitch doesn’t always get the balance right, but there are times, usually at the expense of the Metropolitan Police Force, where it does. There’s even an in-joke about Harry Potter’s Ministry of Magic.

As you might expect from a TV scriptwriter (Aaronovitch has written for Doctor Who before), there’s some nice touches of world building around Peter and his attempts to restore order. It does feel like it is based in modern London, with its quirky references to real places that ground it in some semblance of normality: streets and areas of Covent Garden, names of places in London, retail shops such as Boots, Waterstones and Argos. I’m not sure how much of that carries over to the US edition, but it does work in the context of the UK edition.

In summary, this is urban fantasy perhaps for those who don’t really read too much of it. If it were a film, it’d have a ‘15’ rating rather than a full blooded ‘18’. There’s a fair bit of swearing, as you might expect, and icky violence at times, but no explicit sex, nor is it particularly dark. Less Dresden, more Christopher Moore, perhaps. But it can be entertaining fun.

I’d be interested to see what a non-genre reader would make of it.

Clearly the first of a series (indeed the next, Moon Over Soho, is due April 2011).

Mark Yon, January 2011

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