Wednesday, 12 January 2011
‘Midnight Riot’/’Rivers of London’ – Ben Aaronovitch (Del Rey/Gollancz)
As much as most Urban Fantasy really annoys me (great concepts ruined by an unnecessary romance being shoehorned into the plot) my love of cityscapes in speculative fiction mean that I’ll always be back for more and the one city that I always find myself returning to is London. London is a magical city at the best of times (if you’ve ever visited or lived there then you’ll know just what I mean) and has to be the ideal setting for an Urban Fantasy as ably demonstrated by writers such as Neil Gaiman, Mike Carey and China Mieville. Ben Aaronovitch has decided to chance his arm at joining this illustrious crowd and offers us a tale that may not hit those heady heights but still has me eager to read more.
Probationary constable Peter Grant is one day away from transfer to the tedium of the Case Progression Unit (‘we do paperwork so real coppers don’t have to...’) when a murder inquiry takes his career down an entirely different path. Taking a witness statement from a ghost brings our hapless constable to the attention of Inspector Nightingale, the last wizard in England, and now Grant not only finds himself an apprentice wizard as well as a Detective Constable.
The criminals may have changed but the job is still all about keeping the peace and upholding the law. This time though what that means is clearing out a vampire nest in Purley as well as stopping a turf war between the god and goddess of the Thames really getting out of hand. There’s also something rotten at the heart of London’s theatre district; something that takes ordinary people and uses them to add out mad acts of violence. As much as he’s not the man for the job, Peter Grant is about to find that he’s the only man left standing to try...
I think I’ve found a new series to follow this year (and hopefully beyond) with the sequel, ‘Moon Over Soho’, following hard on the heels of the series opener. A clever blend of magical contemporary urban setting, engaging main character and a mystery that really gets its claws into the reader makes this a book worth picking up while also promising good things for the future.
This almost wasn’t the case though...
Now, I’ll freely admit that I read sci-fi, fantasy etc to the exclusion of most other works (that’s just how I roll) so I’m not exactly au fait with how certain other types of book work. This is very much the case with ‘police procedurals’ and ‘Rivers of London’ (I’ve got to call it something other than ‘this book’...) falls very firmly into this category.
I think that if you’re a fan of police procedurals then you will love the level of detail that Aaronovitch throws into his portrayal of a police investigation; he certainly leaves no stone unturned showing us the sheer level of manpower involved. This is also the case for the magical side of the investigation and what you get as a result is a tale grounded in reality and all the more plausible as a result.
What I found though, more often than not, was that this detail came at the expense of moving the plot forward smoothly. In his hurry to tell us everything that a policeman does, Aaronovitch ends up with a ‘jumpy’ plot that stops as soon as it starts to get going. A great tale is constantly interrupted by the well meaning obstacles that it sets for itself and is less accessible as a result...
Of course, I’ll freely admit that I’m missing the whole point of a police procedural but that’s the way it read to me.
Once you get past this unfortunate barrier though, what you find is a tale that is by turns quirky, engaging and above all scarily compelling.
You will be hard pressed to find a character that you would rather pound the mean streets of London than our man Peter Grant. Here’s a guy who cannot believe what lies under the everyday surface of the city yet still manages to deal with it by looking at it all in terms of the oath he swore as a policeman. Add some nice touches of self deprecating humour to that pragmatism and the end result is an engaging character that grows on you as the book progresses.
Aaronovitch’s London is also beautifully realised as well and its heady mix of the real and fantastic made it a place where I was more than willing to spend several hours. London, as a city, has that sense of the magical that disappears whenever you try and catch it. With his tale of warring gods and vampires (and the rest, I won’t spoil that though...) Aaronovitch has captured that magical essence of London and bottled it so we can get that full undiluted flavour.
If that wasn’t enough, the mystery underpinning the book is a very good one. A seemingly unsolvable mystery becomes something far more as Aaronovitch gives us just enough clues to make us think we’ve cracked it and then proceeds to throw a whole bundle of surprises at us all wrapped up in a riot the likes of which you won’t have come across before. I was hooked and I’m hoping for more of the same from the sequel.
Call it ‘Midnight Riot’ or call it ‘Rivers of London’. If you’re a fan of urban fantasy, just read it.
Eight and Three Quarters out of Ten