Tuesday, 27 September 2022

Rivers Of London

Swazzle Stick

Rivers Of London
by Ben Aaronovitch
ISBN: 9780575097582

One of the few joys of getting old is finding another writer whose work you really enjoy. The extra icing on that particular cake is when it’s the first book in what turns out to be a substantial series of novels already published. I think I’ve had a few recommendations from people to start up with the Rivers Of London series over the years, the last time from someone three years ago with whom I was doing jury service but, since the people who make these recommendations don’t know me that well, I’ve always put buying one of these books on the back burner, so to speak.

So I’m very pleased that I finally lifted the lid and read the first novel in the series and, a fine tome it turned out to be. Not quite what I was expecting either, to tell you the truth. Set in modern London (mostly... I’ll talk about that in a little while) the books follows the first big adventure of graduate policeman Peter Grant and his colleague/friend/crush Lesley May. Told in first person viewpoint by Grant, who really is the main protagonist here, the book starts off in Covent Garden with these two young coppers guarding a crime scene late at night. The crime scene in question dealing with a man near the actor’s church in Covent Garden, who has had his head knocked off. When Lesley goes to get coffee for them both in the small hours of the morning, Peter finds himself face to face with a witness to the crime. The only problem with that is... the witness is a very old ghost.

The book goes on from there as Peter and Lesley discover a previously unknown (to them) one man branch of the police dealing with ‘magic and occult’ phenomena. A man known as Nightingale. Peter becomes his apprentice, learning how to cast spells and detect supernatural phenomena... since Nightingale is also a very old wizard. Along the way, Peter and Lesley find themselves entrenched in a very dangerous investigation, negotiating the practicalities and bureaucracy of dealing with the existence of Gods, monsters and other creatures that go more than just bump in the night. Generally putting themselves in very dangerous situations where, if you’re not careful in the case of the main antagonist of this particular case... your face might fall off.

And it’s great, shot through with a very strong dose of humour right from the outset. The main characters are all very likeable and the situations they find themselves in inhabit a world which could easily be cliché ridden but, in actuality, are told with a certain freshness and sparkle that you don’t always find in more poe faced works dealing with this kind genre, or indeed ‘genre mix’, as it marries strong fantasy elements (including the rivers and their rulers fighting over territories... such as rivals Father Thames and Mama Thames) with modern police procedural methods and references. It’s by no means downgrading the police but I do like the fact that it’s par for the course in this novel for certain officers to falsify evidence and witness reports, lying at the request of their senior officers which, when Peter has to do that, gets him the compliment of “You do have the makings of a proper copper.”

Also, when the writer/narrative voice starts to make jokes about the Midichlorians from the Star Wars prequels and paraphrases a line from Blade Runner (things which the reader would either know or not and, Peter usually doesn’t get a laugh from these since the characters he cracks them with don’t seem to recognise what he’s talking about) then... well, Aaranovitch already had me hooked but even more so once he’s started down this road. There even another discrete reference, again not spelled out, to the 1972 British movie Death Line, at one point.

More humour is found when Peter’s attempts at learning magic have some decidedly dodgy and damaging results at times. Plus casual one liners such as when he’s told a suspect is hiding in Walthamstow and his first thought is “Many would say that was punishment enough.”, had me in stitches... or as close as I get to stitches on my generally unsmiling features.

The approach to magic is something I quite enjoyed too. Peter is picked on because Nightingale sees something special in him, particularly considering he managed to see... and interview for a witness statement... a ghost, when he didn’t even believe in them until then. And the way Peter approaches the many magical realms opened up to him is to relate it all to science and he experiments with it the same way a scientist might test various hypothesis... very much in laboratory conditions.

The other big thing I enjoyed was the many shout outs to parts of London that I know well. Most of the locales Aaranovitch writes about are known to me and I find it ironic, since I don’t go into London as much as I used to. That’s also going to age the books for future readers too, I’m afraid. This book was first published in 2011 and, already in 11 years, many of the shops and haunts he writes about have changed or disappeared. I remember them but, I suspect that as Peter carries on in future books, he will note the changes to certain places in the text... at which point it will probably be a London I recognise less with each passing book unless I start going down there more regularly and actively revisiting these areas for myself.

And the story develops in a way which I didn’t see coming until it was revealed either (which is a hard thing to do to me, to be honest, I usually see stuff coming a mile off). There was one point in the story where a particularly horrible and terminal crime is committed against a babe in arms which, honestly, should have given me a big clue as to where this was all going... I just wasn’t expecting it and I missed it completely. And I’m really not complaining... that’s a good thing as far as I’m concerned. Surprise me with the writing and I’m going to stay interested, for sure.

And that’s all I’ve got to say about Rivers Of London other than, as a sign of respect to the hundreds of books on my to read pile, the second volume in the series, Moon Over Soho, will definitely be going on my Christmas list and I’m planning on reading all the other books in the series during 2023 too, if I can afford books on top of all these new energy bills... I might be piling them all up and burning them to get some heat going instead, if I’m not careful. But, if you like stuff like the Night Watch books and are happy if I describe these novels a being a kind of Harry Potter for grown ups... then you should probably like this one, for sure.

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