Saturday, 3 March 2018

Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch Review

Peter Grant is the London Metropolitan Police’s newest recruit, hoping for a fun, rewarding placement that’s not gonna stick him behind a desk filling out endless paperwork. Which he almost gets until a chance encounter with a ghost one night in Covent Garden introduces him to Detective Chief Inspector (read: Most Powerful Wizard in Ingerlund) Thomas Nightingale, the head - and up to that moment, the only member - of the Met’s secret paranormal branch. Together, the sorcerer and his apprentice set out to stop the malicious spirit of Mr Punch (yes, the puppet!) from murdering Londoners and resolve a turf war between the Thames river gods. 

That’s the way to do it, Ben Aaronovitch! Supernatural coppers ain’t exactly original with The X-Files TV show and the Hellboy/BPRD comics springing to mind, and even the idea of a fantasy story about murderous Punch and Judy puppets has been done before in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld short story Theatre of Cruelty, but Aaronovitch definitely makes the concept his own here - Rivers of London is the best novel I’ve read in, well, too damn long!

I enjoyed every part of this book. The story is full of charming characters. Our protagonist Peter is very likeable and is the right amount of clueless and capable as the story demands. Nightingale is a brilliant Obi-Wan to Peter, Lesley is a great Scully to Peter’s Mulder (sorry for the disparate pop culture comparisons!), and even minor characters like the terrifyingly silent housekeeper Molly and Lesley’s boss Seawoll made powerful impressions in their brief appearances. 

I also like how the cast is growing organically with new additions being made as the story progresses, like Toby the dog joining the group after a particularly gruesome episode. And - though it’s a cliche to say this - London itself is a distinct character with its sprawling and unique areas, world-famous landmarks and impossibly dense history playing a central role throughout. 

The world-building is expertly done in such a way as to sell the fantasy in a wholly convincing and unforced style. Everyone from the first ghost to the vampires and river gods we meet along the way feel natural and believable-enough in the narrative context - think Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. 

Aaronovitch has found the perfect balance between police procedural and fantasy, taking the best elements of both genres and fashioning a compelling hybrid from them. All of the incongruous pieces work beautifully together and make sense within the logic of the story. I liked The Folly, Nightingale’s “Sanctum Sanctorum”, and his magic lessons with Peter, introducing werelights and vestiges, were interesting in themselves; as well as being necessary plot devices, they also never felt like clunky exposition. 

It wasn’t a huge concern to me as I found them both compelling but I did wonder if the two alternating plotlines had anything to do with one another and, yes, Aaronovitch does manage to tie them together in an inspired way by the end. Absolutely brilliant! 

I loved Rivers of London. Well-written, cleverly-constructed, imaginative, original and thoroughly entertaining, I heartily recommend it to one and all but especially to fans of Terry Pratchett’s City Watch books and Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere.

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