Tuesday, 1 February 2011
Review: Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch (aka Midnight Riot in USA)
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 voluable, and that brought me to the attention of Inspector Nightingale, the last wizard in England.
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.
During 2010 I read less adult novels than in any year before that since about 1985. With the launch of The Book Zone I wanted to devote a lot of time to the books that I wanted to be the primary focus of the blog, and as such I have shelves bulging with adult novel waiting to be read. At the start of 2011 I resolved to read more adult novels, and also feature some of them on The Book Zone wherever I deemed it appropriate. Boys do, after all, grow up and my experience as a teacher suggests that many of them make a very sudden leap from kids and YA fiction, straight onto the adult stuff, and especially where fantasy and science fiction are concerned. Long time readers of The Book Zone will already know that I have a passion for London, and I totally love good urban fantasy set in this city, with Neverwhere ranking high in my list of all time favourites. I have also greatly enjoyed Kate Griffin's Matthew Swift books and one of my favourite reads of last year was Sarah Silverwood's brilliant The Double-Edged Sword (although admittedly that was written for the YA market), both set in London. Now I have a new favourite to add to the list: Rivers of London, the first book in Ben Aaronovitch's new urban fantasy trilogy (please let it become a series).
Before I go any further let me reiterate: this is an adult book, and as such contains themes, language and scenes that may not be deemed appropriate for the younger market. However, confident reader mid-teens who feel they have grown out of the fantasy stories written for their market will have no problem 'jumping' to this, and loving every moment of it. This is the kind of book I would have loved as an intelligent 15 year old (that sounds a little immodest, but my parents kept telling me I was intelligent so I'll run with it).
Rivers of London is your standard, everyday police procedural novel, and an outstanding example of the genre. Well it would be standard and everyday except for one huge thing - magic is very much alive and well; so much so that the government know about it, the police know about it, and there is even a Chief Inspector who is also a wizard. OK, so he is the only remaining wizard living in the UK, but that just means his role is even more important. Of course, probationary constable Peter Grant is not aware of any of this until very early one Tuesday morning when he is left as the lone guard at the scene of a murder, and a shift looking character calls him over claiming: "I saw the whole thing, squire". Out comes PC Grant's notebook, questions are asked and minutes later Peter finds that this witness is certainly not your average passer-by as he states the reason he cannot accompany Peter to the station to give a statement is: "That would be a bit of a problem, seeing as I'm dead". Yup - he's a ghost, and not the last one that PC Grant is going to come across in this story. Notebook still in hand Peter takes all this in his stride, reasoning that "...just because you've gone mad doesn't mean you should stop acting like a policeman", and it is this attitude that soon has him under the protective wing of Chief Inspector Nightingale, working out of The Folly, a five storey Georgian house in Russell Square.
Peter's investigations open up a whole new world to him. It is a world where vampires exist, magic is practised and the various London rivers have a physical human form (he even falls for one of the younger, more attractive members of the 'family'). I hope you are still reading after my mention of the V-word.... you have no need to worry, as they only make a fleeting appearance in the book and they have little in common with the vampires we have been bored rigid by in certain publications in recent years. It is also a world that can be far more deadly than the one he is used to, a world where a person can be possessed by a malevolent spell or spirit, and have their face rearranged to take the form of Mr Punch, only for said face to pretty much fall off as the spell is broken - yes, gore fans, you will be kept entertained as well.
And yet I still haven't mentioned the real strength of this novel, and this is the humour that Ben Aaronovitch puts in his writing. I remember as a teenager I read Ben Elton's Stark, a book that friends had recommended as being the funniest thing ever, but I found ultimately rather disappointing. Since then I tend to steer away from so-called funny books as I rarely ever find them as funny as they have billed to be (and yes, this includes the works of Terry Pratchett, of which I managed to read a grand total of four before I got bored of the humour), and yet there were moments in Rivers of London where I was laughing out loud, and many other scenes where I was reading with some kind of inane grin on my face, as if I too had been possessed by that very same Mr Punch spell. And by the end of the book I wanted even more, and fortunately for me there are two sequels planned for later in 2011. Yes.... two more books this year - Mr A and Gollancz sure know how to make their readers happy.
Last Monday I was entertained by Mr Aaronovitch on Radio 2's Simon Mayo show as I drove home from work. When asked whether his story had to be set in London, his reply was: "I am a Londoner, I've lived here all my life, and I'm what in another place would be called a patriot so yes, for me it has to be London". And this shows throughout the whole book - this is a story written by someone who knows and loves London with a passion. Mr Aaronovitch knows its history and its folklore, and he makes it the sort of work that makes this non-Londoner yearn to pack up everything and move to the capital. It is also the kind of story that, like Neverwhere, will have you thinking twice about every slightly unusual looking character or strange incident that you spot when you are out and about in the capital.
My thanks go to Jon Weir at Gollancz for sending me a copy of Rivers of London, which was released a couple of weeks ago in the UK, and today sees its official publication over in the USA under the title Midnight Riot. According to Amazon the sequel, Moon Over Soho, will be released in April and the third book, Whispers Under Ground, in November. Should we now be christening 2011 the Year of the Aaronovitch?