Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Book Review | Rivers of London / Midnight Riot by Ben Aaronovitch

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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.


There's this baffling presumption people tend to make when they hear you're British: that you'll know London like the back of your bloody hand. As if, wherever on the Isles you reside, surely you must make a habit of popping down to the cultural capital of the UK for a spot of tea from from time to time; tea at the very least, and perhaps a scone.

I suppose it's a scale thing. Britain's such a bitty wee place to most Americans, say, whose country, economy and appetite all effect a grander, more expansive mindset, that the day-long journey from one end to another must seem a pittance. It isn't, in truth. In my life, I've been to London all of... twice, I think? On the second occasion I saw John Major strolling through Hyde Park with a pair of bodyguards, one of whom kindly snapped a picture of the former Prime Minister and I together. This was when John Major was still Prime Minister, and I was just getting to know double-digits. It's been that long. Since then, Edinburgh has served my modest need for tea, scones and culture perfectly adequately. It's closer, cheaper, and in my experience friendlier, by all accounts.

But then, I hadn't read Rivers of London before now. Published in the US (in decidedly more confrontational form) as Midnight Riot, Rivers of London is a very English urban fantasy which has a policemen stumble upon testimony that the supernatural is a thing, as it happens; the likes of vampires, trolls and river spirits are as real, according to the ghost of William Skirmish, as he and we.

DC Peter Grant takes the unlikely revelation the way any decent, self-respecting British copper should: with a pinch of salt and a pint of beer. But when a head explodes before his very eyes, people begin to act out the parts of a particularly hellish rendition of Punch and Judy - leaving a trail of bodies behind them - and evidence that things aren't quite as they seem mounts up beyond a shadow of a doubt, he dutifully accepts the state of play and gets on with it. Luckily, the last wizard in all the Kingdom (United in name alone) is on hand, and would you credit it? He just so happens to be police too. Says Inspector Nightingale of the stone-cold fact of the fantastic, "I never worry about the theological problems... They exist, they have power, and they can breach the Queen's peace - that makes them a police matter.'" (p.101)


And I haven't even mentioned the mooted "manifestation of a social trend, crime and disorder... The spirit of riot and rebellion in the London mob." (p.250) Ladies, gentlemen, ogres et al: it gives me great pleasure to introduce you to... the super-chav!

Now I don't suppose Rivers of London does anything new of note. We've all of us seen or heard or read the rough premise before, no doubt about it, but what sets the first book of The Folly apart isn't the plot - though when it gets going Rivers of London is neat enough where it counts - it's the sense of humour Doctor Who scriptwriter Ben Aaronivitch brings to the table, epitomised in the offhand assertion that Staines (origin-point of the notorious Massive) is like the "land of the munchkins, an estate made of little streets lined with pink stucco bungalows." (p.226)

At least to begin with it's that, which is to say, the abundance of funny. Wildly irreverent and brilliantly barbed, a couple of chapters in it'll come to you that you're reading a caper here... albeit a caper in a crime thriller's clothing, with an urban fantasy backdrop, set in and around London, and featuring a cast of characters you'd totally heart on Facepage. Or something. For when the comedy (black as your morning coffee) recedes for long enough, or a couple of consecutive punchlines miss their mark - truly, it can happen to the best of us - you realise you've come to care for these people. Peter and his partner Lesley, Nightingale and his sweetly creepy housemaid Molly, even Mama Thames and her myriad tributaries... they're a bunch you'd love to take to the pub. Sure, in all likelihood they'd make a scene, but it's a scene you'd give an arm and a leg - if not a head - to see.

They're a clever lot; warm, hilarious, eminently quotable and disarmingly frank. And so utterly rooted in the non-stop melting pot that is London that perhaps, even if you've never really given a hoot about the place before, you might find yourself with an otherwise unaccountable hankering to pay a visit.

Rivers of London has already been called a lot of things. Comparisons have been made between Aaronovitch's novel and a list of books and authors including but hardly limited The Dresden Files, Mike Carey and Neverwhere. For myself, a more apt parallel to draw would be with the BBC's astonishingly poignant three-freaks-share-a-flat sitcom Being Human. In any event, book the first of The Folly - soon to be joined by Moon Over Soho and latterly Whispers Under Ground - comes heartily recommended, and moreover, to paraphrase a certain policeman, it makes for a very fine accompaniment to a cup of tea indeed.


Rivers of London / Midnight Riot
by Ben Aaronovitch

UK Publication: January 2011, Gollancz
US Publication: February 2011, Del Rey

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