Friday 30 December 2011

Book Review | Moon Over Soho by Ben Aaronovitch

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The song. That’s what London constable and sorcerer’s apprentice Peter Grant first notices when he examines the corpse of Cyrus Wilkins, part-time jazz drummer and full-time accountant, who dropped dead of a heart attack while playing a gig at Soho’s 606 Club. The notes of the old jazz standard are rising from the body — a sure sign that something about the man’s death was not at all natural but instead supernatural.

Peter will risk body and soul as he investigates a pattern of similar deaths in and around Soho. With the help of his superior officer, Detective Chief Inspector Thomas Nightingale, the last registered wizard in England, and the assistance of beautiful jazz aficionado Simone Fitzwilliam, Peter will uncover a deadly magical menace — one that leads right to his own doorstep and to the squandered promise of a young jazz musician: a talented trumpet player named Richard "Lord" Grant — otherwise known as Peter’s dear old dad.


I don't have an iPod, but if I did, there'd be all sorts of funny business on it. Folk, metal, industrial, orchestral, electronica, alt. rock, dubstep... I could go on - some of the music I love most does - but let's just say I'm not particularly particular about what I shake my tush to. I'll give most every genre of music a fair shake, and in my experience, however outwardly unappealing a certain sound might seem, there's usually something about it I can learn to love.

But not jazz.

And I've tried! Hand on heart I have, because I really rather like the idea of liking jazz. That probably says a whole lot about me that I'd sooner not say, but there's something intensely appealing about the prospect of whiling away a Friday night in a bar somewhere in the city, sharing a bottle of red with the other half while the music soars and swings and ripples around us.

Sadly, jazz is a genre I just can't get my head around. I struggle to pick out the rhythms, the melodies all a-muddle. In fact, the free-form, find your own fun of jazz leaves me feeling ignorant, exhausted and utterly uncultured.

Odd, then, that I adored Moon Over Soho so. After all, the second book of The Folly by Ben Aaronovitch is all about jazz: its plot revolves around the serial slaying - perhaps I need not add by magical means, but I shall - of several jazz icons and up-and-comers in an assortment of dingy London pubs and clubs, meanwhile it features a number of lengthy digressions into the history and heritage of jazz, as well as its place in our era. Moon Over Soho is, finally, something of a musical fusion in and of itself; it is equal parts police procedural - in other words, it's all about "maintaining the Queen's Peace," (p.23) - and magical mystery tour, a la Harry Potter.

Most distinctively, it's as funny as it is fantastic. See here:

"Murder investigations start with the victim, because usually in the first instance that's all you've got. The study of the victim is called victimology because everything sounds better with an 'ology' tacked on the end. To make sure you make a proper fist of this, the police have developed the world's most useless mnemonic - 5 x W H & H - otherwise known as Who? What? Where? When? Why? and How? Next time you watch a real murder investigation on the TV, and you see a group of serious-looking detectives standing around talking, remember what they're actually doing is trying to work out what sodding order the mnemonic is supposed to go in. Once they've sorted that out, the exhausted officers will retire to the nearest watering hole for a drink and a bit of a breather." (p.108)

Aaronovitch's sly, dry, sharply satiristic sense of humour is in full effect in Moon Over Soho, at least as much as it was in predecessor -- if not more, because this sequel occurs in a world in solid working order already: namely the magical kingdom of London. Mayhap you've heard of it?

Add to that the fact that the author spends precious little time explaining what happened last time in Rivers of London... to Constable Peter Grant and his partner and sometime love interest Lesley May, both rather the worse for wear after the magical calamity with which the previous volume concluded; nor to the gang-gods of the Thames, never mind their many, various and nefarious wains. A quick reference here and there is the extent of it, and while some readers are likely to find this a bit baffling, I was alright with the oversight, because Moon Over Soho wastes so little energy recapping and worldbuilding that Aaaronovitch can hone in on what made our last visit to The Folly such a treat: on the fun, and the funny, which comes thick and fast. Rarely does a page of Aaaronovitch's neat sequel pass without there being something to elicit a grin, or a knowing eyebrow.

The narrative's not to be sniffed at either. It's perhaps a notch less substantial, and certainly a lot less surprising, than the whimsical watery warfare of Rivers of London, but it hops along happily to a toe-tapping time signature, with a sweet solo here and an awesome cacophony of noise there. In the erstwhile, the underground jazz scene makes for a fascinating and fittingly multicultural motif to set this somewhat throwaway story against -- plus it serves to bring Peter's family into the picture again, and it was great to meet the Grants again.

Moon Over Soho's characters are wonderful to a one, come to that. Invariably warm and witty, smart and sensible, there are only a few new additions - most return, disfigured or merely disheartened, from the events of book one of The Folly - but of these, Stephanopolis specifically is terrific. "She was a short, terrifying woman whose legendary capacity for revenge had earned her the title of the lesbian officer least likely to have a flippant remark made about her sexual orientation," (p.76) and I dearly hope to see more of her in Whispers Under Ground.

If one absolutely must append a single category to Moon Over Soho, I suppose it'd be urban fantasy - like jazz, a genre I'm not terribly interested in, I'll be the first to admit - but any number of things put Aaronovitch's fiction ahead of the pack, not least its fearless engagement with the now, and our generation - which is to say both mine and yours, given where and how you're reading this review - above all others.

And Moon Over Soho is both superficially modern - as above, so below - and engaged more meaningfully with the contemporary climate: on the one hand Aaronovitch easily strikes a similar chord as Ernest Cline did in Ready Player One - name-checking Street Fighter II and Logan's Run in a single paragraph, say (see. p.284) - while on the other the author applies a relatable and revealing perspective to the content of his novel, what with our worldly-wise-but-somewhat-bumbling hero's attempts to explain the inexplicable that is the bread and butter of this book. Which is to say magic... with science. You can imagine how that works out.

London is a bit much for a country mouse like me, but Moon Over Soho paints such a frantic, fantastic picture of the place and the people who call it home that I'm suddenly itching to visit. As aforementioned, it's not at all standalone, and the story is somewhat on the slight side, but all that jazz - up to and including all the jazz - be damned: I had vast amounts of fun reading Moon Over Soho, and if you're in the least inclined towards the light side of genre fiction, you surely will too.


Moon Over Soho
by Ben Aaronovitch

UK Publication: April 2011, Gollancz
US Publication: March 2011, Del Rey

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  1. Hmmm, OneClicking this one right now :)

  2. Loved both books and can't wait for the third to come out.
    I've actually done a lot of UF reading this year and was surprised to find a couple of really great series, this being one of them. You have to go through a lot of crap to get to the good stuff, though...

  3. @Severian - I hear good, good things about Richard Kadrey and the Sandman Slim series. That's next on my hit-list of urban fantasy franchises... and I'm reading - and very much enjoying - the first MLN Hanover right now because of the Daniel Abraham connection.

    So yes: A Good Year for 'em. And I'm all ears at the moment. What UF would you recommend I read next?

    Happy new year, you... And fantasynibbles too!

  4. You should definitely give Mike Carey and Kate Griffin a shot. Some other favourites of mine are Liz Williams, Charles de Lint, Charlie Huston and Seanan McGuire. I think you've actually reviewed a couple of books by Huston and McGuire (as Mira Grant), though not their UF series. I've also heard good things about Stina Leichts' debut, but haven't had the time to read it yet.

    The Sandman books are great fun, but I haven't read MLN Hanover yet. I'm a huge Abraham fanboy, but whenever I see those covers I still manage to lose all interest...

  5. Those MLN Hanover covers are dreadfully uninspiring, aren't they? What's between them is definitely better, however... if not quite on the level of utter awesomesauce I'm used to from Daniel Abraham.

    But oh, for a new Charlie Huston novel! Way back when I started TSS, I fell head over heels for Sleepless. I think I might just look up the Joe Pitt books while I'm waiting for Voyager to put out an edition of Sandman Slim.

    Anyway, thanks and thanks again for the recommendations, Severian. I've got my work cut out now!