Rivers of London, Ben Aaronovitch

Actually, my copy has the North American title, Midnight Riot, but Rivers of London is so much better–at least for me, with my interest in the literary city.  

Diana Gabaldon blurbed this as “what would happen if Harry Potter grew up and joined the Fuzz. It is a hilarious, keenly imagined caper.” There are a couple of subtle Potter jokes (like a romantic comedy called Sherbet Lemons), but I think that description misses the novel’s tone. However dark things get in Rowling’s novels, there’s an undertone of joy and fun; here the humor is black and rather bitter.  Riot lurks beneath the surface of Aaronovitch’s London and many of its events are too violent to be termed capers. A better mash-up tagline for it might be “classic police procedural meets Jonathan Strange.”

Probationary Constable Peter Grant is headed, much to his dismay, for a career in data entry until he talks to a ghost at a crime scene. He soon finds himself working for the myseterious Chief Inspector Nightingale and living at the Folly, “official home of English magic since 1775,” while he trains as a wizard. Over the course of the novel Peter has to uncover the apparently magical cause of a series of vicious murders; broker a deal between competing groups of river spirits (including both Mama and Father Thames, who are definitely not a couple); and cope with his attraction to both fellow constable Leslie and river spirit Beverley Brook. [It’s not a romance though!]

I loved this book:

The mystery/police element is solidly done. The police work here involves both CCTV footage and HOLMES, the real-life police database, and the sensing of vestigia, traces of the uncanny. Aaronovitch blends the real and fantasy elements seamlessly and convincingly.

The magic system is unusual and unusually coherent. This is a world where Isaac Newton not only founded modern science but systematized the practice of magic (“that’s the nature of genius”). While Peter apparently has an innate aptitude for magic, he’s going to need years of study as well. Peter, who has some mediocre A-level science grades, does his part to advance the scientific understanding of magic as well; when his first success at making a were-light destroys his mobile phone, he performs a series of experiments to determine that magic (which must draw its power from somewhere) is killing the battery. His attempts to bring the Folly into the 21st century are another example of the way past and present mingle and influence each other in the novel.

Above all, this is an urban fantasy that’s truly urban, reflecting both present-day and historical London. Mixed-race, computer-savvy Peter is a child of modern multi-cultural London, but to solve the crimes and deal with the battling rivers, he has to learn about the history of London theatre and the folklore of the Thames valley. Rivers of London evokes the history-steeped city so richly that when I finished it, I had to dig out Peter Ackroyd’s enormous and erudite London: The Biography and dip into the section on rivers.  I love a book that makes me want to find out more.

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