Book Review: Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch

Genre: Fantasy, Crime
Publishing Info: Gollancz (2011)
Pages: 390

Back Cover Summary:
My name is Peter Grant. Until January I was just another probationary constable in that mighty army of justice known to all right-thinking people as the Metropolitan Police Service, and to everyone else as The Filth. My only concerns in life were how to avoid a transfer to the Case Progression Unit – We do paperwork so real copper don’t have to – and finding a way to climb into the panties of the outrageously perky WPC Lesley May. Then one night, in pursuance of a murder inquiry, I tried to take a witness statement from a man who was dead, but disturbingly voluble, and that brought me to the attention of Chief Inspector Nightingale, the last wizard in England. And that, as they say, is where the story begins.

Now I’m a Detective Constable and a trainee wizard, the first apprentice in fifty years, and my world has become somewhat more complicated. I’m dealing with 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 that’s just routine. 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. Which, I don’t mind telling you, would involve a hell of a lot of paperwork.

The first novel in Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London series combines the thrill and familiarity of a modern police drama set in London with the intrigue and unpredictable nature of the fantasy genre, setting up the series well and opening it out to several potential directions.

I believe that the writing style is one of this book’s biggest strengths, seamlessly shifting between the colloquial and honest voice of the protagonist with the clinical and precise crime scene and police terminology. The protagonist is largely likeable without resorting to the typically dull ‘hero’ clichés which would rob him of any chance the reader would have to relate with him. He swears on occasion, has a largely inappropriate attraction to a fellow police officer (described in occasionally larger-than-life detail) and has a negative attitude towards looking for the details in crimes that would help him to progress in the force. However, his thoughts and how he processes things seems not far away from how the majority of readers would react if put in his position. In direct contrast to that is the focus on the crimes committed and the specialist terminology used when investigating them; as someone who has seen and read plenty of police dramas (most of them from across the Atlantic), this attention to detail appeals to me and in my view adds another dimension to the narrative. Having the protagonist in a sub-section of the force rather than just being a private detective specialising in the paranormal and fantastical was a good choice of the author’s.

The narrative and the primary antagonist of the novel was also well chosen by the author. One of London’s greatest strengths and most prominent features throughout the last half millennia was the theatre. Combining this with the figure of Mr Punch, a quintessentially British theatrical character, to create a spirit that literally transforms those it possesses into grotesque caricatures before their faces tear in half is certainly a unique yet terrifying prospect. Ben Aaronovitch could have gone with any other supernatural creature in this opening book, but none of them would have fitted into the overall style as much as Mr Punch. This is why, as someone who lives near London and understands a lot of historical culture in this country, I was very impressed with how British and regional the novel was, right down to inclusion of Sons and Daughters of the Thames (itself personified by Mother and Father figures) being named after all of the lesser known tributaries of the river. The niche area that this book represents within the Fantasy genre opens up many doors of potential; throughout history, there have been many mystical beings and legends within this country’s folklore.

Speaking of the Thames sub-plot, I think it works a lot better in the first half of the book. Before Mr Punch has unleashed havoc on the people of London, this feels like a good entry point for the readers (and Peter Grant) to access the supernatural world that the wizards in the force have to resolve. They are relatively interesting characters when Grant interacts with them and their human appearances also fit in well with the grounded style of writing I have discussed above. On the other hand, besides from a boat fire that sets this narrative off, there isn’t a great deal of conflict shown on the pages; it is more hinted at. Whenever Grant visits one of these individuals, such as the meeting with Tyburn two-thirds of the way through the novel, it saps the momentum and sense of thrill that has been building up. Like the short-lived dealing with vampires in the basement of the house, I would have preferred this area of the novel to have been introduced, before being given a more worthy narrative in a later book in the series. The idea of a civil war between rivers in London (linking well to the series and book name) has lots of potential, particularly for a book series that looks to keep its sense of Britishness.

Part crime drama and part venture into British fantasy and folklore, the first instalment of the Rivers of London series provides a narrative with many thrilling moments and a glimpse into the potential of this unique fusion of genres.

Star Rating: ☆☆☆☆

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