Book Review: Broken Homes by Ben Aaronovitch

Genre: Fantasy, Crime
Publishing Info: Gollancz (2013)
Pages: 357

Publisher’s Summary:
A mutilated body in Crawley. Another killer on the loose. The prime suspect is one Robert Weil; an associate of the twisted magician known as the Faceless Man? Or just a common or garden serial killer?

Before PC Peter Grant can get his head round the case a town planner going under a tube train and a stolen grimoire are adding to his case-load.

So far so London

But then Peter gets word of something very odd happening in Elephant and Castle, on a housing estate designed by a nutter, built by charlatans and inhabited by the truly desperate.

Is there a connection? And if there is, why oh why did it have to be South of the River?

The fourth novel in Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London series contains some good segments, but too many minor narratives take the focus away from the main plot, making this a rockier read than previous entries.

Looking at previous entries in this series, the aspect that jumps out with Broken Homes is that it lacks the central focus of the others. Each of the Rivers of London series have focused on one specific aspect of London that has historical and cultural significance to the city. To date, the theatre, the jazz scene and London Underground have been the bases on which the central crime and investigation have taken place, which allows the author to also educate the readers when characters see and visit landmarks in the city. The focus of this book could be the architecture of high-rise buildings and a look into those that inhabit them, but it felt less interesting and engrossing. There were a couple of mentions of post-WWII architects who helped to design high-rises, though I can’t help but feel that more could have been said about the experimental and sometimes crude 20th century architecture.

A greater portion of the text could have been attributed to this, had there not been a variety of unconnected crimes and events that took place, especially within the first half of the book. These include a man who was barbequed from the inside out, a man who set himself on fire after the use of magic went wrong, and the river spirits from all along the Thames coming to the centre of London to open the Court of the River. Whilst I appreciate that the author is still building the lore for this book series and was a relatively mysterious moment when the spirits arrived in the fog, the more muted treatment of the central narrative makes a couple of these seem unnecessary, even though some were eventually attributed to the followers of the Faceless Man. When the book gets it right, it is a reminder of why this series has been so engrossing to date; there are some instances of this, such as when Peter moves to an ugly high-rise and psychoanalyses (judges the hell out of) the other residents. There is also an intriguing plot involving a nymph and her fate could be seen as a allegory to the large amounts of green spaces cut down in and around London to make way for ugly concrete residences.

This book sees the return of the second Faceless Man, who was set up as a series regular antagonist in Moon over Soho. In comparison to his explosive first appearance, here he is relegated to being in the background and only appearing for a few pages in another rooftop confrontation, and his plan was half-baked at best. The issue I have with the Faceless Man is that he hasn’t been developed since his previous appearance; readers still have zero idea of his identity and I worry that he is too much of an enigma. He is overshadowed in this novel by the Soviet carer of the first Faceless Man, who more than proves her worth, despite featuring in a disappointly few scenes. She also drops several intriguing hints for the potential future expansion of Aaronovitch’s world by discussing the magic users in the old Soviet Union and the threats that they faced there.

The brightest spot of this novel was the shocking ending, where a high-rise collapses in a pretty spectacular scene, before, more significant to the series as a whole, someone close to PC Grant betrays him and seemingly allies themselves with the Faceless Man for their own reasons. It does raise some pretty interesting questions about how and when the pair became allies and what this will mean for the future of The Folly and this series as a whole. I hope that this won’t completely ruin the character as a result and is more of a personal arc. On the other hand this was also so shocking because of the lack of exposure the readers had to the Faceless Man during this novel; a greater presence of the antagonist would have made the twist feel all the more gut-wrenching. However, this shocking event at least provided the book with another memorable moment that helped to move it out of mediocrity.

Verdict: Broken Homes, like the estate on which the majority of the action takes place, feels a bit rough in construction. Too many minor narratives take the focus away from the central theme and the development of the Faceless Man as a series regular antagonist, though still contains parts that remind me why I love this series. The shocking twist at the climax at least helped the novel to end on a high note, as the series looks to travel in a new direction.

Star Rating: ☆☆☆½

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