Book Review: The Hanging Tree by Ben Aaronovitch

Genre: Fantasy, Crime
Publisher’s Info: 2016 by Gollancz
Pages: 385

Publisher’s Summary:
Suspicious deaths are not usually the concern of PC Peter Grant, even when they happen at an exclusive party in one of the most expensive apartment blocks in London. But Lady Ty’s daughter was there and Peter owes Lady Ty a favour.

Plunged into the alien world of the super-rich, where the basements are bigger than the houses and dangerous, arcane items are bought and sold on the open market, a sensible young copper would keep his head down and his nose clean. But this is Peter Grant we’re talking about.

He’s been given an unparalleled opportunity to alienate old friends and create new enemies at the point where the world of magic and that of privilege intersect. Assuming he survives the week . . .

The Hanging Tree cover (Gollancz, 2016)

‘The Hanging Tree’ promises much, from the interesting blurb to a title that links to the notorious Tyburn Tree, yet becomes probably the most in-depth look at the series’ primary antagonist. This means slightly watered down themes and several side plots, though Aaronovitch’s trademark writing style is thankfully untouched.

This book is the sixth in Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London series and continues the pattern seen in earlier instalments, where every even number in the series has a narrative around the primary antagonist of the series, the Faceless Man. I have previously been critical of the plot in his previous major appearance, ‘Broken Homes’, for using the antagonist as a greater plot device than the historic and culture focus seen in other instalments. Here, the focus is definitely warranted as he has a personal vendetta directly linked to the original crime, the drugs death of a young person. It is fitting, given his personal connection to the narrative, that this book sees his unmasking – there is a great scene where PC Grant realises that he is admiring a car collection standing next to the Faceless Man. My major qualm with the reveal is that I do not believe that their alter-ego made an appearance in the series before this book, which could have made that moment even more jaw-dropping and powerful. More details were revealed about Lesley May’s journey to becoming the Faceless Man’s apprentice, though only enough to maintain intrigue. The shelf-life of the Faceless Man has been renewed, as readers do not yet know what his endgame exactly is, other than having magical domination over London so he can impose his will, however more development is swiftly needed to prevent the antagonist from going stale.

The title definitely raised expectations for me, referencing the infamous tree in Tyburn, where it has been documented that thousands were executed by hanging; it suggested that the tree, or at least the history of it, would play a large role in the plot. In a slightly underwhelming move, the tree was reduced to a minor location only. The initial plot, involving drug use in privileged society that originated from the fantastical underbelly of London, is perfectly serviceable but is quickly dismissed in favour of another major Faceless Man narrative. Reading this, I get a sense that the author doesn’t have too much faith in the central antagonist being able to dominate the narrative, as several additional plots are introduced at the halfway stage. These include the hunt for a magical tome written by Isaac Newton, a group of American troopers that herald the brief return of Agent Kimberley Reynolds, and even the foreshadowed return of Mr. Punch, the villain of the very first book in the series, ‘Rivers of London’. These various sub-plots water down a distinct identity for this novel, so in a similar way to ‘Broken Homes’, this will not be one of more memorable instalments.

In contrast to the slightly underwhelming plot, Aaronovitch’s style of writing has become more defined with every book. The narrative voice of PC Peter Grant is engaging, entertaining and distinct and means the series continues to be very easy to read – it took only two or three evenings for me to complete this, and makes for perfect reading after work or studies, or when you need to read something lighter in tone. Characterisation in secondary and guest characters are another strength of this author, bringing colour and humour and making them pop off the pages. Bright spots include the hilarious Tyburn and Guleed, who join a vivid cast fighting for book time. There are also several exciting and visually interesting magical battles, from a sales floor at Harrods to a flooding basement – Aaronovitch continues to hold back a seen battle between the Faceless Man and PC Grant or his superior Nightingale, so I can only imagine how high the stakes will be in future books. The world that Aaronovitch has created continues to develop and surprise, and as someone who has spent a lot of time in London, I appreciate the details and references in his work.

The sixth book in the Rivers of London series brings some huge developments for its main antagonist, although this and a myriad of side plots does water down what could have been a very intriguing narrative. Many questions have been raised following this book, ones which will definitely make me want to continue with this series.

Book Rating: 3/5

Thank you very much for reading this review of ‘The Hanging Tree’. If you enjoyed reading this book review, please like this post, and don’t forget to subscribe to get notified when new posts are published. If you have any book recommendations, please leave those in the comments section below. I am always looking for new reading material so any suggestions would be welcomed.

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