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Rivers of London: A Review

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Rivers of LondonRivers of London immediately plunges you into the heart of the action, and the core relationship between the two central characters of the series, with a witty and very fast-paced opening sequence that actually gets across far more information than you might think. Aaronovitch has a fabulous way over imbuing his prose with masses of detail concerning both the setting—London—and the Metropolitan police department. The latter, in particular, could be extremely dry information, but it is always skilfully, and often humorously, woven through the narrative in such a way that the reader doesn’t usually notice they’ve just had a great big pile of information dropped upon them from on high.

Such is the case with the opening sequence of Rivers of London, and in fact most books in this series. Here we find Peter Grant, a young London police officer who has been assigned, along with his partner, Lesley May, to guard the scene of a particularly bizarre murder. They are huddled in the cold and dark of the night, on opposite sides of St Paul’s Cathedral, when Lesley takes it upon herself to go for coffee. It is immediately very clear that Peter has a major crush on Lesley, however it is also equally clear that this is based almost exclusively on her physical attributes—she’s very pretty, and has a nice rack. We will later be informed of the high calibre of her arse.

Almost immediately after Lesley leaves, Peter is beckoned over into the shadows by a man who introduces himself as Nicholas Wallpenny. He witnessed the murder, and describes it as a brutal beheading by a man who could mysteriously change his face. He also tell Peter that he (Wallpenny) is a ghost.

Refreshingly, very little time is wasted on Peter wondering if he’s gone mad, and questioning whether or not what he saw was real. Peter briefly laments the fact that he wakes up the next morning to find that he still recalls the incident clearly, and it wasn’t a dream, then promptly tells Lesley all about it. Lesley is naturally sceptical, as you might expect from a person who hadn’t actually had a conversation with a semi-transparent individual, but agrees to help him investigate the information provided by Nicholas. After CCTV footage confirms the ghost’s description of events, Peter returns to the crime scene to see if he can find the ghost. Instead he finds a peculiar Detective named Nightingale, who walks with a fancy stick, and appears to be impressed when Peter tells him that he’s there to hunt ghosts.

The following day, Peter has his placement interview, something all police officers must have after two years on the beat, to decide which department they will work in. Peter is hoping for something interesting, ideally something that will lead to CID and a position as a Detective in the murder squad. He realises very quickly that the interviewer is talking to him means he’s destined for a desk job, the worst case scenario. Even from our brief view of Peter and Lesley at this stage, it is clear that Peter is very easily distracted, often forgetting what he’s supposed to be doing in favour of following a whim. He spends a lot of the time he’s supposed to be watching crime scenes reading the various historical plaques around London (although in fairness this is a rather contrived device used on the part of the author to explain how he knows so much about London and her history). Lesley on the other hand knows exactly what she’s about and it is already clear she’s a very good copper. Unsurprisingly Lesley gets the assignment Peter was hoping for, but Peter is surprised then to discover that he’s not getting the desk job after all, but has been assigned to a special division which he’s never even heard of, led by the mysterious Nightingale.

Peter moves into the Folly, a huge and impressive mansion where Nightingale works alone, as part of a secret but fully sanctioned branch of the Met. Throughout the series we learn that many people in the police—and some civilians—are well aware of the Folly, and Nightingale, and have the same blasé attitude towards it as Peter had to his first encounter with a ghost. Again, this is refreshing. The only other person living in the Folly is Molly, Nightingale’s housekeeper, who doesn’t speak and isn’t human. We aren’t told what exactly she is.

The murder investigation continues, and Peter and Lesley discover the perpetrator was a man called Coopertown. The victim’s dog had bitten Coopertown only a few day prior to the murder, and the duo head over to Coopertown’s house, but he’s out of the country on business. His wife tells them the dog bite was nothing serious, and actually made Coopertown laugh—it’s not motive for murder. When Coopertown returns they go back to his house to question him, arriving just in time to witness him flinging is baby out of top floor window, and killing his wife. This is by and far the most disturbing scene of any of the books so far, yet I think it was necessary to really demonstrate the serious nature of the work they are doing. The tone of the book is very light hearted. Peter’s self-deprecating humour and constant quips, coupled with his banter with Lesley, and to a lesser extent Nightingale, often make it easy to think this is a fun jaunt through the streets of London. This scene recalls to the reader that the whole case began with a brutal decapitation, and no matter how light-hearted the characters may be, they are still dealing with some very serious issues, and being a cop in London is not easy.

Peter manages to prevent Coopertown from escaping, but the man dies, ranting incoherently. His face collapses in on itself, unrecognisable. Nightingale tells Peter that this has been caused by a spell, ‘dissimulo’, which alters a person’s facial features, but causes extreme damage, which grows worse the longer a person uses it. The autopsy is conducted by Nightingale’s magic doctor (by which I mean a doctor who is aware of magic and specialises in its affects). Doctor Abdul Haqq Walid becomes a recurring character and is a welcome change—he is outside the police force, yet well informed in matters of magic and, as Peter will come to do himself, has a very scientific approach to magic and its effects. Coopertown’s brain is deformed, a symptom Peter begins to regularly refer to as ‘cabbage’ brain: the result of using too much magic. Nightingale is puzzled as to why anyone would keep up the spell long enough to do this much damage, and they eventually conclude that someone else must have cast the spell on Coopertown, rather than the man being a practitioner himself.

 

As Peter begins to learn to detect magical residue, called ‘vestigium’, and cast a basic spell to make a ‘werelight’, he and Nightingale are called to investigate other cases involving the supernatural. One of these is the result of rivalry between the river gods, which give the book its name, another is a family that has been killed by vampires. Peter learns that each river has a spirit. In London the main river is of course the Thames, however this river has two deities, and is currently divided into two different sections. Mama Thames rules one, Father Thames the other. It is far more complicated than this however, as Peter discovers when he is sent to speak to Mama Thames, a woman from Nigeria who has been in the position since 1957, when Father Thames decided he no longer wished to preside over the section of the river in the vicinity of the main city of London. Peter discovers that Mama Thames has numerous ‘daughters’, all of whom preside over their own smaller river. Among these is Beverly Brook (yes, really), who Peter develops an immediate attraction towards. She appears to be attracted to him also, and later comes to tell him about an attack at a hospital, similar to the murder she knows Peter is investigating.

In this new case, a bike courier viciously attacked a doctor for no apparent reason before disappearing from the hospital without being treated for his injuries. While Peter is investigating the messenger, another similar incident occurs, as two strangers get into a fight with no apparent cause. The courier attacks the doctor once again, before suffering the same catastrophic collapse of his face that killed Coopertown. Peter comes to suspects a magical infection of some kind, which is causing random outbursts of violence. The worst cases result in the attacker’s face collapsing.

As they continue to investigate, Nightingale and Peter visit Father Thames, in an attempt to broker a peace between him and Mama Thames. It would seem there is some dispute now over who presides over which part of the river. Peter finds Father Thames has sons, just as Mama Thames has daughters, and meets Oxley and his wife Isis. The pair are very pleasant and speak to him at length, telling him of their experiences, and seeming nostalgic where the city of London is concerned, for they are no longer able to go within the city limits due to the feud with Mama Thames. His encounter gives Peter an idea, and he later takes Beverly Brook to visit Oxley, working on the assumption that all the rivers are connected and that, since family is so important to them, and they are really all part of the same family, they should be able to reach a peaceful agreement. This puts Peter at odds with one of Mama Thames’s daughters, Tyburn, or ‘Lady Ty’, as she is known, who finds Peter’s actions to be impudent and presumptuous. She attempts use magic to force him to do as she wishes, but fails. Peter is able to escape her clutches, but not without seriously angering her. This is not good and will have a knock-on effect throughout the books.

While all this has been going on, Peter has been experimenting with magic which, he has found, has an alarming tendency to destroy certain mechanical elements—such as the inner workings of computers and mobile phones, if they are connected to a power source when magic is used nearby. He has also been studying magic, and can now cast several simple spells. Peter has a very scientific approach to magic which far exceeds his much-milked education in science. As with his descriptions of London, Aaronovitch uses Peter’s interest in science to explain the knowledge he has. It doesn’t quiet work though, as his qualifications and grades do not reflect the level of scientific knowledge he has. Nor does he spend vast amounts of free time studying in order to compensate for this. He spends his free time drinking beer and watching TV, and it becomes apparent that he doesn’t even spend as much time as he should studying magic, let alone anything else. This makes for an odd element to his character. On the one hand it is good that he has such an analytical mind and tries to find the answers to explain magic in a scientific way, on the other, it detracts from the believability of the character. Despite this, Peter determines that magic conforms to something similar to the laws of thermodynamics. Casting spells requires a source of power, and thus anything electrical in close proximity to the spell caster, is drained of power. This is similar to what happens to humans who use too much magic in that they are eventually drained of energy if they do not limit their use, and allow themselves time to recuperate between castings.

It is at this point that Peter returns to St Pauls to track down the ghost, Wallpenny, and see if he can find out any more from him. Wallpenny tells him about an 18th Century actor named Henry Pike, who was murdered by another actor, Charles Macklin. According to Wallpenny, the ghost of Pike is said to haunt the Opera House. Armed with this information, Peter and Lesley go to the Opera House and see Punch and Judy. Peter quickly realises that the murders tell the same story as the classic Punch and Judy tale, with each of the perpetrators playing the role of Punch. He goes to Nightingale with this information and they check to see what will happen next, if the murders continue to follow the pattern of the narrative. There are many different versions, however the most common next step is for Punch to be arrested. They decide the best course of action is to put Peter in the role of the arresting police officer. In order to do this they get a warrant from the ghost of a judge Nightingale knows (yes, really), who is given magic to sustain him in exchange for granting requests of this nature.

They go to the Opera House in order to arrest Pike, but Nightingale is shot in the back by one of the crowd, who we must presume is possessed. Nightingale’s injuries are severe and he is in a coma. Peter is placed on suspension pending an investigation, and the Folly is placed under armed guard. There has been varying degrees of mistrust and dislike on the part of other members of the police force, where the magical elements of these investigations are concerned, and now that Nightingale is out of commission, this distrust becomes even more prominent. Peter finds himself alone and very confused, with only Lesley and Doctor Walid who believe in him and offer any help. Despite this, he continues to investigate, working under the assumption that while the police may not like to acknowledge Nightingale and the Folly, they are aware of the fact there are some things only he can sort out. They have come to rely on Nightingale for such matters and, in his absence, it falls on Peter. Nightingale is the only officially recognised English Wizard remaining, and he has not taken on an apprentice to continue his work, as it was widely believed magic was dying out. Peter is, in fact, the first apprentice the Folly has seen in fifty years. It should be noted here that one of the quirks of Nightingale’s character is that he’s ageing backwards. He was born and lived to a ripe old age, surviving both World Wars and fighting in—at least—World War II. At some point however, he stopped growing older and started growing younger. So it is that he appears now to be a roughly middle-aged man, when in fact he is much older.

Despite the mistrust among the Met of Nightingale’s department, it does seem apparent that there is considerable turmoil among those who know of Nightingale and the Folly when he is shot, not because he is injured, but because they don’t think Peter is capable of doing the job alone, and they’re afraid of what will happen. Their response is understandable, if somewhat unhelpful, and they essentially turn a blind eye to what Peter does from that point onwards in the hope that he will somehow sort it all out for them.

In truth, they have no other option—if he can’t do it, they have nobody else who can.

Peter meanwhile has concluded that someone must have warned Pyke about their plan. This is an uncomfortable conclusion as the only people who knew were police officers. There is, however, no other plausible explanation—purposefully or not, someone tipped him off. Peter retraces his steps, and the steps of everyone, at every point in the investigation, and realises Lesley was present at every scene. This leads him to the conclusion that she must have been possessed since the very first night of the investigation, when he first saw the ghost, three months previously.

With no magical backup to call upon and his partner working—willingly or not—for the wrong side, Peter calls on Beverly Brook for help and together they go to find Lesley, who is at the Opera House. Although Peter attempts to knock her out with drugs in order to prevent her transform into the full form of Punch, which will cause her to lose her face the way the previous victims have, he is unsuccessful. She sees him approaching the stage, and he realises too late that the orchestra, cast, and everyone present, are under the influence of a spell. Lesley has been possessed by the spirit of Pyke, who is irate at having been murdered and is out for revenge. Peter masquerades as Punch’s executioner, Jack Ketch, in an effort to get close enough to Lesley to drug her, but Pike stirs up all those present to the point they form a mob, which spills out of the Opera House and causes a riot. With general mayhem and fires going on outside, Peter tries to get to Lesley but instead is forced outside with rioters. Peter asks Beverley to call on her own powers in order to put out the fires, and she reluctantly does so, flooding the streets in order to keep the fires from spreading. She notes at the time that she will be in terrible trouble for doing this, although we are never told if she suffered any form of punishment as a result.

Peter is left wondering how a ghost could possible cause so much damage, and why a fairly clear case of revenge would take such an odd twist. It is while he’s on the tube home that Peter encounters a possessed man who declares that he is Mr. Punch, the spirit of riot and rebellion. It is then that Peter realises that Pyke is not the problem, he was just a conduit for a far more malicious spirit—that of Mr. Punch.

The following day Nightingale wakes up and calls for Peter, who goes to see him and tells him everything that’s happened, as well as his theories on Punch. Nightingale tells Peter there is only one way he can think of to stop Punch, and he will need Molly’s help to do it. This means gaining access to the Folly, which is still under guard. Peter goes to Mama Thames with a truck full of alcohol as a tribute and persuades her to have Tyburn—who has influence within the Police—grant him access to the Folly. Returning to find a morose Molly who is clearly very upset at Nightingale’s condition, Peter tries to reassure her and outlines Nightingale’s plan. She reluctantly agrees to it, and undergoes a very creepy transformation that is somewhat reminiscent of the girl in The Ring, before sinking her teeth into Peter. This connects them somehow, and she is able to magically guide him back through time, to the period when Pyke was murdered. He is trying to discover where Pyke’s body is buried, so that he can exorcise the ghost and rob Punch of his conduit. He is shocked to find that Pyke is in fact Wallpenny, the ghost Peter met at the start of the novel. He has been playing him all along, something Peter is none too happy about. Peter chasing Pyke through London, but they are not only moving through the streets, but also back through time, until eventually they come to a time when the city was only just being beginning.  Peter watches as a ceremony takes place on the river, and realises that the priest carrying it out is Father Thames, who seems to have been expecting Peter and hands him a spear, which Peter promptly uses to kill Punch. By doing so he has sacrificed Punch to the spirit to the river. This strengthens his position in terms of his negotiations between Father and Mama Thames.

When Peter wakes up he is in the Folly, and the present, but he is very weak. After a dicey moment with Molly when it looks like the taste of his blood has stirred up some deep instants within her, and she might kill him, he is able to calm her down. Going to his room to rest, he finds Lesley, who is still possessed by Pyke. Peter is able to save her life, however, and realises that Pyke was not entirely aware of what had been happening. He was merely obsessed with revenge and continuing to perform. Peter is able to convince him that it’s time for the final curtain and his last bow, and Pyke leaves Lesley alive. Despite his best efforts he is unable to prevent the damage the other victims suffered happening to her, and Lesley’s face is ruined by the spell.

The final note of the book sees Peter successfully negotiate a truce between Father and Mama Thames, working out a hostage exchange that will see Beverley go to stay with Father Thames, and one of Father Thames’s country rivers move to the city to stay with Mama Thames. Both will be protected by the deities in the area, but equally both will be accountable if anything should happen.

Overall this is a very strong book, and an excellent piece of Urban Fantasy. I am a huge fan of Urban Fantasy and have read widely in the genre. To date this is—with the exception of Kelley Armstrong’s Women of the Otherworld series, which I will be covering next year—by and far my favourite. It has strong main characters who are, for the most part, realistic. Some of the secondary characters need fleshing out more, but this is something Aaronovitch does seem to improve as the series progresses. The main characters are both imperfect and vulnerable, and Peter is actually a breath of fresh air, because one of his dominant personality traits is actually that he’s not really that good at his job. Lesley is the one who is good at being a copper, and she suffers for it in this novel. Peter on the other hand stumbles upon the supernatural and is rewarded simply for being open to it. He is plucked from what would otherwise have been a fairly mediocre existence in which he almost certainly would never have achieved his dream—to become a murder detective—and thrust into a world where he is immediately not only at the heart of investigating murders, and much more, but also gifted with the world of magic and everything that goes with it. And he screws up. The only point about Peter’s character I dislike is the need to explain how he knows so much about London’s history, and the fact that there is no real explanation given for where his scientific knowledge comes from. Certainly there is nothing in his background or habits that explains such knowledge.

Beyond this, the characters are unusual in that they take the supernatural in stride. There is no freaking out when they see a ghost, no refusal to admit there are magical elements to a case. While the majority of people outside the Folly are reluctant to deal with magic, they do at least acknowledge its existence and the need for some who does deal with it. This is quite unusual and something I really appreciate.

On the whole, the novel breaks a lot of clichés and conventions of the genre. In particular, magic has consequences, and it has limits. These are two things that are very often absent in fantasy—urban or otherwise—and it’s nice to see it worked in from the very start. The consequences of using magic in this series are devastating, both to humans and the environment around them. This gives a really plausible explanation for why people don’t just use magic for everything, and that, again, is something that’s often lacking in some stories. Despite my reticence concerning the validity of Peter’s scientific knowledge, it is also nice to have the mix of the purely magical approach from Nightingale, and the much more modern, scientific approach from Peter.

The fact that Peter isn’t immediately a pro at magic is also a welcome change. He has to work hard to learn, and he’s often lax in this area. In some ways this can be irritating—the reader is left feeling that, given the circumstances, he really should be more focussed—but I actually think it fits more with the character. Peter is not portrayed, in any aspect of his life, as the kind of highly motivated, highly intelligent person we often see as the main character in Fantasy fiction. Harry Potter is another example of this well done. Harry himself is not exceptionally bright or gifted. Although he fares better than Ron. He has to work hard to learn, he doesn’t always learn well, and the only thing he’s naturally good at is Quidditch. Hermione is the character in the Potterverse who is the highly motivated, highly intelligent person who provides the answers when the protagonist needs them. This role is filled by Lesley in Rivers of London, and it works very well for the same reason: one person is very rarely all things. Harry may get up to a lot of heroics, but if you actually analyse the books you quickly see he would never have succeeded without the aid of his friends. Happenstance often placed him in the positions that meant he had to take action. He performs admirably, but he’s not a natural hero in the traditional sense. Neither is Peter, who would not get very far without the input of others—whether it’s Lesley, Nightingale, Beverley, Mama or Father Thames, Doctor Walid and even Tyburn on occasion, he needs input from others to understand what’s going on around him.

When he’s left to his own devices, Peter tends to cause mayhem. The American title for the novel is Midnight Riot, despite the fact the riot itself is a very small element in a much larger plot. Peter sets a precedent in this book for future books. The situation leading to the riot escalates when he is robbed of those who can help him: he’s cut off from the Folly, he can’t contact Molly, Nightingale is out of commission, and Lesley is caught up in the action itself and can’t help him. He’s on his own. The result is a riot and the streets of London burning.

Literally.

This is what happens when he tries to deal with things alone. And this, in an odd way, is way he’s so lovable. We can forgive him his flaws, we can forgive him his inexplicable knowledge, we can forgive him his laziness, because when it comes down to it, he gets the job done, and he does so in an incredibly entertaining manner. That is what Peter Grant is: entertainment. He’s funny throughout, with a level of dry British humour and wit that is truly a joy to read. There are some horrific events in this book, and yet the book itself is hilariously funny to read. At the same time, the humour doesn’t take over the book. This is a piece of Urban Fantasy, not Comic Fantasy, it just so happens to be bloody funny. It’s also detailed, imaginative, and includes some unique mythology that is a nice change of pace.

But please don’t think I’m going to do nothing but gush. While the book is entertaining and well written it is not without its flaws. Although the setting, and the transformation of London into a character in its own right, is nicely done, there are numerous instances throughout the book where I felt it was overdone. Now, I’m a northern Lass, I have no truck with London. In the six years since I returned to the safety of The North after a short stint in The South for work, I can only think of three times I was compelled to go to London: to the Globe theatre, to meet a literary agent, and to see Robin Hobb and George R.R. Martin. Manchester on the other hand, is a city I love. If you are a Londoner you may feel very differently about this, but I found the endless descriptions quite tiresome. I am not referring to the history given—for the most part that was interesting, although I didn’t need to be told, each and every time a historical reference was made, exactly where and when Peter had read that information. No I’m talking about the times we’re told Peter walked down such a street and crossed to such a street, and turned into such a square before getting the underground through this, this, this, and this, station, until he reached this station, and exited onto this road, and walked down that road, past this building, and that building, and oh look there’s this historical monument…. You see my point? Excessive. Also, if you’re not actually from London, and have never been there, it can get quite confusing. It’s just a surplus of information that isn’t needed. It negates all that wonderful work Aaronovitch has done in weaving the large quantities of information about the Metropolitan Police department through the narrative.

In addition to this, while it was an entertaining read, it was not life-altering. There was no deeper meaning to the book than simple entertainment. While there’s nothing wrong with this—a lot of people read because they want to escape, and therefore not think too much—it left me wanting just a little. Another issue is the use of two plots—the murder investigation, and the situation with the Rivers—in tandem. Although these eventually wove together and were related by the end, for the majority of the book they were in no way connected. This leaves the reader bouncing back and forth between the two with no real focus. Added to this were some additional red herrings, such as the investigation of the vampires, which added nothing and slowed things down. There was a general lag in the middle of the book where everything was moving very slowly and there didn’t seem to be any real direction. What kept me reading was the quality of the writing and the wit, not the plot.

I’ve mentioned Peter’s flaws as a good thing, but they can also be annoying. He forgets things very quickly, which means the reader is told the same things over and over, because he has to be told repeatedly. While his forgetfulness is endearing, the repetition is not welcome. Likewise, Peter is capable of making huge leaps in logic with no discernible evidence. In particular, the crucial points in the plot where Peter realises first, who the villain really is, and shortly afterwards, how they found out an important piece of information, really does come from thin air. He has demonstrated that he doesn’t have Lesley’s analytical and keen police mind. Having him come to these conclusions alone is a bit of a stretch—as we’ve seen he doesn’t do well on his own, he relies on other people informing his thoughts.

One final point, although this is a fabulous book, it is undoubtedly a BRITISH book. People unfamiliar with British slang, British pop culture, British humour, London, and in particular the loving ridicule Peter directs towards London, will simply not understand much of the book’s charm.

Despite this I give the book a very firm four stars. There is a lot about it that I adore, but there are several things that hold it back from being an out and out hit.

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Published inUrban FantasyBook Review
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