Suddenly Aaronovitch

Rivers of London — Ben Aaronovitch
Rivers of London, book 1

Rivers of London

2011’s Rivers of London lives at the intersection of two popular British genres, fantasy and the police procedural. This is my first Aaronovitch; I would have read it sooner, but it turns out that getting the British edition of the book in Canada wasn’t as straightforward as I expected1. I did finally get my copy and I was not disappointed.

DC Peter Grant just wants to get through his probationary period successfully, so he can become a proper London copper. Grant is somewhat taken aback to discover his bosses see him less as future commissioner material and more as a future paper-pusher in the Case Progression Unit, a useful but not widely respected role.

Grant escapes descent into some poorly lit office job thanks to a particularly grisly murder — the gruesome decapitation by battering of William Skirmish, late of the City — or rather the fact that one of the witnesses Grant interviews in connection with the murder happens to be one Nicholas Wallpenny, deceased. Although it is a closely kept secret, the Met has a unit that specializes in magical crimes and Grant’s demonstration of second sight makes him an obvious candidate for this unit. In fairly short order Grant is apprenticed to DCI Thomas Nightingale, the last wizard in London and the man who will teach Grant how to master magic.

Well, at least it’s not filling out forms, although the odds of being eaten by a werewolf while on duty2 with Nightingale are considerably higher than they would be at CPU.

Grant isn’t given the luxury of adjusting gradually to his new job. Not only does he get drawn to a squabble between the two families of gods ruling London’s rivers, Skirmish’s death is only the first in a long, horrible, escalating series of violent killings. While Britain’s panopticon network facilitates hanging a name — Brandon Coopertown — on the man who battered Skirmish to death, it turns out Brandon is as much a victim as Skirmish. Perhaps even more, since Brandon was possessed: subjected to a transformation that left him severely brain-damaged, mortally injured, and compelled to murder not just Skirmish but also his own wife and infant child.

To the entity responsible for Brandon’s murder spree, London is merely a grand stage on which it can act out its horrific scenario. London’s humans are as puppets to the entity and with each outrage, the scale of the chaos and carnage grows. The mundane officers of the Met have no hope of stopping the malign being; it’s up to Nightingale and Grant to do the job. But first they will have to work out what it is exactly that they are facing.

Worse yet, it dawns on Peter that the player on the other side has inside information about the investigation, information it could only get if it were hiding behind the eyes of one Grant’s fellow police officers….

I would be gobsmacked if I were informed that Aaronovitch had never seen the old TV show Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased)3, of which I was irresistibly reminded while reading Rivers4. Britain has a well-established (if minor) tradition of supernatural detectives, official and private, and this work is a solid example of that genre.

Britain is in no way post-racial  but their entertainment does seem a lot more willing than North American TV shows to cast POC without the “OC” being the primary focus of the character. Apparently this extends to their fantastic fiction; Peter’s father is white but his mother emigrated from Sierra Leone. While his background gets mentioned frequently, it does not have any bearing on the reason that he was seconded to Nightingale’s unit. Grant may be black and a magician but he is not a Magical Negro5.

(Grant looks more like Obama than the fellow on the US cover, of which more later.)

The text is incessantly male-gazey but as the book is told from Grant’s point of view and since Grant does get called out for his habit of letting the little head do the thinking for the big head, I am going to assume that this is characterization. Aaronovitch just better not write a novel whose female protagonist spends the whole book ogling her own breasts.

I’d have reviewed Rivers of London a while ago but the person who commissioned the review used the British title, not the American. I did a bit of digging to see if I could use the US edition instead and discovered that there are differences between the two editions. Not only did Del Rey jettison the title “Rivers of London” for the less suitable “Midnight Riot,” I am told they fiddled with the book’s idiom. Once again we have an example of a US publisher who doesn’t trust readers who are buying a book set in another nation to be willing to put up with foreign lingo. I don’t understand why, if publishers think US readers are so provincial, they even bother acquiring foreign works.

There’s also the interesting detail that somehow the cover art for the US edition evolved from this

to this

In Del Rey’s defense, there is every chance that American consumers, at least the pallid sort, might, on being confronted with that picture of a black man, pull out a pistol and blindly open fire, particularly since — quite unlike Grant, who not only does not look like the fellow on the cover but who also doesn’t belong to one of the police branches who are issued firearms — the fellow on the cover of the book has a pistol in one hand.

Although I made a point of mentioning the horrific elements, Aaronovitch can also be quite funny, albeit often in a “whistling past the graveyard” sort of way. 

Grant is surrounded by an entertaining cast of characters … unfortunately for them, as being one of Grant’s friends in no way confers plot immunity. It is more the opposite; standing next to the weirdness magnet that is Grant means they are between him and whatever weird crap comes tumbling his way. Whether or not they are equipped to survive….

I have no idea if the author will ever read this review but he might be glad to know that his book passed a test most speculative fiction fails: the exgf, on seeing my copy of the British edition, was very firm about wanting to read it after I am finished. She’s not a F&SF fan, so that’s unusual.

I was looking forward to this book, and also a bit nervous — the bigger the anticipation, the greater the opportunity for disappointment. As you may be able to tell from the general absence of lamentations and shirt-tearing, this lived up to my hopes. Rivers of London is a solid fantasy police procedural; I hope future volumes live up to it. [Editor’s note: they do, they do!]

Rivers of London is available in a proper British edition. There is also a Del Rey edition. I don’t think you can buy the book directly from the author but the selection of editions he provides is pretty.

1: As it happens, this is the very first Aaronovitch that I wanted to read AND that I have managed to track down. Normally I won’t look at tie-in novels but I would have made an exception for Aaronovitch’s Dr Who novel The Also People, if I’d ever seen a copy. Which I haven’t.

2: Ignorance of magic doesn’t protect people from it. It just means they don’t understand what’s killing them.

3: I did check to see if he worked on the remake. Nope.

4: The humour (and the ghosts) are what reminded me of Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased).

5: It’s not obvious to me what factors might lead to someone having magical potential. Since magic entered a quiescent phase for some decades (thanks to catastrophic WWII wizarding events which are frequently mentioned but never explained), there may be a fair number of people out there who could have become mages, but who never suspected their abilities or met anyone who could mentor them.

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