Probationer PC Peter Grant finds himself thrust into a secret branch of the Metropolitian Police after accidentally interviewing a ghost as witness to a grisly crime in Covent Garden. Partnered with the mysterious Inspector Nightingale, Grant finds himself being trained up in the supernatural. But with a murderer on the loose, can he find and stop the murders? And what of the enchanting Rivers of London?
You might be weary of ‘urban fantasy’ given its explosion in recent years, but in Rivers of London, Ben Aaronovitch has weaved and carved a very dynamic and fun world – if a little too quickly. Aaronovitch’s tone is light and frothy – more Pratchett than Gaiman – with interludes of shocking, and perhaps gratuitous violence. As you would expect with Aaronovitch previously dispensing scripts and novels for Doctor Who, Rivers of London does not wholly suffer from the traditional first novel pitfalls. It is well plotted with some clever touches and a strong hook – if bursting at the seams with strong ideas which sometimes can cancel each other out.
The Police procedural element of the story is well researched and challenges some of the misconceptions that you might have about how the police operate. However, Aaronovitch can get bogged down in some of the specifics making prose dry in some quarters. A shame, as this breaks up the narrative flow. More interesting to me is the history lesson about the titular ‘rivers’ of London – here personified into some very strong and seductive women and ancient men – dropping Grant into the middle of a territorial dispute is almost like watching him mediate between inner city gangs. Except these ‘gangs’ are centuries old. Father Thames especially has the echoes of Old Father Time about him.
This London is living and breathing, if a blurred version of the London I visit. At times is it not as vibrant as it promises, but with the namedropping of shops and places, there is a tangible sense of place that helps to ground the story. The story hurdles from place to place without so much as a pause for breath, such is the nature of the fast-moving plot. Certainly the concluding half which moves to the West End drips with the atmosphere of theatreland.
The fantasy elements are blended well. Yes, it does riff off of Harry Potter, but very wisely does its own thing. The magic element, something that I personally am not that fond of in a story, is handled deftly with Grant learning step-by-step, which more than one failure. Scenes involving Grant’s inadvertent destruction of electronic equipment are very funny indeed. And yet, the introduction of magic is handled in such a way that the pseudo-science is almost believable.
My biggest problem unfortunately is with the main character. Grant seems to take everything in his stride so much that if he were laid back, I’m sure he’d be horizontal. As the main character, he can be too analytical, and not engaging enough with the reader. Hopefully he will develop as the series continues. Even when being seduced by Beverly, Grant seems so.. flat. It is very lucky that the cast of supporting characters is so vast and rich. From the shady, yet warm Nightingale, to the mischievous housemaid Molly, each of the supporting characters are slowly built. Each has their own identifiable tic, but also have some surprises up their sleeves.
Rivers of London is not going to rock the science-fiction or fantasy genres to its core. The ideas are not exactly new, or groundbreaking. But what it does do well, is weave the police procedural you would find on the mass-market shelves with a compelling urban fantasy that could exist within everyday life. As an introduction to this world, which is easy to get as excited about as Aaronovitch clearly has, Rivers of London isn’t dead in the water just yet.
The Fiction Stroker gives Rivers of London three strokes out of five: