Ben Aaronovitch Rivers of London Gollancz 2011
From the start I’d noted that Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London was mentioned in the same breath as China Miéville’s London-centred novels (such as Kraken) and Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere and so assumed that this was a fantasy about the belowground metropolis that involved magic. I now find it’s lumbered with the clunky sobriquet of ‘urban fantasy police procedural’, which has at least the virtue of describing what’s in the tin. Fantasy thriller is good enough for me, however.
Constable Peter Grant is coming to the end of his probationary period when he comes to the attention of Detective Chief Inspector Thomas Nightingale who — coincidentally — is a wizard. Nightingale recognises that Peter has latent magical ability and recruits him as sorcerer’s apprentice. At the same time a disturbing series of murders is taking place which, despite a lot of hi-tech sleuthing, is proving hard to solve without resorting to the kind of magic to which Nightingale has access; and so young Grant is willy-nilly drawn in, below his depth. Throw into the mix the almost obligatory love-interest, fellow probationer WPC Lesley May, and Peter is in serious danger of drowning. And, bearing in mind that the title is a clue, he very nearly does.
I wanted to like this novel very much. Told in first-person narrative, Rivers of London introduces us to Peter and, through his experiences, an interestingly weird cast of characters, including — and this is singularly disconcerting — various genii loci, who on the surface appear just like ordinary Londoners if it wasn’t for their extraordinary powers. There are detailed accounts of Peter practising his latent powers, using spells in Latin, which held real interest because we all know that acquiring and using skills of any kind requires dedication and lots of setbacks before success is within one’s grasp. There are lots of nice police procedural touches — police slang, brand names, technical jargon — which give it a real crime fiction buzz and against which the magic weaves its counterpoint. And yet I wasn’t totally convinced.
First off, the clue to the nature of the adversary whom Peter encounters in Covent Garden was to me as plain as the nose on your face, and yet, oddly, it takes half the novel for him to suss this out. Even I, a non-Londoner, spotted the puppet show’s connection with the area coming from a long way off. How come it took various sleuths so long? Especially given the Punch & Judy pub from 1787 and especially Pepys’ 1662 note of “an Italian puppet play which is very pretty, the best I ever saw” being performed there.
Secondly, for a novel set in a ‘real’, recognisably 21st-century London one has to willingly suspend disbelief, and yet the rationale for the two types of magic, one studied and the other natural, wasn’t explored (though possibly it is in the several sequels). It could be just me but there have to be limits on supernatural powers or it just becomes a little too Hollywood CGI-effects for emotional or intellectual investment.
And thirdly, I felt a little cheated by the end. The lack of resolution for one character felt manipulative. Increasingly, fantasies these days are clearly labelled Book One of a spellbinding new series or The first volume of such-and-such saga; it wasn’t till near the end that I realised that this wasn’t a standalone novel but that I would have to invest time and maybe more money in the sequel. At this moment I have no intention in so investing when there is so much other worthy fiction to be read. I shall leave suspending disbelief to Jack Ketch the hangman.