Suspending disbelief

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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.

PunchFirst 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.

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11 thoughts on “Suspending disbelief

  1. I started reading this book about a year ago but left it on one side until I was more in the right frame of mind. Think I may leave it a little bit longer. As you say, there is so much other worthy fiction to read.

    1. Nice to have one’s opinion validated, Simon! Yes, I felt this was a promising concept, flawed in the finish. Slightly depressing to think there are already several sequels; I’m guessing for example that ‘Moon Over Soho’ will be about werewolves or vampires…

  2. It is sad when ideas of real potential don’t have the impact they should have achieved. I also find these series novels irritating, especially those which do not even resolve at least something by the end. I have also been annoyed by fantasy series writers who have the lack of consideration to go and die before finishing the last book. Even when completed on their behalf backed by an author’s plot outline, the final one creates speculation that the original writer might have done a better job.

    1. Oh, something is resolved all right, but we’re then left with not so much a cliffhanger but a major character in limbo. I agree though that it’s very unsatisfying, certainly in this instance.

      Which inconsiderate deceased fantasy writers did you have in mind for your coruscation, by the way?

      1. Robert Jordan and Wheel of Time immediately comes to mind. In his case three novels had to be completed to finish the story. After the first of those, I lost interest.
        There has been at least one other who shuffled off just before starting the last book – but I forget the name/s. Not as well-known as Jordan.

        1. I think I’m right in saying that Frank Herbert’s son and another collaborator completed one or more Dune sequel from notes after Herbert’s death, and may eben have started adding their own titles; no idea if these are any good. And of course no end of authors have added their own sequels to previous canons about Sherlock Holmes, Long John Silver, James Bond, even Peter Pan and the Borrowers and the Famous Five, to mixed receptions.

  3. I am always stunned when an author doesn’t realize the reader is able to figure it out way before the protagonist does. I once edited a book for a first time author and pointed out that the killer is revealed within the first minutes of meeting him. I remember the author’s shocked response, “it’s that obvious?” Sometimes I wonder if author’s get so caught up in telling a story they forget they are giving a lot away.

    1. i suppose that’s why one has an editor, to stand back and get a less myopic perspective on the work –otherwise maybe it’s like thinking your newborn is the most beautiful thing in the world. So perhaps we can lay this fault at the door of Aaronovitch’s editor!

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