RIVERS OF LONDON
By Ben Aaronovitch
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Ben Aaronovitch opens Rivers of London (a.k.a. Midnight Riot) with PC Peter Grant awaiting his first real assignment and fearing that he’ll be given a desk job rather than something meatier. When he sees a ghost while standing around a crime scene in Covent Garden, his life and future assignment veer off on a different course as he is assigned to Detective Chief Inspector Thomas Nightingale, who heads the Folly, a small unit dedicated to investigating the paranormal in London.
Nightingale takes Grant under his wing and begins to teach him magic while the two investigate the magical aspects of a case in which random people suddenly turn into vicious killers while the more traditional police run a parallel investigation. At the same time, Grant learns that the Thames and other rivers that exist throughout London have their own avatars and there is a war raging between those who follow Mama Thames, based in London, and Father Thames, based in the countryside.
Between the mystery and Grant’s attempts to reconcile the different rivers, Aaronovitch presents a complex, and at times convoluted, story. With an ever growing cast of characters who are caught up in the ongoing murder spree, Aaronovitch adds more and more potential suspects as well as red herrings and, at times, seems to lose the thread of the story, which not only involves magic, but eventually reverberates throughout history.
Perhaps the strongest piece of Rivers of London is its sense of place. Aaronovitch imbues the winding streets of London, mostly around Convent Gardens, but throughout the city, with a strong sense of history and location. His London is as much a character as it is a setting. His depiction carries the sounds and scents of the city, which had a worn and real sense to it, rather than a modern or even a flawless gothic sense that so many urban fantasies seem to have. While the city of London helps carry the novel, Grant is Aaronovitch’s real protagonist and he must also carry the work, especially as Rivers of London is the first of an on-going series that stretches to several novels, novellas, and graphic novels. In his debut outing, Grant is unsure of himself, but willing to learn. He understands that Nightingale is offering him an opportunity far beyond what he would otherwise have and he is eager for the chance to learn what he needs to, even as he learns that Nightingale expects Grant’s education to take a decade or more. Grant is also adept at navigating the politics of the situation as Nightingale and his team are, at best, tolerated.
In fact, the large cast of support characters is another strength of Aaronovitch’s novel. Whether the police, such as Nightingale, Grant’s friend Lesley May, her boss DCI Seawoll, doctor Walid, and Beverley Brook, one of Mama Thames’ daughters, there are many characters to interact with, some of them more interesting and well depicted than others, although all of them have room for Aaronovitch to continue to build them into a large stable to draw upon in future novels.
Although there are some rough patches in Rivers of London and the red herrings occasionally take over the novel, those are issues which may be the result of this being the first novel in a series. Aaronovitch's characters and concepts are certainly interesting and well developed enough to make the reader want to pick up the second novel in the series to find out how Peter Grant will continue to grow and what Aaronovitch will do with the magical and living London he has created.
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