Aaronovitch, Ben: (01-03) Midnight Riot, Moon Over Soho, Whispers Under Ground

I have been blocked on writing up Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London series for ages, which is ridiculous because they are the books I have most recommended in conversation. So today I am ditching the laborious attempts sitting around from literally years ago and just going with my feelings about these books, let me show them to you.

Right. So far there are three books: Midnight Riot (US)/Rivers of London (UK), Moon Over Soho, and Whispers Under Ground. These are police procedurals with magic in present-day London, told in First Person Smartass, and I love them to pieces.

Our narrator is Peter Grant, who when the series opens is just ending his probationary period with the Metropolitan Police. He’s expecting to be assigned to deskwork of some kind and is very glum about it, and then he comes across a witness to a very improbable murder . . . who is a ghost. From there he discovers that the Met has a branch devoted to magic–well, what was a branch and is now just one guy. Peter gets assigned to this branch and starts learning magic.

Here are some of the things I love about the books brought to mind just by this opening scenario: that magic’s existence is quietly acknowledged and so we’re in a police procedural context. That Peter is not as good a street cop as his best friend, Leslie, and they both know it. That Peter–who is biracial, his mother is a black immigrant from West Africa and his dad is a white UK native–hears that upon being apprenticed, he is traditionally supposed to call his teacher “Master” and, because it keeps coming out “Massa” in his head, negotiates calling his teacher “Inspector” instead. That Peter immediately starts trying to figure out the rules and logic and any possible scientific basis for magic, and is gravely disappointed at the state of knowledge about it:

The sons of Musa ibn Shakir were bright and bold and if they hadn’t been Muslims would have probably gone on to be the patron saints of techno-geeks. They’re famous for their ninth-century Baghdad bestseller, a compendium of ingenious mechanical devices that they imaginatively titled Kitab al-Hiyal — The Book of Ingenious Devices. In it they describe what is possibly the first practical device for measuring differential pressure, and that’s where the problem really starts. . . . At this very moment astronomers are detecting planets around distant stars by measuring how much their orbits wobble and the clever people at CERN are smashing particles together in the hope that Doctor Who will turn up and tell them to stop. The story of how we measure the physical universe is the history of science itself.

And what do Nightingale and I have to measure vestigia [the imprint that magic leaves on physical objects] with? Sod all, and it’s not even as if we know what we’re trying to measure in the first place. No wonder the heirs of Isaac Newton kept magic safely under their periwigs. I had jokingly developed my own scale for vestigia based on the amount of noise [the dog] Toby made when he interacted with any residual magic. I called it a yap, one yap being enough vestigia to be apparent even when I wasn’t looking for it.

(The magic so far hasn’t reduced down to anything mechanical and probably isn’t going to, and there’s some nice sense-of-wonder stuff going on with it, especially the Rivers, who are anthropomorphic personifications–Father Thames packed up and left London during the Great Stink of 1858, and so the lower Thames is now personified by Mama Thames–formerly an African immigrant who was going to throw herself into the river, which offered her an alternative–and her many daughters. I have no idea how this sounds put baldly but it works really well in the story, and I love all the family interactions that result.)

And I just like Peter, and Leslie, and Nightingale, and pretty much all the characters. Peter’s voice is delightful, more Pratchett than hardboiled, and it’s wonderful seeing London through his eyes.

The books are not at all perfect and so far all have plot problems of varying degrees. The first book has two plot threads that Peter seems to think comes together at one point, but heck if I can figure out how (I kept waiting for the traditional “let me explain the plot to everyone” wrapping-up conversation and did not get it). The second has an idiot plot, that is, depends on Peter being an idiot (for understandable reasons, but still). And the third has a plot but I could not even keep what it was in mind from page to page–my brain kept skating off it and wandering off to think about worldbuilding and characters and so forth.

So if you really need solid plots, these are not for you. If you want to spend time in a magical London with lovely people and cool (sometimes surprisingly creepy) magic, in an urban fantasy that’s not My Awesome Werewolf Significant Other, then these are for you. One of the many things I like that I haven’t gotten around to saying yet is that Peter and Leslie are genuinely good friends and, while he finds her physically attractive, I get absolutely zero sense that he’s interested in her sexually or romantically or that the series is going to go in that direction. Anyway, these are a lot of fun, I look forward to seeing where the bigger arc of the series goes, and they just make me happy. Go read them.

7 Comments

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  1. One of the many things I like that I haven’t gotten around to saying yet is that Peter and Leslie are genuinely good friends and, while he finds her physically attractive, I get absolutely zero sense that he’s interested in her sexually or romantically or that the series is going to go in that direction.
    I got a sense that Peter was somewhat interested in her that way early in the first book, but that she didn’t particularly reciprocate. However, I might have misinterpreted something.

  2. Dan, fair enough, but regardless, the rest of my impression stands. =>

  3. I agree with the rest of your impression. 🙂

  4. Re: Peter and Leslie
    I seem to remember they did actually sleep together in the first book, but it may have been literal sleep (no sex). But though Peter does find her attractive, I agree that they didn’t seem to be headed for a relationship.
    And to continue the conversation from Pratchett, are “species as races” necessarily bad? I find myself to be more sensitive to real world races being used clumsily, like Peter’s father and the rivers.
    And since you like this kind of setting more than I do, here’s a question: Is this sort of magic system/metaphysics possible without reinforcing stereotypes?

  5. Literal sleep.
    Here are some posts about species as a metaphor for race.
    I’m not sure what you’re seeing about this kind of magic system and stereotypes, tell me more?

  6. I’m not familiar with any of the examples in your first post (I don’t watch movies or TV any more), but I have read a few from the second. Do you consider In Great Waters and Broken Kingdoms to handle it well or badly?
    As for stereotypes, I feel that when you condense an entire region into a single person, it’s not possible to show diversity, because all you’re showing is that one person. Also, I felt there was a little subtext saying “white people don’t have rhythm”, but I may be seeing things no one else sees.

  7. My recollection of _In Great Waters_ is too uncertain for me to say.
    _The Broken Kingdoms_: such huge spoilers, see this spoiler post from someone else and this ROT13’ed comment: V sbhaq vg ernyyl ernyyl jrveq gung vg jnf yvgrenyvmvat gur bar-qebc ehyr. On the other hand, _The Broken Kingdoms_ was not actually *replacing* non-white people in that society, so that’s something.
    I don’t know who you’re referring to as a single region condensed into one person.

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