‘Rivers of London’ by Ben Aaronovitch

I absolutely loved Rivers of London, the first in a series of novels about Constable Peter Grant of the London Metropolitan Police, who unexpectedly finds himself apprenticed to a wizard and solving gruesome supernatural crimes. It’s a very entertaining mix of police procedural and urban paranormal (complete with ghosts, vampires, demons, river nymphs and whatever bizarre, blood-sucking creature Molly the Maid is supposed to be), although Peter’s new wizard master, Detective Chief Inspector Thomas Nightingale, wants to make it clear he’s not Harry Potter:

“In what way?”
“I’m not a fictional character,” said Nightingale.

(Also, Nightingale travels in a 1960s Jag, rather than on a broomstick. And the vampires definitely aren’t sparkly.)

'Rivers of London' by Ben Aaronovitch
Paperback cover of UK edition of ‘Rivers of London’ by Ben Aaronovitch
The story involves two strands. In the first, a supernatural serial killer seems to be on the loose in London; in the second, the gods and goddesses connected with the River Thames are squabbling over territory. There’s plenty of blood, action and snarky commentary, and the two narrative strands are twisted together satisfactorily by the end of the book.

What I enjoyed most, though, were the characters, who are all interesting, funny and realistically multicultural. This shouldn’t be at all remarkable, except I’ve just finished reading several contemporary novels in a row that were set in Sydney or London or New York and yet were exclusively peopled with white, middle-class, heterosexual characters (just like their respective authors, in fact). In Rivers of London, Peter, the main character, is London-born, with a mum from Sierra Leone and a white dad who’s a jazz musician (and junkie). Peter’s background is integral to the story – he has an understanding of certain London cultures that Nightingale lacks, so it’s an advantage to have Peter on the team. Yet the author also acknowledges the realities of being a young black man in London, such as when Peter catches a train and observes the other passengers warily assessing him (“I was sending out mixed signals, the suit and reassuring countenance of my face going one way, the fact that I’d obviously been in a fight recently and was mixed race going the other”). It isn’t all Serious Discussion of Race Relations, though – Peter, worried he’s about to be sent undercover in a dangerous black community, blurts out to his commander, “I don’t like rap music!” (His confused superior, who’d actually planned to send Peter off to do boring paperwork because Peter gets so easily distracted on the beat, nods slowly and says, “That’s useful to know.”)

The other characters are just as real and interesting as Peter. Working alongside Nightingale is Dr Abdul Haqq Walid, Scottish cryptopathologist. Peter’s friend Lesley is a beautiful young blonde who is far better at police work than Peter. Lesley has a “terrifying lesbian” supervisor called Detective Sergeant Miriam Stephanopoulos (who turns out to be slightly less terrifying than Peter first thinks). The Londoners whom Peter encounters during his investigation include a Danish housewife, a Sri Lankan refugee working in a cinema, a Turkish doorman, some white Hare Krishnas and a Nigerian goddess. These characters aren’t diverse because the author is trying to be Politically Correct or a Social Justice Warrior or because someone started up a Twitter hashtag campaign against his books – this is just what GOOD WRITING looks like.1

There did seem to be a few plot holes – for example, it takes Peter and Nightingale more than 200 pages to work out what’s going on with the serial killer, when I’d figured it out after the first murder. (Admittedly, there was a big clue in the cover art of the hardback UK edition I read – and I noticed that that part of the artwork had been minimised and blurred for the paperback cover.2) Peter also shows a strange lack of curiosity about his new wizard mentor, even though several characters warn Peter about Nightingale. I mean, I know Peter can be a bit dim sometimes, but if I was suddenly whisked off to live with a wizard and learn magic, I’d want to know a bit about him. Also, how come Peter can suddenly see ghosts and detect magic only now, as a young man? If he was born with magical abilities, wouldn’t he at least have had an inkling of his powers during his childhood? Maybe this will be addressed in the subsequent books, but I must admit, I was so busy enjoying the story and laughing at the jokes that I didn’t worry too much about the bits that didn’t make complete sense. Apart from Peter’s exciting battles with the supernatural, there’s also a lot of fascinating London history (and a really cool chase scene, with the characters running through London’s history all the way back to Roman times). I’m already a few chapters into the sequel, Moon Over Soho, and it’s excellent so far. I’m really looking forward to the rest of this series.

You may also be interested in reading:

What I’ve Been Reading : The Peter Grant Series

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  1. I have a lot of feelings about this topic, because like Peter, I’m what is called “mixed race”, although that term doesn’t even make sense unless you believe there’s such a thing as a “pure race” (and at least “mixed race” is better than “half-caste” and the other, even less polite, names I was called at school). I was recently reading an interview with Jemaine Clement about his new film, People Places Things, which apparently attracted attention in the United States because it features what Americans call an “interracial romance”. They seemed to think Jemaine Clement was white and that it was astounding that his character could fall in love with an African-American woman. For one thing, Jemaine Clement’s mother is Māori, he was raised by his mother and grandmother in an extended Māori family, and he describes himself as both mixed race and a “pale-skinned Māori person”. As he said, “Anything I do is interracial!” Diversity in films (or books) isn’t the creators being brave or challenging or progressive – it’s just them doing their job properly and SHOWING REAL LIFE. By the way, I haven’t seen People Places Things, but I have seen his previous film, What We Do In The Shadows, which is extremely funny and charming and is highly recommended if you like spoof vampire documentaries set in New Zealand.
  2. I should also note that Rivers of London was published under the title Midnight Riot in North America. Why do American publishers change book titles like that? Okay, yes, there’s a riot that takes place at midnight, but that’s not what the book is ABOUT. It’s about the RIVERS OF LONDON! Also, check out the difference between the US cover and the (slightly spoilery) UK hardback cover.

4 thoughts on “‘Rivers of London’ by Ben Aaronovitch”

  1. I will give Peter Grant and co a go! It must be a pageturner in a good way if you are enjoying it so much that some gaps in the story don’t seem to matter. Good point about how monocultural a lot of crime fiction is.

    1. I hope you like them – come back here and tell us what you thought! They’re definitely fun (but gory) page-turners and they’re exactly what I feel like reading at the moment (I’m just starting Book Three, Whispers Under Ground).

      And to be fair to the author, the ‘plot holes’ are really just the author drip-feeding information to keep the reader hooked. Logically, Peter would sit Nightingale down in the second chapter and make him reveal everything he knows about magic – but then we wouldn’t want to read the next four books to find out how everything works!

    1. I hope you like them! They are a bit gory, but they’re very entertaining.

      Oh, and I forgot to mention Peter’s ghost-detecting dog, Toby! I like stories with dogs.

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