I’ve just started a new day job, plus I’ve returned to college to update my qualifications, so when I’m not working or studying or despairing at the current state of the world, I’m looking for reading matter that is undemanding and entertaining. You’d think a pile of recent bestselling novels would do the trick, wouldn’t you? And keep in mind I only picked up books that I thought I’d enjoy – mostly YA and what is classified as ‘chick lit’ and a couple of thrillers. Of my selection, two books fell into the “Okay, but instantly forgettable” category, most made me think “Really? This book sold a million copies? That many people liked this book?” and a couple were “How did a manuscript this bad actually manage to find a publisher?”
So, thank heavens for Ben Aaronovitch. I am continuing to devour his Peter Grant novels, which began with Rivers of London. In the second book, Moon Over Soho, London’s jazz musicians are dropping dead of seemingly natural causes at an alarming rate; meanwhile, several gory murders around the country have been linked to a strange creature with superhuman powers. With both Peter’s boss and his best friend out of action due to injuries, it’s up to Peter to save the day. And what does he do? He begins a torrid affair with the mysterious girlfriend of one of the dead men and he convinces his jazz musician dad to come out of retirement. This works out about as well as you’d expect. Fortunately Stephanopoulos, the “terrifying lesbian” in charge of Belgravia’s Murder Squad, is there to sort out the mess, with the help of Somali Ninja Girl, who pairs her leather biker jacket with a black silk hijab. There’s plenty of humour and lots of fascinating London history, but also some really nasty violence as the villain is revealed to be truly evil. Or is there more than one evil wizard…?
I think Whispers Under Ground, the third book, is my favourite so far. Lesley gets to play a greater role in the action as Peter, Nightingale, the Murder Squad and an unwanted FBI agent investigate the death of an American art student in London. Of course, the good guys are still trying to catch what Nightingale refers to as the “black magicians” and Peter insists on calling “Ethically Challenged Magical Practitioners”. There are some great action scenes set in the tunnels beneath London (although I could have done without the scene in which Peter and friends nearly drown in raw sewage) and there’s an awesome bit of fantasy world-building. Also, some terrific new characters! Jaget Kumar, who, when not policing the London Underground system, enjoys exploring uncharted cave systems in India! And Abigail, juvenile delinquent daughter of Peter’s mum’s neighbour, to whom Peter accidentally reveals a bit too much about magic. (Nightingale’s horrified reaction to Peter and Abigail: “What are you proposing? A Girl Guide troop?”). Also, there’s more Stephanopoulos, always a good thing.
In the fourth book, Broken Homes, a stolen German grimoire, a murdered safe-breaker and a suspicious ‘suicide’ lead Peter and Nightingale to Skygarden, a horrible 1960s multistorey housing block that may possibly have been designed for mysterious magical purposes. This allows Peter to ramble on about architecture and town planning and London history in lengthy passages that may not be totally relevant to the plot, but are usually entertaining to read. For example,
“In 1666, following an unfortunate workplace accident, the city of London burnt down. In the immediate aftermath John Evelyn, Christopher Wren and all the rest of the King’s Men descended with cries of glee upon the ruined city. They had such high hopes, such plans to sweep away the twisted donkey tracks that constituted London’s streets and replace them with boulevards and road grids as formal and controlled as the garden of a country estate. The city would be made a fit place for the gentlemen of the Enlightenment, those tradesmen they required to sustain them, and the servants needed to minister to them. Everyone else was expected to wander off and do whatever it is unwanted poor people were expected to do in the seventeenth century – die presumably.”
(Peter goes on to refer to Charles II as “the king of bling”, suggesting that Peter is a Horrible Histories fan, in addition to being very familiar with Doctor Who, Tolkien, Blade Runner, Terry Pratchett and various other geeky fandoms. Peter also drives Nightingale around the bend by insisting on referring to Nightingale’s old school as ‘Hogwarts’.)
Although the middle half of this book is fairly slow, it ends with some spectacular fight scenes, in which Nightingale finally shows why he’s in charge of the good guys and then Peter and the villain engage in a James Bond-style showdown on top of a skyscraper. But just as you think it’s all over – well, let’s just say my jaw literally dropped. It’s a huge emotional wallop for both Peter and any reader who’s been caught up in the series.1 WHAT AN ENDING. WHAT WILL HAPPEN NEXT?
Well, what happens next is Foxglove Summer. Peter, still a mess after the traumatic conclusion to Broken Homes even though he’s pretending he’s fine, is sent off to the countryside to help with an unsolved case in which two children have gone missing from an idyllic village. There’s probably not even any magic involved! What could possibly go wrong? There’s some enjoyment in seeing Peter, the quintessential Londoner, struggling with smelly sheep, recalcitrant farm gates and a lack of mobile phone coverage and there’s the customary action-packed conclusion in which, I’m pleased to say, the whole Heroic Man Saving Damsel in Distress thing is turned on its head (although Peter does do something very heroic in this book, bless him). We also get to find out more about the mysterious WWII battle that wiped out most of Britain’s wizards. However, I’ve just finished this book and still don’t completely understand why the children were taken or the significance of the foxgloves, so I think I’m going to reread it (which is no great hardship, because these books are just so much fun). I may have been distracted by my library copy, in which a previous reader had decided to cross out most of the swear words and ‘correct’ the narrator’s grammar, with ‘helpful’ comments added in the margins. Unfortunately, Library Editor seemed confused about modal verbs and failed to realise that a sentence containing the verb phrase “could have been” is a perfectly valid sentence. Also, I’m not sure why Library Editor decided to read all the way through to the fifth book in a series that’s narrated by a character who delights in not speaking the Queen’s English. In fairness to Library Editor, the UK editions of this series do have a bothersome number of typographical errors. Get your act together, Gollancz. These books deserve better. Also, I’d like the sixth book, The Hanging Tree, RIGHT NOW, PLEASE. Alas, it appears we’ll have to wait till June, 2016. In the meantime, enjoy the official Rivers of London rap.