What I’ve Been Reading: The Peter Grant Series

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?”

'Moon Over Soho' by Ben AaronovitchSo, 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…?

'Whispers Under Ground' by Ben AaronovitchI 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,

'Broken Homes' by Ben Aaronovitch

“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?

'Foxglove Summer' by Ben AaronovitchWell, 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.


  1. For those who’ve read it, and then reread the entire book to look for the signs leading up to it and are still speculating about how that character could do that thing, there’s an interesting discussion post about it here. Huge spoilers for the series, obviously.

‘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.

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What I’ve Been Reading : The Peter Grant Series


  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.