Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch
OK – Let me nail my colours to the mast… I was born and bred in Purley, Surrey, on the edge of London suburbia; yes, that Purley – ‘nudge, nudge, wink, wink, say no more’. I later studied at Imperial College in Kensington, and I know there and London’s West End really well.
So, when a police procedural novel comes along that mentions tackling a nest of vampires in Purley, strange acts of violence in Covent Garden, and a Chief Inspector who is the last wizard in England, I was hooked before I had even read a page. Luckily for me, it was a brilliant and hilarious, wonderfully inventive, and literally the most fun I’ve had reading all year.
Before I tell you a little bit more about the book, I’d like to dispel any preconceived ideas you have of this being a fantasy, it’s definitely a crime novel – a proper police procedural, but with a magical component. There’s less overt spell-casting than in the Dresden Files books for instance, but there is loads of internal magic, auras, glamours, if you like, and the echoes or vestigium it leaves behind.
PC Peter Grant and WPC Lesley May are rookie police officers in London’s Metropolitan Police One night, a rather gruesome murder happens in Covent Garden, and they get assigned the graveyard shift to guard the area once the body has been removed. Lesley goes to get coffee, and Peter is left on his own – when he sees a ghost, who tells him some of what happened earlier that night.
This encounter is to change his life forever. He and Lesley are waiting to hear their postings, and Grant was previously destined for the ‘Case progression unit’ – a boring deskjob, whereas Lesley strikes lucky, being assigned to the murder squad. However, after he goes back to find the ghost again, he meets Chief Inspector Nightingale who needs an apprentice, and Peter’s career path is now set.
Nightingale, a gentleman of indeterminate age, begins to teach Peter about magic – it will take ten years to become a full wizard. In between learning how to make and control werefire, and better sense vestigium, they investigate this series of violent events, liaising with the Murder team run by DCI Seawoll, whom Lesley now works for. Despite most of the Met not knowing that Nightingale’s department exists, Seawoll has a grudging respect, although he doesn’t allow it to get in his way.
One day, Nightingale let’s Grant drive his Jag, (yes!), and off they head into South London taking a route I know very well …
I took us across Lambeth Bridge. Weekday traffic in London is always bad, and we stop-started all the way past the Oval, through Brixton and on to Streatham. Further beyond, we were into the south London suburbs, hectares of Edwardian two-storey terraced housing interspersed with interchangeable high streets. Occasionally we passed irregular rectangles of green space, the remnants of ancient villages that had grown together like spots of mould on a Petri dish.
The A23 morphed into Purley Way, and we passed a pair of tall chimneys crowned with the IKEA logo. Next stop was Purley, famous place, Purley, know what I mean?
Then there’s the feud to sort out between Mother and Father Thames. Father Thames’s domain goes from the source to Teddington Lock where the river becomes tidal, then Mother Thames ‘owns’ the river to the sea. They, and all the tributaries of the great river are personified as gods and godesses, feisty river spirits, but also like two gangs who rub each other up the wrong way. Nightingale sends the novice Grant in to mediate.
Between all the seriousness of the plot and the real policing that does get done, there is a rich vein of comedy to be mined. The institution of the police force with its foolish senior officers, love of silly acronyms, and departmental rivalries, plus Peter’s never-ending quest to get into Lesley’s pants are hilarious.
Nightingale is a wonderful character – typically Holmesian. Our narrator, Grant, is more of a character in waiting; although cast in the Watson role, he is but a mere callow youth and yet to come into his own. I also liked DCI Seawoll, who has to find methods of portraying phenomena caused by magic as non-magical to avoid scaring the public.
Obviously you don’t have to know London to like this book, but the details of the city really added something for me as I could vividly picture them, (including the location of that Purley vampires nest, which was the other side of the railway to where I lived – phew!).
Where the book really succeeds is in placing the real policing at the fore, and then having fun with it, creating another world that exists alongside our mundane non-magical one. Loved it, and the sequel Moon over Soho is now out too – Yippee! (9/10)
For some other takes on this book, see Gav Reads and David H.
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I bought my book – to explore further at Amazon UK, click below:
Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch, Gollancz paperback, 432 pages.
Moon over Soho – Book 2 in the series, paperback out now.