No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

2013/29: Rivers of London -- Ben Aaronovitch

'Are they really gods?'
'I never worry about the theological questions,' said Nightingale. 'They exist, they have power and they can breach the Queen's peace – that makes them a police matter.' [loc.1523]
A cold night in Covent Garden. PC Peter Grant, still wet behind the ears from police college, has been left to guard a murder scene. A stroke of luck, perhaps, because it's the ever-curious, open-minded Grant who encounters a ghost who claims to have witnessed the crime.

He quickly finds himself seconded to a branch of the Met that specialises in magical matters. Apparently this branch is a bit of an embarrassment to the Establishment, who had been led to believe that This Sort of Thing was 'in decline'. Nope, apparently magic has been on the rise since the mid-Sixties, and now PC Grant is one-half of the department tasked with dealing with magical disruptions. His magical training takes place under the watchful eye of Nightingale, who is older than he seems and has a very peculiar housekeeper. I was pleased to find that Grant has a hard time learning even simple spells: it's not just about chanting pig-Latin and waving wands.

Rivers of London has a marvellous sense of place. (I was amused, during a recent conversation, to note that friends less familiar with Covent Garden took longer to work out the, er, mythic aspect of the initial crimes.)
Aaronovitch evokes the ceaseless mad rush and babble of Cambridge Circus; the leafy exclusivity of Hampstead; the guttural stockbroker accents of operagoers on Drury Lane, where an evening of Benjamin Britten's Billy Budd (how many other operas have a hanging scene? okay probably plenty) has been supernaturally disrupted. Oh, and "'We think he's hiding in Walthamstow,' she said. Many would say that was punishment enough." [loc.2958]

I was drawn in by the ambience, the local detail and the depth of London lore: I was also most taken with Grant's attempts to apply the scientific method to his new skills. And the rivers! The two Thameses, with their boundary at Teddington (a liminal zone where the river's flow meets the tide), London Bridge, Effra (who which flows past the bottom of a friend's garden), the 'murdering bastard' Bazalgette who diverted so many rivers underground, into the new sewer system.

Aaronovitch blends police procedural and magic in a way that's reminiscent of, but not really similar to, Paul Cornell's London Falling. I like his humour, and his characterisation. Grant's a bit sexist, has a chip on his shoulder, and is far from being a Chosen One. Nightingale is fascinating, but Grant's steadfast refusal to simply accept all this new information sets him head and shoulders above many urban fantasy protagonists.

I read this novel whilst sitting on a beach just east of Southend, occasionally pausing to swim in the Thames ... by the end of the book I felt as though I should perhaps ask permission, or make propitiation.


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