Rivers of London
by Ben Aaronovitch
Review by Liz de Jager
Gollancz Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9780575097568
Date: 10 January 2011 List Price £12.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK /
Known to many as a key Dr Who writer (he penned one of the best Dalek story-lines that the show ever produced) Ben Aaronovitch now steps forward with a series that is being hailed as the British Dresden Files. Written with a wry (some might say cynical) style full of one-liners, this very London 'police-procedural meets urban fantasy' is a fabulous, fast and very funny read indeed. Rivers of London is published in hardcover by Gollancz - US readers will be getting the same book with a different title (Midnight Riot as reviewed in last month's issue) released by Del Rey around the same time. Sequel Moon Over Soho will follow in the spring. Reviewed this issue by Liz De Jager.
Within the first few pages of Rivers of London the reader knows as much as the main character about a murder that's just taken place, as well as the general area where it happened and the fact that it's only ever the lower echelons of any police force who get to do the rubbish jobs, like guard a crime scene at 'stupid o'clock' in the morning!
Our main character, Peter Grant is a young policeman on the beat; he's due to find out what his next (probably long-term) assignment in the force is going to be, but currently he has to stand guard over a crime scene in Covent Garden. Everyone's a bit nonplussed about the murder. The victim's head has been knocked off his body – not hacked, not sawed, but knocked off. It's when Peter looks around in the small hours of the morning and spots someone lurking in the dark, that things start getting interesting. He confronts the lurker and it turns out said lurker is in fact a ghost. And a witness...
Peter is, of course, not stupid. A bit of a dreamer yes, and maybe easily distracted from the tasks at hand, but he's not stupid. Ghosts don't exist, right? Wrong! Within a matter of hours Peter is assigned to the only person in the police force who seems to have taken Peter's ability to see ghosts at face value, without committing him to a mental institution.
Peter becomes Chief Inspector Nightingale's apprentice and right hand man Nightingale has the dubious honour of being the last wizard in all of Great Britain and as a team Nightingale and Grant work well together. There is a genuine repartee and an understanding, as well as trust. They are drawn deeper into the murder that took place in Covent Garden, following a variety of leads and it soon becomes clear that there is much more to the random acts of awful violence shaking London town than seen at first glance. It takes a keen eye and some clever thinking to work the clues into place. And importantly, Nightingale also starts teaching Peter how to do magic. It is subtle stuff, nothing too 'out there', which is something to appreciate as too often we see overly strong characters suddenly coming into their power within a blink of an eye. Grant's training takes time and there are quite a few false stops and starts with a lot of comical moments thrown in for good measure. Peter's character also grows in confidence as he comes to grips with his magic and new responsibilities and we see this in the way he takes ownership of the case he's working on, as well as Nightingale's request to sort out some problems they are having with some local river deities.
The story works well not just because the writing is so instantly readable, but also because Aaronovitch's love for London is so evident. London's landscape is rich with it's own mythology and lore and it is testament to the author's restraint that he merely scratches the surface in Rivers of London. Anything more would have distracted us far too much from the narrative as a whole and instead it gives us a comprehensively written novel, full of lore, mythology and supernatural goings on that feel real enough to make you think twice as you walk the streets after dark. Added to the supernatural lore is the genuine research the author has done into police investigative procedures. So not only do we have a supernatural, whimsical London in which you or I may be rubbing shoulders with a goddess from one of the River Thames' tributaries, but we have one grounded in solid and gritty realistic police work. It is this combination of reality and whimsy that takes Rivers of London and makes it stand head and shoulders above a lot of other urban fantasy fiction currently on the market.
There will be the inevitable comparisons to Jim Butcher's Dresden Files, Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere and Kate Griffin's Matthew Swift novels and such comparisons are fair. But the truth is that Aaronovich has managed to produce something to outshine Gaiman and Butcher and very much on par with Griffin as well as with Mike Carey's Felix Castor novels. Aaronovitch's writing manages to be both immediate, contemporary and effortlessly amusing whilst keeping us solidly in the here and the now with the police work. There are some great secondary characters and a support cast that I suspect we'll see a lot more of in the upcoming Moon over Soho and Whispers Under Ground which are due for release later this year and early next year. Rivers of London is, simply put, a great contemporary urban fantasy written by an author who has a strong voice and a great flair for genuinely good writing.