Review: Ben Aaronovitch’s Moon over Soho and Rivers of London, reviewed by Liz Bourke

Review: Ben Aaronovitch’s Moon over Soho and Rivers of London, reviewed by Liz Bourke

Rivers of London, Ben Aaronovitch, ISBN 9780575097568, Victor Gollancz, January 2011. North American edition: Midnight Riot, ISBN 9780345524256, Random House, February 2011.
Moon Over Soho, Ben Aaronovitch, ISBN 9780575097605, Victor Gollancz, April 2011. North American edition: ISBN 9780345524591, Random House, March 2011.

Reviewed by Liz Bourke.

According to his bio, Aaronovitch has spent much of his career to date writing for British television, including old Doctor Who. It’s not surprising that, having branched out into original fiction, he’s brought the pace and tension of a good screenplay with him. What is surprising is the humour, irony, pathos, and yes, even tragedy, that have come along for the ride.

On the night of a bizarre murder, while standing watch at the crime scene, probationary police constable Peter Grant takes a statement from a ghost in the lee of the Actors’ Church in Covent Garden. Up to now, Grant’s biggest concern has been avoiding assignment to the Case Progression Unit, a career dead-end of paperwork. Now he’s attracted the attention of Inspector Thomas Nightingale, the London Metropolitan Police’s resident wizard. Before long, he finds himself Nightingale’s apprentice – the first apprentice wizard in England in over fifty years – involved in mediating a dispute between the god and goddess of the River Thames, exterminating a nest of vampires in Purley, and trying to discover the cause of the series of strange, brutal and illogical murders taking place in the city.

I’ve chosen to treat Rivers of London (North American title Midnight Riot) and its sequel, Moon Over Soho, together in this review. This isn’t because they comprise a single storyline: on the contrary, I imagine Moon stands alone fairly well. No, it’s because upon finishing Rivers I went out the very next day in search of Moon Over Soho, and found in it an even better book than the predecessor, which had kept me up half the night turning the pages.

For those who prefer to avoid the suggestion of plot spoilers, I’ll say this: imagine Harry Dresden as a Londoner, the son of an African immigrant, with a sense of the ridiculous and a copper’s eye, whose first clue that there are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio is when he takes a witness report from Nicholas Wallpenny, actor, deceased – and you might picture someone who resembles Peter Grant.

Although I find I like Grant rather better than Dresden.

For those who don’t mind the suggestion of plot spoilers, I have a few more things to say.

One of the joys of Aaronovitch’s London is its depth. Mama Thames in her warehouse in the East End, for example, is a former Nigerian immigrant nurse, and she and her daughters – Tyburn and Beverly, particularly – are fully and immediately believable. This London is real and visceral, not a shallow London of maps and placenames, but a city of fumes and midnight vomit and oily Thames water, a rich scum of detail that turns a performance at the Royal Opera Company (turned live-action Punch-and-Judy show turned riot) into something less ludicrous than horrifying.

Grant is a Londoner, and the city is his home. He takes his introduction to the city’s other layers with a remarkable matter-of-factness, made perhaps a little less remarkable by the sense of irony and the absurd that comes through his first-person narration. Rivers of London takes its time introducing this world, and the reader learns how magic works alongside PC Grant – though Grant already knows how the Met works, and some of the more amusing lines come from purely mundane policework.

Moon Over Soho begins shortly after Rivers ends. Grant’s initiation to the world of magic already being taken care of, we’re free to skip directly to the main event – or rather, the two main events: someone is biting off the dicks of London, and a jazz musician’s corpse is still wafting the strains of music.

Enter Peter Grant, a little older, a little wiser, but still entirely unprepared for either the developments in his love-life or for the presence in London of another wizard: Inspector Nightingale is supposed to be the last. This wizard appears to be what Nightingale calls a “black” wizard – though Grant prefers to term him “ethically challenged.”

In Moon Over Soho, we see a little more of some characters introduced in the first book: Grant’s parents, DS Stephanopoulos, Dr. Walid. Grant’s colleague, WPC Lesley May, who was such a strong presence in the first book, suffered a horribly disfiguring injury and remains on the sidelines throughout: her absence is felt, not least by Grant himself.

Much as I enjoyed both books — and look forward to the next installment, November’s Whispers Under Ground — they’re not without flaw. At times Rivers can feel a little diffuse and unfocused, and Moon has a couple of sentences sufficiently infelicitous to jar me out of the narrative entirely. And Grant’s occasional preoccupation with getting into women’s pants — well, let’s just say he’s definitely a guy, and leave it at that.

That said, though, right now I’m trying to hold myself back from jumping up and down and saying Read this at the top of my voice. I haven’t read urban fantasy with this much voice and presence in years.

I seriously recommend giving them a look.

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