Monday, 9 May 2011

Rivers of London

Ben Aaronovitch
Orion Books (

From Harry Potter through the vampire-romancing heroines of Twilight, Anita Blake and Sookie Stackhouse and on to the eponymous wizard PI of Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files, novels (and films, and TV) blending the mundane world with the supernatural seem to have flooded the market since the turn of the century.

Rivers of London is the latest addition to an overcrowded genre, but well-written enough to rise a little above the crowd. It pays to tweak the usual formula and build yourself a niche, if you’re looking to differentiate yourself from the competition, and author Ben Aaronovitch fulfils that obligation by making his hero not an outcast orphan or private detective but British (gasp!) – and a probationary constable in the Metropolitan Police Service.

It’s a pleasant change to see a protagonist not just uninterested in rebelling against the system but in fact firmly embedded in it, and Aaronovitch handles the procedural aspects of everyday coppering convincingly. Rivers of London’s Met is a living, breathing police force, riddled with bureaucracy but populated by smart, competent officers, albeit human ones who still occasionally give into the temptation to go get a kebab.

It helps that Peter Grant, apprentice wizard to Chief Inspector Nightingale, similarly defies the cliché. If not exactly enthusiastic, he’s hardly an unwilling recruit to the cause of policing London’s supernatural denizens – anything’s better than ending up in the paper-pushing Case Progression Unit. He’s a fairly fresh and well-rounded character, too: engaged with the world around him, rather than single-minded in his pursuit of evildoers; carrying the weight of a troubled past without any of the usual melodrama that usually accompanies such; occasionally blokey in his distractions, with a special mention going to the charms of WPC Lesley May; and topping it all off with a nice line in deadpan delivery.

  “Are you telling me ghosts are real?”
  Nightingale carefully wiped his lips with a napkin.
  “You’ve spoken to one,” he said. “What do you think?”
  “I’m awaiting confirmation from a senior officer,” I said.

Rivers of London has a gentle wit which makes it a pleasure to read, and it’s at its strongest when Grant is bantering with fellow officers or trying to game the Met’s unwieldy system for the necessary results. Where it falls down, or at least stumbles drunkenly, is in its handling of the supernatural. The magic in which Nightingale begins to school our hero is bland and uninspired, veering a little too close to the pig-Latin spellcasting of Harry Potter and lacking either the grounded intricacies of low fantasy or the otherworldly wonder of the higher sort. Instead it floats somewhere in the middle, doing little to hook the reader’s interest.

The various supernaturals inhabiting London fare little better. While it’s a nice touch to lay the emphasis on the old gods of Britain and how they’ve adapted to modern life, rather than the usual modern fantasy trifecta of vampires, werewolves and ghosts, the spirits personifying the eponymous rivers of London lack the requisite sense of otherworldliness. You could argue their scrutability makes sense, given that most were human at some point in their existence, but for the gods of the Thames to walk and talk – and behave, for the most part – like any other Londoner denudes them of any real mystique. Aaronovitch again deserves credit for avoiding cliché in the person of both the Old Man of the River and Mother Thames, but it’s not enough to make up for their disappointing mundanity of character.

Grant’s scientific approach to the supernatural is more engaging, as his desire to understand how it all works causes headaches for the more laissez faire Nightingale. It’s absorbing – and not a little amusing – to watch as an enquiring mind tries to apply the scientific method (Observation, hypothesis, experiment and something else I could look up when I got back to my laptop – pp.35-36) to something as traditionally unquantifiable as magic. Yet one of the more intriguing hints at the history of Rivers of London tells us Isaac Newton was originally responsible for codifying magic’s basic principles, presumably in between defining gravity and keeping England’s economy afloat. Nightingale’s dismissal of scientific curiosity seems particularly jarring, then, given the propensities of his order’s founding father, but the contrast between the chief inspector’s ludditism and Grant’s technical savvy does provide regular comic touches as the novel proceeds.

Unfortunately it proceeds in the best traditions of the Old Bill: flat-footed. The narrative lurches unevenly from the urgent pursuit of the supernatural threat menacing London to Grant’s training instruction – less of a brutal drop into the deep end than a rather leisurely settling-in – and away again to negotiate peace between the feuding Rivers. The utter lack of any tension as Grant learns to work magic and moves into the Folly, the headquarters of the old order of magicians Newton founded and of which Nightingale is the last surviving member, is fatal to the maintaining of urgency or suspense. He even has time to install a plasma TV in the garage and have a few mates around to watch the footy.

That Grant has so much free time is partially the fault of the novel’s main storyline. While the pursuit of a spirit of violence which gets its kicks forcing Londoners into brutal conflict is interesting enough and solidly plotted, it involves a lot of waiting around for the villain to strike again; that might be an accurate reflection of real policework’s lack of glamour, but from a narrative perspective there ought to be something to fill the gaps and keep the magpie of audience attention from flitting off after the next shiny new trinket. Grant’s insipid training montage just doesn’t cut it, and though the river-wrangling subplot is more diverting it has problems of its own. Grant’s relationship with two of Mama Thames’ daughters – one of whom fills the essential love-interest–shaped hole, while another’s attitude towards him could be best described as arbitrarily antagonistic – is straight out of the textbook. And textbooks aren’t noted for their entertainment value.

Perhaps a firmer hand on the editorial scalpel could have cut some of the flab away and left Rivers of London both leaner and meaner, but for whatever reason the novel hasn’t had that blessing. Editorial quality is a little low throughout, in fact. Minor errors, such as Grant referring to Nightingale’s magical ball of light as a ‘werelight’ a page before he’s given the technical term (pp.92-3), seem to have slipped through the drafting process: unnecessary speed bumps which test the suspension of disbelief.

For all my quibbling, Rivers of London is far from a bad novel. It’s got a decent premise and a well-assembled protagonist, and Aaronovitch is a solid if unexceptional stylist. If he can learn to balance the demands of pace and plot, he could be onto a winner.

This review was originally written for