Firstly, this book was excellent. It was interesting, contained engrossing characters, a nicely thought out mystery to solve, and was so real that I was struck by the sudden urge to pack up and move to London. Fabulous. I had some things that didn’t work for me, but they were few and far between, and they were more matters of personal preference than anything actually wrong with the story.
Rating: 4/5 Stars
The Book: Rivers of London/Midnight Riot by Ben Aaronovitch
Why the two names? It’s a “The philosopher’s stone/The sorcerer’s stone” affair. For some reason, the rest of the books in the series have the same name regardless of which edition (UK/american), is published. The covers are also the same on the rest of the books. The first one though, has two covers:
Normally I wouldn’t go on about this, but it’s interesting to note that they’ve pretty much hidden the protagonist Peter Grant in shadow in the American version. Given that the protagonist is black, it’s been… suggested that there’s a reason you can’t tell that from the front cover. I mean, really, if you’re going to show the main character on the cover, show the main character on the cover.
The UK versions have an excuse – the City of London is quite clearly the main character in this book, and they’ve accordingly whacked her on the front cover. Anyway. On to the actual review:
Peter Grant is a constable who has just finished a probationary period of two years, and is about to receive his first assignment. His closest friend and fellow constable is Leslie May. Just before they’re both assigned their new commissions, a murder takes place in the London theatre district. While they’re watching the crime scene after everyone important has left, a ghost shows up to talk to Peter, and informs him that all is not as it seems. Leslie is subsequently assigned to the division working on the murder, while Peter is picked up as an apprentice by one Mr Nightingale, a Chief Detective Inspector and the magical division of the metropolitan police force. The murder turns is not the last of it’s kind, and the rest of the book covers Peter learning his magic, a fight over territory between The Goddess of the River and the God of the River (he skipped town when the river was almost drowned to death in pollution, and now he wants back in), and figuring out the perpetrator behind the murders and bringing him to justice.
Things I liked:
- The construction of the book
This was a well constructed book, with everything fitting nicely together, every seemingly innocent bit of detail mattering. If something was described it was character building, or foreshadowing. Never was a scene just there for one singular reason, except in maybe two or three small cases.
- The pacing
In the pacing, this book reminded me a bit of Harry Potter. Not because of the british thing, but more because of the way the author manipulated time. There was a fair bit of “summing up” when events happen that needed to be mentioned, but weren’t truely important, and this gave the sense of quite a lot of time passing in a small number of words. On the flip side of the coin, the author also knew how to show things playing out in greater detail, to give the sense of time stretching. He used it quite a lot throughout.
- The magic system
This was really quite cool. Magic relies on holding a “forma” in one’s mind, and stringing a number of forma together to make a spell. Nightingale goes about Peter’s training in a traditional manner, while Peter uses his magic to experiment with magic’s use on technology. It’s all very interesting. Also, there appears to be another, more innate level of magic, which the local spirits, god and goddesses rely on.
- Peter’s voice
While I’m not employed as a paramedic yet, most of the people I hand around with are on their way to being there, and I do 480 hours of placement in the ambulance service here – and Peter’s voice is pretty much spot on for the type of people you meet in emergency services. Very practical, very straightforwards, slightly self suffereing, an ironic deadpan sense of humour… it’s great. I could really see him as a police office. Also, the way he describes the buraecracy of a major event, and of emergency services in general – also spot on. It was great, it was like I was recognising people I knew whenever a new character was introduced.
- The detail (especially the human detail) of London
I think the author paid almost as much attention to the world building of the “mundane” world as he did the fantastical side of things. Lots of details, and lots of human details. i loved the reality of the book. Unfortunately, books tend to be a bit white washed sometimes, and this book was not only filled with a diversity of character from different backgrounds, but the implications and consequences of those background were there. Leslie jokes with him about being able to move to America and act as a double for the president, Peter is briefly worried the police force is going to deploy him to work undercover in the drug squad that deals mainly with the black community. There’s one scene on the train, when he’s injured:
“I was sending out mixed signals; the suit and reassuring countenance of my face went one way, the fact that I’d obviously been in a fight recently and was mixed race went the other. It’s a myth that Londoners are oblivious to one another on the tube; we’re hyper aware of each other and are constantly revising our what-if scenarios and counterstrategies. What if that suavely handsome yet ethnic young man asks me for money, do I give or refuse; if he makes a joke, do I respond and if so, will it be a shy smile or a guffaw? If he’s hurt in a fight, does he need help? If I help him, will I find myself drawn into a threatening situation, or an adventure, or a wild interracial romance?”
Aaronovitch, Ben (2011-02-01). Midnight Riot (Peter Grant) (pp. 187-188). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
It doesn’t pretend. It doesn’t make an issue of his race, or the background of the other characters, but they’re still living in the world we’re living in, and still facing the incidental products of our collective history. It’s great – I’ve honestly not read a book that manages to not ignore the issues of this world without making those issues their primary focus. Maybe I’m just not the well read. But I loved it.
- The revelation of who was behind the murder’s
This was quite neatly done, and made some of the coincidences in the book much less of a coincidence and more of a bad omen. Again, very nicely done.
Things I didn’t like:
More what I wasn’t so sure of in this case
- Show don’t tell – a little too far on the show side for me
After I finished this book, I looked up the author, and as far as I can tell, he started writing in TV. You can tell – for a book told from first person, there was a remarkable lack of internal thoughts regarding some things from Peter. For example, most of the main supporting character you meet. He has very little in the way on an opinion about them, and as such, they seem very two dimensional until Peter has interacted with them in a variety of capacities. Leslie, for example, seemed stock standard love interest. Their relationships as half friends, maybe something more, and her own uniqueness only became apparent after another chapter or so. Nightingale took even longer to get to know, because Peter only initially interacted with him an a working relationship. Thus, he seemed very… bland, until about halfway through the book.
I knew the character by the time I needed to know and care about them, but it took quite a while.
- The lack of internal emotion from Peter
This was another this that comes from the show don’t tell thing. I missed the internal emotional reactions that normally come with first person. Peter’s voice is very good, but it missed this. For example, when someone close to him is shot, we know how he feels because he considers running and doesn’t because he wants to protect the person injured. But that’s all sort of infered. He could be terrified. But of what? This person dying, getting injured himself, keeping his city/family/Leslie safe? Worried that the backup won’t get there in time? It’s impossible to tell, because there’s no internal emotional reaction to anything. It’s all infered. And in a way, this is good, because it’s new to me, and it forces me to be involved in the story, but on the other hand, I miss that level of internal connection with the character.
- Talking Heads
Occasionally, when a conversation was shown, there was the back and forth of the conversation, and Peter’s reaction to that conversation was only shown after it was done. It was a bit jarring, as I spent a fair bit of time in that conversation going “why isn’t he more surprised/annoyed/terrified/confused by this.” I felt a bit “in the dark” at times.
- A scene or two that just seemed there for no good reason.
There were three scenes that just seemed to be there. Normally, that honestly wouldn’t have bothered me, but given how well structured all the scenes and acts were, it was noticeable when things didn’t seem to have a plot reason for existing. One of these was justified later, two of the others never really were. They were tiny little things, but because the rest of the book was so well done, it was jarringly noticeable.