Series: PETER GRANT/RIVERS OF LONDON
Plot Type: Urban Fantasy (UF)
Ratings: Violence—4; Sensuality—2; Humor—3-4
Publisher and Titles: Del Rey
1 Midnight Riot (aka Rivers of London) (novel, 2/2011)
1.5 "The Home Crowd Advantage" (free on-line short story, 2014)
2 Moon Over Soho (novel, 3/2011)
3 Whispers Under Ground (novel, 7/2012)
4 Broken Homes (novel, 2/2014)
5 Foxglove Summer (novel, 1/2015)
5.2 Night Witch (series of five graphic novels, 2016)
5.5 Black Mould (series of five graphic novels, 2016-2017)
6.2 Detective Stories (TBA)
> "The Domestic" (in Whispers Underground) features Peter and Toby the dog investigating an elderly woman's house that she claims is haunted by her late husband.
> "The Cockpit" (in Broken Homes) is set in a Waterstone's bookshop in London (where Aaronovitch may have once worked). Peter and Lesley must placate a poltergeist that is throwing books around the shop.
> "The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Granny," which apparently functions as an epilogue of sorts to Foxglove Summer.
> "King of Rats": When a self-styled King of the Rats crashes a corporate do hosted by Fleet and Tyburn, naturally the Folly are called in. Peter and Kumar have to determine whether his majesty is the legitimate ruler of the rat nation or is, instead, a sad man with a rodent fixation. And they’d better do it fast before some irate Rivers decide to embark on a bit of DIY pest control. Click HERE to read about the 2015 occasion for which this story was written. Click HERE to view the video, and click HERE to read the transcription.
Suspicious deaths are not usually the concern of Police Constable Peter Grant or the Folly—London’s police department for supernatural cases—even when they happen at an exclusive party in one of the flats of the most expensive apartment blocks in London. But the daughter of Lady Ty, influential goddess of the Tyburn river, was there, and Peter owes Lady Ty a favor.
Plunged into the alien world of the super-rich, where the basements are bigger than the houses, where the law is something bought and sold on the open market, a sensible young copper would keep his head down and his nose clean.
But this is Peter Grant we’re talking about.He’s been given an unparalleled opportunity to alienate old friends and create new enemies at the point where the world of magic and that of privilege intersect. Assuming he survives the week.
For fans of this plot-driven series, this is a must-read book, primarily because it takes the Lesley May and Faceless Man story lines in a new direction. To read an excerpt from The Hanging Tree, click HERE to go to the novel’s Amazon.com page and click on the cover art.
FULL DISCLOSURE: My review of The Hanging Tree is based on an electronic advance reading copy (ARC) of the book that I received from the publisher through Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. I received no promotional or monetary rewards, and the opinions in this review are entirely my own.
In this world, magic does not come through genetic heritage; it comes from hard practice. Here, Aaronovitch explains, "Magic, as it is practised by Nightingale and Grant, is not something you're born with. It is, as someone suggested, like playing a violin, anyone can be trained to do it and while some may have a natural aptitude it takes years of practise just to get a decent tune and...more than a lifetime to truly master." (Click HERE to read the entire on-line interview that is the source of this quotation.) (Note: Aaronovitch uses the British spelling for the word "practise.") The source of magical learning in this world is Sir Isaac Newton. Nightingale explains to Peter that although Newton did not invent magic, he did codify its basic principles in his book Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Artes Magicis.
As the series progresses, Peter gradually learns more and more about using magic. As he explains, "You do magic by learning formae which are like shapes in your mind that have an effect on the physical universe. As you learn each one you associate it with a word, in Latin….You make it so that the word and the forma become one in your mind. The first one you learn is Lux which makes light….You make a spell…by stringing the formae together in a sequence." (Broken Homes, p. 94) As you can imagine, Peter spends a lot of time practicing the casting of formae.
Peter is a regular guy with a strain of sadness in his familial past. He is biracial in ethnicity. His father is white, a recovering alcoholic and heroin addict and a failed jazz musician, and his mother is an African immigrant (from Sierra Leone) who cleans offices. Here, Peter contrasts the two: "My dad would have told me to take the breaks as you get them and not worry about where they come from. But my mum never saw a gift horse that she wouldn't take down to the vet to have its mouth X-rayed—if only so she could establish its resale value." (Foxglove Summer, p. 181) Peter gets along relatively well with his parents but hasn't lived at home since before he began his police career. He feels that he has disappointed them by not doing well in college, having been derailed by his inability to focus, a trait that has dogged him all his life. Peter takes to his magical instruction with relish and begins to modernize Nightingale's lessons with technology, dragging the Folly—with Nightingale kicking and screaming all the way—into the 21st century.
Peter narrates the books in the first person voice with a dry tone that is darkly humorous and always ironic. Many of Peter's jibes are aimed at various aspects of London life that may not be entirely accessible to non-Londoners, but the stories are larded with enough flippant levity to bring smiles to readers who have never set foot on British soil.
Each plot plays out like a magic-laced police procedural, with Peter and Nightingale uncovering clues, tracking down perpetrators, questioning witnesses, and bringing villains to various kinds of justice. As Peter explains, "'Where did the money come from?' is one of the three standard police questions, along with 'Where were you on the night in question?' and 'Why don't you just make it easy on yourself?'" (Whispers Under Ground, p. 165)
For Peter, the search for clues begins with a search for vestigium, which, as Peter explains, "is the imprint magic leaves on physical objects. It's a lot like a sense impression, like the memory of a smell or sound you once heard....Some things, stones for example, sop up everything that happens around them even when it's barely magical at all—that's what gives an old house its character." (Moon Over Soho, p. 9)
An ongoing story arc involves the unhappy legacy of a wizard named Geoffrey Wheatcroft, who taught magic to a small group of apprentices back in the 1950s. One of those apprentices became a "master" magician who moved to London and went to the dark side. That man, in turn, trained apprentices of his own, and those dark sorcerers continue to turn up in London, always on the wrong side of the law.
Click HERE to go to the "Peter Grant Glossary" on Aaronovitch's blog, which (although brief) is also a helpful source of information about the British vernacular and a few locations that appear in the series. Click HERE to listen to an official RIVERS OF LONDON Rap by Doc Brown and Mikis Michaelides.
This series has similarities to Simon R. Green's NIGHTSIDE and SECRET HISTORIES series, Kate Griffin's MATTHEW SWIFT series, and Anton Strout's SIMON CANDEROUS series (especially the protagonists' view of bureaucracies), as well as to the archetypal grand-daddy of all of these wizard-in-the-big-city series—Jim Butcher's DRESDEN FILES. Click HERE to read an on-line interview in which Aaronovitch discusses Butcher's books and their influence on his own writing. Click HERE to read Aaronovitch's explanation of the various units of London's Metropolitan Police.
NOVEL 1: Midnight Riot (aka Rivers of London)
The first magical crime that Peter investigates with Nightingale is a series of strange murders in which seemingly normal people become suffused with rage and kill other people. One man throws his infant out of a window and murders his wife. (These crimes raise my violence rating on this book to a 4 or 5.) After Nightingale and Peter figure out what's going on, the story follows their spasmodically successful investigation all the way to the climactic scene that solves the case.
|U.K. Cover and |
Title for Book 1
This book pulled me in from the beginning, with its sardonic and ironic humor and likable protagonist. The story gets bogged down a few times in sections in which Peter pauses to give lengthy explanations of various aspects of London history, but as soon as he goes back to the story and the action, things get better immediately. The resolution of the main plot—catching the serial killer—is somewhat dissatisfying because the killer's magical abilities aren't always clearly delineated. Just one small nitpick: a copy-proofing error on p. 93 inserted Beverley's name instead of Leslie's into a dialogue, which forced me to read the page twice before figuring out what happened.
NOVEL 2: Moon Over Soho
In the meantime, Peter has made a romantic connection with the girlfriend of one of the victims. Simone is a beautiful young woman who lives with her two sisters, loves jazz, and seems to be crazy about Peter. Peter is at romantic loose ends at the moment because Beverley is living far away in Father Thames' household, and Leslie is in the midst of rehabilitation and is facing further surgery for her horrendous facial injuries.
The plot plays out gradually as the dark magician (aka the faceless one) strikes again, and the various sub-plots begin to interweave. The scenes with Peter's father are nicely done, as the two begin to mend their often-thorny relationship. By the end of the book, Peter has learned that his father's addiction was not entirely his fault.
This book is a solid follow-up to the series opener, but it didn't pull me along as strongly as the first one did. The details of the faceless one's various evil deeds and creations seem incomplete, and sometimes events don't quite track. Aaronovitch includes a lot of London history (kind of like Chelsea Quinn Yarbro does in her SAINT-GERMAIN series), which, although interesting, sometimes brings the story to a complete standstill. Peter is such an intelligent and appealing protagonist that his character really is the greatest strength of the series. It would be nice to get a closer feel for Nightingale. At this point, he is still the somewhat aloof mentor, and we don't know much about his life—except for the fact that he has been alone since all of his fellow magicians perished in various wars, particularly during World War II. We do get some more information about Molly, the Folly's maid (i.e., how she came to the Folly and exactly what kind of creature she is). Molly is a great character. Even though she never says a single word, I feel that I know her better than I know Nightingale.
NOVEL 3: Whispers Under Ground
The identification and capture of the perpetrator is much less important to the plot than the search process itself. Here, Peter explains how the police solve a case: "This is police work: you go from point A to point B, where you learn something that forces you to schlep back to point A again to ask questions that you didn't know to ask the first time." Once again, quirky characters are at the heart of the story, from Peter's officious superior officers to the sleazy suspects and reluctant witnesses who turn up on the streets of London. The most highly developed and entertaining character in the latter group is Zachary Palmer, the slacker roommate of the murdered man who turns out to be something more than human.
London itself—both past and present—continues to be as important a character as any of the humans. Peter, who has some architectural training, is able to read clues in bricks, tiles, and structural aspects of buildings as he relentlessly pursues each lead. When Peter finds vestigium (magical traces) on the magic-infused pottery shard that was the murder weapon, the author dips deeply into the history of the pottery trade in London.
As the title foreshadows, most of the action scenes take place deep underground in London's subway and sewage tunnels. As the clues mount, Peter begins to wonder if he is on the verge of discovering yet another genius loci—one unknown even to his master, the wizard Nightingale. One of the disappointing aspects of the plot is the sketchy and incomplete information given on Peter's new discovery. Sorry—I can't be any more specific without giving away a spoiler.
In the background, the faceless man (Peter's enemy in book 2) hovers menacingly, but he never shows up in person in this book. I will warn you, though, that if you haven't read the first two books, you will not understand or appreciate the frequent references to past events that played out in books 1 and 2.
This book moves at a much slower pace than the first two, and the climactic showdown scene is much less violent. In fact, I would rate the violence level in this book at no more than 2½. Even with the languid pace, though, Peter's sardonic humor and his lightly cynical commentary on London life provide a wealth of reading enjoyment. Peter continues to be a terrific character whose intelligent and ironic voice is the strongest element in the series. Here's an example, as Peter describes a small figurine that turns out to be an important clue: "It depicted the ever popular 'Venus-Aphrodite surprised by a sculptor and struggling to cover her tits with one hand and keeping her drape at waist height with the other' so beloved of art connoisseurs in the long weary days before the invention of Internet Porn."
As in previous books, this one ends with a mild cliff-hanger—a clue to the plot of the next book. This continues to be a strong series, and I'm looking forward to book four.
NOVEL 4: Broken Homes
Peter, an apprentice wizard, has the following allies as he works on the cases in this book:
In the novel's opening scene, a man crashes his car and is found to have been transporting a corpse carrying vestigium—traces of magic. Next, another man blows up his granddaughter's birthday party by producing an uncontrolled ball of fire from his bare hands. Then, yet another murdered man turns up—this one burnt and/or boiled from the inside out. Then, a villainous Russian witch hurtles into the action. As the bodies pile up and the clues remain sparse, Peter and Leslie become convinced that their nemesis, the Faceless Man, is at the root of the murder spree. The Faceless Man is a rogue wizard who has been the target of a months-long search by the Isaacs. He has been wreaking magical havoc in London, and Nightingale and his team are determined to stop him. Unfortunately, they don't know what he looks like because he always wears a mask, thus his nickname.
One geographical location with which the reader needs to become familiar is "Elephant and Castle," the general location of many of the scenes in this novel. Elephant and Castle is a major road junction in Central London in the London Borough of Southwark. Click HERE to read two very different stories about the origin of its odd name. The cover art features this location as a red splash on its street map. Click HERE to see a more readable map of the area.
As Peter follows the clues, he realizes that a council estate called Skygarden (located at Elephant and Castle) is somehow involved in the mysteries they are trying to solve, so he and Leslie go undercover and move into one of the apartments. As the clues mount up and connections are made, the suspense finally begins to build, leading up to the requisite showdown scene that ends the story with a shocking twist and with many loose ends still to be untangled and tied off. The location and some of the general characteristics of the apartments of Skygarden are modeled after Heygate Estate (pictured at left), the real council estate at Elephant and Castle. Heygate is an example of the Brutalist architectural style common in urban construction from the 1950s through the 1970s, and certain stylistic elements of Brutalism play a major role in the plot of this book.
This novel isn't as strong as the previous books, mostly because of its slow pace, rambling plot, and lack of resolution for much of the conflict. Its strongest element, once again, is Peter's sardonic first-person voice, filled with dry humor and self-deprecation. Although Peter is relatively well read and educated, he constantly misuses the personal pronoun "me," always beginning sentences with "Me and [some other person…]" (e.g., "Me and Leslie…"), which is grammatically incorrect because "me" is always used as an object—never as a subject. On top of that basic error, Peter places himself ("me") before the name of the other person—again, that's improper usage. I'm not trying to be the Grammar Police here. I'm just pointing out that this is one way that Aaronovitch keeps reminding us of Peter's young age and his non-posh upbringing. Peter is an intelligent young man and a talented up-and-coming wizard, but his personality and outlook on life are grounded in his nontraditional upbringing in various council estates by his mother (an immigrant office cleaner from Sierra Leone) and his father (a white, heroine-using jazz musician).
The design of Skygarden is integral to the plot, and is quite similar to the two buildings pictured at right and below. The Strata SE1, (aka the Razor) was built at Elephant and Castle in 2010. You may wonder why I'm emphasizing the architecture of these buildings, but if you are a reader of this series, you'll know that Peter Grant is an expert in the field of London architecture and that London's great buildings frequently turn up as important plot elements, as is the case in this novel. Even the Strata's nickname—the Razor—plays a role as a type of vestigium Peter picks up at a murder scene and at Skygarden.
Two architects are heavily referenced in the novel: one real and one fictional. The real one is Bruno Taut (1880-1938), a German who was famous for his ideas about Stadtkrone—urban architecture as city crowns. At left is one of his designs, which will look familiar to you after you have read Broken Homes.
If you enjoyed this book, you may be interested in reading a 2001 article from The Observer describing plans to turn Elephant and Castle into "Europe's biggest urban regeneration." The article's facts and opinions are so close to this novel's plot line that it could have served as the author's inspiration. Click HERE to read the article.
After the mind-boggling conclusion of novel 4, I can hardly believe that in book 5, Aaronovitch turns completely away from the entire Faceless Man/Leslie May story arc and sends Peter off to the rural Herefordshire countryside near Leominster to solve a case that is unrelated to anything that is going on back in London. (With two exceptions: We learn more details about the mysterious 1940s Ettersberg events that Nightingale has mentioned in passing in nearly every book; also, Peter discovers exactly what kind of a supernatural creature Molly is). In interviews, Aaronovitch has said that he gave this book a rural setting because he wanted to place city-boy Peter somewhere far outside his comfort zone—the antithesis of London, but—surprise!—Peter actually takes to country life quite nicely.
Here is the premise: When two eleven-year-old girls vanish from their homes in the dead of night, the police ask Nightingale for help just in case magic was involved in their disappearance. With Leslie May still at large, Nightingale must remain at the Folly, so he sends Peter out on his own for the first time. In addition to checking for vestigia (traces of magic) at the crime scene(s), Peter is also assigned to check in with the Hugh Oswald, a local retired wizard, just to make sure that he hasn't had a hand in the crime. (NOTE: Hugh lives in an eccentrically designed house that Aaronovitch based on Raymond Erith's Herefordshire Folly, a real house that looks just like the author describes it.)
The story begins as a basic police procedural, but to keep it from becoming too pedestrian, the magic soon begins to flow—first a trickle and eventually a flood. Before long, Peter has an assistant, and as you might guess from my watery metaphor in the previous sentence, that helper is Beverley Brook, the lovely river goddess who has attracted Peter's romantic attention since the beginning of the series. Nightingale sends her along just in case Peter needs some magical back-up. Their relationship is delightful to watch, particularly when Beverley involves Peter in a sexy, but weird, ceremony to find a god for a forsaken local river.
Aaronovitch sets a slow and steady pace as he follows Peter—sometimes accompanied by Beverley and/or by his local police partner, Dominic—through his investigation: checking out various crime scenes, interviewing suspects, and digging into local history and folklore. Although the local coppers are uneasy with the possibility that magic even exists—much less that it is involved in their case—they welcome Peter's assistance and never ask for many details. Their interaction with Peter adds to the humor of the story, and the juxtaposition of modern police work with ancient magic pumps enough oomph into the procedural elements to keep them from becoming too formulaic. For example, as Peter toils through his investigation, he has to deal with a child's invisible friend, a disemboweled sheep, a magical wildwood, and some supernatural creatures he has always believed were mythical. Playing an important role are the ancient trails and roadways of Herefordshire, some dating back to medieval times. Following are some of the key locations in the story. Click on any of these pink-links to read more: Mortimer Trail, Mortimer's Cross, Pokehouse Wood (aka House of Puck), Croft Castle, and Croft Ambrey.
One of Aaronovitch's favorite writing habits is to bombard the reader with a huge array of police-related acronyms, not all of which are explained in context. Don't worry too much about figuring out what they mean, but if you are really curious, you can click HERE for a glossary of UK police acronyms and abbreviations. One acronym that isn't in the glossary is HOLMES, a computer-related acronym that is frequently used on several BBC-America detective shows. HOLMES is the UK police information system that is used on major cases, and the letters stand for Home Office Large Major Enquiry System. Peter accesses HOLMES as part of his investigation of suspects.
Although this definitely isn't the book I was breathlessly awaiting, it is still a good read—a nicely told story with plenty of magic and a bit of romance woven through the plot. Now, though, I'm ready to get back to Leslie May's story arc. Why on earth did she do what she did? What will she do next? What's happening with her face? Is she an enemy or an ally? Leslie does text Peter a few times in this book and calls him once, but only to leave another cryptic clue to a mysteriously ominous event that will take place in the near future. Although this book is a bit more light-weight than its predecessors, it's still a fun book to read. Peter's voice is, as usual, the strongest and most humorous element in the story. You could read Foxglove Summer as a stand-alone as long as you have some notion of the world-building of the series (See the World-Building section of this post for details.). Click HERE to go to a blog page that includes a video interview with the author and an excerpt from the book (just below the video).
One last thing: The significance of the book's title is rooted in Welsh legends and folklore. You can click HERE to read an on-line article entitled "The Foxglove of Fairytales, Myths, & Medicine." Amongst all of the folklore clues, one is significant for this story—but which one?