Like every Dresden Files fan, I’ve been flailing around for ages with the lack of new releases. And with the announcement that the next two books will be out later this year my impatience has not gotten better, but worse! So I recently started hunting around for something to keep me occupied. And I ended up landing on Ben Aaronovitch’s Peter Grant novels.
I wasn’t entirely unfamiliar with these – I had read a sample of Rivers of London a few years ago, but I neglected to pick up a full copy of the book at the time. Which is a shame, because once I started digging into the first novel again, I realised pretty quickly that these books are exactly my thing.
I read the first three in the space of a week. And I’ve had a ball doing so.
A lot of urban fantasy series are detective or Noir based. Of the top of my head, I can think of Harry Dresden, John Taylor and October Day. And John Constantine if you dip into comics. I think there’s a couple of reasons why this pair up is so common. If you’re gearing up to write the kind of low fantasy that explores how magical elements intersect with modern life, an urban backdrop probably offers the most potential. A more metropolitan environment also offers a multitude of places for supernatural elements to hide, which is essential if you’re setting your story in a universe where there is a ‘masquerade’ in place, and magic is hidden from the general public. And who’s best placed to ferret out secrets and deal with the urban underclass? A Detective.
Where Rivers of London differs slightly is that while its protagonist, Peter Grant, is in the business of investigating crime, it’s not as a detective, but a junior copper. And the books are written more like police procedurals than your typical detective novel. Many of the elements that make detective stories an excellent framework for urban fantasy carry over just as well to a police procedural, but there are some stark differences; Peter is no brooding loner who works on the edge of the law. He’s a Probationary Constable who still has to deal with placating his superiors and completing all his paperwork, which leads to a whole different dynamic than what we usually see. Especially because most of his co-workers are unaware of magic.
So as you might guess, if a young copper can get involved in magic, the ‘masquerade’ in Rivers of London is not one hundred per cent ironclad. Peter’s introduction to magical affairs starts when his co-worker, Lesley, nips out to grab him a cup of coffee one morning while they’re both patrolling a rather gruesome crime scene in Covent Garden. When alone, Peter is approached by a ghost who claims to be a witness.
While he thinks the information the ghost gave him might help the Met crack the case, Peter isn’t daft. Like anyone, he’s aware that if he went barging in on his superiors with stories about ghosts, they probably wouldn’t take it to well. He’s already aware that he’s considered a bit of an underachiever amongst his cohort, and is probably looking at a career of desk jockeying as a result. Why would he make things worse for himself? So after quickly confiding in Lesley, he returns to the scene one evening to see if he can coax the ghost out of hiding. If successful, he might end up with something that he could present to his bosses, potentially saving him from a career of office work.
Disappointingly for Peter, ‘Nicholas the corporeally challenged’ doesn’t end up making an appearance that night. But Detective Cheif Inspector Thomas Nightingale does. And after just one brief meeting, Peter is suddenly assigned to a semi-secret branch of the Met, and he’s on the road to investigating supernatural crimes and studying magic.
The one thing I really liked about Peter as a protagonist is how grounded and normal he is. He’s not supernaturally talented, and he’s nobodies Chosen One. He’s a rather average junior cop, albeit one with a rather analytical mind and a snarky sense of humour. He’s from a slightly rougher background than most: his mum migrated from Sierra Leone before he was born and his dad is a junky, both of which give him a perspective that many of his colleges lack. But he’s not without his blindspots either: he has some attitude issues that are not at all unexpected for a guy in his early twenties, which boils down to me not always caring for how he thinks about some of the female characters. (And it leads to him making a rather big blunder in one book as well.) But he makes for an engaging first-person narrator and he is entirely believable as a contemporary Londoner.
Another part of Peter’s backstory is that he has a passion for architecture, but didn’t consider himself a good enough draftsman to study it formally. What this means though is that we get a detailed description of almost every London building and landmark, making the City of London almost a character in its own right. I was delighted by the detail: I’ve not spent much time in London myself, but with the information presented in the first few books, I was able to work out where the Folly – Peter’s headquarters – is located. I was quite chuffed.
But my favourite character of the first three books has to be that of Peter’s ‘governer’ DCI Nightingale. If Peter is not your regular fantasy protagonist, Nightingale is not your Dumbledore. He’s a very sensible, no-nonsense mentor who is certainly not going to deliberately send his twenty-something-year-old apprentice off into dangerous situations by himself, let alone endanger a pre-teen. He does carry a sort of melancholy about him, which seems linked to the dearth of other wizards in modern-day Britain. But he does quickly warm up to Peter and shapes himself to be the kind of teacher he needs. Peter, in turn, starts to mentor Nightingale in the use of technology and the ins and outs of more modern policing. For a man who appears to be in his forties, Nightingale quite clueless when it comes to the wonder of things such as smartphones. They do come to care for each other but it’s all very understated: he and Peter are both British and a bit stiff upper lip, so they are not very outwardly affectionate. But it’s still sweet.
Actually, apart from his fine taste in fashion (we are talking Burberry trenchcoats and handmade shoes here), almost everything about Nightingale is understated. Which means that when he says or does something a little bit cheeky, it gives you a bit of a shock. And when he casually drops some details of the mad things he’s done in the past into conversation, it can really blow you for six. This exchange, in particular, is gold:
[Peter]: ‘What’s the biggest thing you’ve zapped with a fireball?’ I asked.
‘That would be a tiger,’ said Nightingale.
‘Well don’t tell Greenpeace,’ I said. ‘They’re an endangered species.’
‘Not that sort of tiger,’ said Nightingale. ‘A Panzer-kampfwagen sechs Ausf E.’
I stared at him. ‘You knocked out a Tiger tank with a fireball?’
‘Actually I knocked out two,’
Peter, by the way, is at the stage where he can sort of set a paper target alight at a firing range – but only when he concentrates. We’ve not seen Nightingale throw any serious magic around yet in-series yet, but I’m seriously anticipating it.
As for the plots, each book seems to follow at least two threads, one of which usually appears contained to each novel. Again, it’s very much a police procedural. And the sets up are intriguing: the first novel deals with a turf war between the personifications of different tributaries of the Thames; and a ghost whose possession of people causes their faces to fall off. Later on, we deal with jazz vampires, the fae and an ethically challenged wizard. Of these, it’s the latter that seems to be becoming something of an overarching plot. As of book three, the increasing number of people getting involved in this rogue wizard investigation – including Lesley – makes me suspect that secrecy may be becoming unsustainable. Whatever this wizard is up to, I’ll find out soon enough – while the first book did have some pacing issues, the other two have proven to be incredibly readable; which is why I’ve sped through all three in less than a week.
Also worth noting though is the heavy use of British police jargon, which can be a little overwhelming. I’ve read enough Dalziel and Pascoe Mysteries to understand most of it, but these terms are not explained in-text – with Peter as the narrator, it doesn’t make sense to do so, but you might want to brush up on the subject if you don’t want to get lost. Also, the books are very geeky and littered with pop culture references. Apart from the obvious Harry Potter ones (and you don’t call the school Nightingale attended Hogwarts to his face, thank-you-very-much), there were multiple references to Pratchett and Avatar: The Last Airbender as well. So if you’re not that nerdy, they might go over your head.
So three books in, I’m liking the London Met version of Urban fantasy, and it makes a nice change to hard-boiled detective work. It’s also proven to be an excellent way to spend the time during the lockdown. If they continue to stay on sale, I’ll keep on racing through them.