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What’s Adam Reading? Rivers of London

I’m starting a new tradition on this blog.

I read a lot of genre fiction. I’ve been trying to limit myself to a book a week recently, because if I don’t I tend to rack up hundreds of dollars a month in payments to the Kindle e-book store, which I buy from because I’ve run out of room on every shelf in my house and I’ve read everything in the sci-fi and fantasy section in the local library. In optimal conditions I can burn through your average genre novel in less than a day. When I say I read “a lot,” that’s the scale of the problem I’m talking about.

Most of the time when I finish a book I feel a sense of satisfaction, think about the plot for a bit until it’s all nice and tidy in my mind, and then move on with whatever else is going on in my life. Sometimes, though, a book grabs me by something deep inside, and doesn’t let go. I think about the plot, turning events this way and that in my head, trying to see the motivations for the characters in each scene and the subtext that sets up a twist later on. When a story has really gotten its hooks into me I daydream my way into the world, setting myself up in my mind as a wizard or rogue agent or whatever and interfering in the plot. I write rants that I want to deliver to the characters, or questions that I want to ask them, and barely restrain myself from writing terrible self-insert fanfics.

When I find a book like that, one that becomes part of my personal pantheon of literature, I always want to talk about it afterward. I rarely can because I’m usually reading stuff that no one else I know has read, and if they have it wasn’t recently and they don’t remember the details. So when I was seized by that desire yet again and was trying to think of where I could talk at length about books that I’d read and really enjoyed, it occurred to me that I have a blog, and what else are blogs for if not pointless pontificating?

For my inaugural “What’s Adam Reading?” post I’d like to talk about the series that inspired me to write it. It’s called either Rivers of London or PC Peter Grant depending on whether you go by what most people seem to call them or what Amazon’s listings say, and it’s absolutely fantastic. I read all six novels, three comic anthologies, and a novella over the course of the past month or so, and I’m dying to talk about them.

This post will attempt to be as spoiler-free as possible, with me talking about spoilers in hidden sections throughout (click on a spoiler box to expand the text inside of it). If you haven’t read the series (and I mean the entire series, because I will be mentioning how particular books tie into later novels), don’t read the spoilers, because these books have some seriously major ones.

 

Overall Summary

Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch is an urban fantasy police procedural series with a fantastic sense of place, a lovely dry noir-snark narration style, and an occasional sidestep into bloody madness and violence. It’s always a pleasure when I read a book and realize that I couldn’t have possibly written it myself, and Rivers of London is definitely in that category thanks to the sheer amount of detail that Aaronovitch puts into his magic-infused city. It’s patently obvious that the man lives and breathes London. Each book in the series contains sections describing the history of some narrow corner of the city, how it came to be the way it is today and what weird little eccentricities it has that don’t get covered on Wikipedia. In one book there’s an author’s note at the back mentioning that he added a building to the skyline in a specific spot between two other buildings, and in another he apologizes for having the wrong show playing on a TV in a specific scene. The attention to detail is like none other. You basically need a map of the city and a book on British folklore sitting beside you as you read, it’s that good. He also has a seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of British police procedures, and explains all the complicated bits in a way that ends up being fascinating instead of deadly dull.

As if that weren’t enough, the characters are delightfully well-developed. Constable Peter Grant, the main protagonist, is an excellent narrator, witty and curious and not prone to angsting unnecessarily about things until his friends point out that bottling his emotions in like that isn’t really healthy. There’s a lot of really solid subtext going on behind his narration that lets you pick up on his emotional state, but he never comes out and says that he’s specifically feeling anything, which is such a refreshing way to use a first-person narrator. A lot of authors I’ve found use first person as an excuse to monologue about the character’s emotional state, because when you’re looking out from behind a character’s eyes you can dig into their head as far as you want to go. You won’t find any of that here, for the most part. Pay attention to Peter’s unconscious physical reactions to events, and before long you’ll find that you can read him like you’d read someone that you knew very well in real life. It feels like you’re making a new friend instead of reading about a character in a book.

Quick summary of the series plot before we get into the individual books: A freshly-minted copper from the London Metropolitan Police gets inducted into an ancient and secret order of wizards and slowly sets about turning them into a proper magical police department. Along the way there’s love, murder, betrayal, conspiracy, science, magic, and a lot of acronyms.

Pay attention to the details with this one. That’s where the real story gets told.

 

Midnight Riot

Usually I don’t appreciate the practice of publishers renaming British books for the American release. It’s confusing and I usually wind up disagreeing with the decision (especially egregious in the case of one of my favorite fantasy novels, Daniel Polansky’s Low Town, which was called The Straight-Razor Cure in the British release, a title that is so absolutely better than what they went with that I can’t even begin to understand what they were thinking). In this case, however, I think changing the name of the book from Rivers of London to Midnight Riot wasn’t a bad move, because Rivers of London doesn’t really tell you much about the book while Midnight Riot is a lot more evocative. I like Rivers of London as the series name, but to really kick things off good an proper let’s go with the riot.

The book opens with PC Peter Grant of the Metropolitan Police interviewing a ghost about a murder that just occurred. Since ghosts aren’t allowed to be witnesses in a modern courtroom, he goes off seeking more substantial evidence, and is subsequently inducted into the Folly, Britain’s very small magical crimes division. Most of the characters who will be main players in the rest of the series are introduced here–the senior cops Stephanopoulos and Seawoll, Constable Lesley May (spelled “Leslie” in my version of this book, and then Lesley in every one thereafter, for some reason), the unnervingly cheerful Doctor Walid, Molly the inhuman maid, and of course Thomas Nightingale, the gentleman wizard with a whole lot more in his past than most other people have. Something’s causing mayhem and murder about London town, and this pack of police has to figure out how to stop it.

It’s a good, solid read, and a great introduction to the characters. Some parts of it are a little rough, I thought, but further explanation and explorations of the different themes and characters in later books really manage to patch over any holes this one might have. Everything comes back around, and everything has consequences that are carried over to the rest of the series, even the little things that you wouldn’t expect to get picked up again.

By itself, it’s a really good book. But I probably wouldn’t be here writing about it if this were the only one in the series that I’d read. If you pick this up and decide you like the narration style and the sort of whimsical and bloody magical world that it presents, then I highly encourage you to invest some time in the rest of the series, because it only gets better.

 

Moon Over Soho

In the second book those little character details that were developed in book one get put to good use, as a large portion of the plot focuses on the London jazz scene, which Peter’s father is heavily involved in. Psychic jazz music is rising from a corpse that showed up in Doctor Walid’s morgue, and Peter would like to know why. In a seemingly unrelated case that he’s been called in to consult on as the resident expert in freaky stuff, someone is going around biting people’s dicks off with a vagina dentata. Bloody murder and other kinds of murder are being committed in the old city, and our heroes had best catch the perpetrators before they claim any more victims.

Also, Peter’s dad is resurrecting his jazz career and has quit his heroin habit. Good for him. He seems like a pretty cool dude.

On a non-plot-related note, in my copy of this book the character Leslie’s name changes to Lesley, which it remains for the rest of the series. Also, Stephanopoulos’ name changes to Stephanopolis (consistently, it’s not just a one-off typo), and then changes back for the rest of the series. This probably doesn’t have any significance, but I figured I’d note it so you’d know you weren’t going insane if you decide to pick up the US Amazon Kindle copies and notice that yourself.

 

Whispers Underground

An American has been murdered in London, and everyone from the FBI to the boy’s New York state senator father is dropping in to demand answers. Stephanopoulos decides that the case smells like magic, and so Peter Grant and the Folly show up to investigate a mystery in London’s surprisingly roomy sewer and underground subway system. Fun fact: all (or at least most) of the tunnel-based shenanigans that occur in this book are truth in television. The London Underground really is that big and weird.

Meanwhile, the main plot of the series begins with an investigation into a villain from the previous book. This plot thread takes a back seat to the main murder investigation, but bits and pieces of it crop up from time to time as Lesley and Peter work their way through a lengthy list of suspects.

This is another really solid mystery / police procedural book. It doesn’t push the main plot of the series forward that much, but that’s okay–there’s no real urgency to that yet. My advice is to sit back and enjoy the ride.

 

Broken Homes

The fourth book in the series is a bit of a departure from the previous ones in that there doesn’t seem to be an overarching mystery at first. It appears to be a bunch of little events happening over the course of several months throughout the magical underworld of London, ranging from a fun spring festival to a mysterious murder or two that doesn’t get followed up on due to lack of evidence. The main plot of the book is running in the background, and it takes a while to come together. It felt like a picaresque sort of approach to writing a police procedural, which I liked in retrospect but at the time did leave me wondering when we were going to get to the plot.

And then the ending tore my fucking heart out, and by God that was when I knew I’d be thinking about this series for a long time to come. I finished Broken Homes just past midnight on Sunday July 9th, and couldn’t sleep afterwards. It was after this that I decided that I had to actually go and read the comic series, the novella, and everything else associated with the books.

 

Body Work: Comic Series

This one was the first comic series published for the Rivers of London. I got the collected edition, which I bought in digital form on Amazon and read on my iPad. Chronologically it’s set after Broken Homes, and overall is a basic straightforward magic investigation story. Some of the characters are drawn differently than I’d pictured in my head–Stephanopoulos, for example, is described as having a brown flattop haircut in the books, and has a much different style in the comic. Peter didn’t look like I’d expected him to either, but after seeing him in the comic I don’t remember what I used to think he looked like, so that’s probably evidence that they did it right. And they basically pulled Thomas Nightingale out of my head and onto the page, which was satisfying. All of the art is really, really well done, I must say.

The story doesn’t have any connection to the main plot of the series, but it’s a solid police investigation adventure and definitely worth a read if you enjoy comics. No spoiler section here because I don’t think there’s much to talk about when it comes to the plot.

 

Foxglove Summer

The fifth book seems to be following the trend set by Whispers Underground, in that it’s a breather episode between the major plot books. Much like Whispers, the main plot of the series doesn’t crop up much except in the background, which was very disappointing to me after the shock of Broken Homes. I wanted resolutions to my cliffhangers, dammit.

Foxglove was a really good, twisty countryside mystery, but I couldn’t enjoy it as much as I wanted to because it all felt like a distraction from the stuff that had come up in the previous book, which I really wanted to see get resolved. It was a tremendously good police book, mind, combining cryptozoology, UFO hunting, child abductions, and a whole host of other goodies into a delightful package that was then doused liberally in Aaronovitch’s seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of British police procedure and the wonderful sense of place that infuses all of these novels. I really don’t want to give the impression here that it wasn’t a really good novel. It just had the misfortune of coming immediately after Broken Homes, right when I started wanting to follow the serialized storyline and lost patience with the episodic ones.

I also get the impression that Aaronovitch isn’t as familiar with the countryside of Britain as he is London. The small town that the story takes place in certainly does feel like a real place, but you can tell that some of the details have been filled in with a combination of stereotypes and quiet little jokes (like how every single pub in the country is an artisan localvore gastropub). That doesn’t make it bad, and he absolutely nails the specific procedural details of a desperate search for missing children, but it’s all painted in slightly broader strokes than usual.

 

Night Witch: Comic Series

This one is another standalone mystery, now with more crazy Russians and more insight into what the Night Witches unit in the Soviet’s WWII army was like. Everyone’s favorite Russian sorceress-for-hire, Varvara Sidorovna, is helping the Folly out with this one, and a few other old friends make unexpected appearances as the Folly investigates a child’s kidnapping that the parents, for different reasons, really don’t want being investigated by the police. As per usual it’s a delightfully twisty mystery.

Also, there’s a scene it in of Nightengale being a serious badass, which made for some really cool visuals.

 

Black Mould: Comic Series

A third stand-alone mystery comic series, available as of today in the collected format. I really enjoyed the mystery in this one, and also getting a visual look at a few characters who hadn’t appeared in the other comics. The titular black mold was suitably creepy and sinister, and it was a lot of fun to watch Constables Grant and Guleed trying to put the pieces of the puzzle together.

Not much else to say here that isn’t a spoiler. It’s a good, if short, mystery story.

Now that I’ve read all of the comics that are currently available in collected editions, and my mania for reading everything related to this series has calmed down a little bit, I’m not sure if I’ll bother following future comics in this series. They’re putting out issues of a fourth, called Detective Stories, but I don’t really want to spend that much money on something that I read so quickly. They’re great comics, beautifully drawn and with some good comedic and mystery beats, but I paid $13 today for a digital comic book that it took me an hour and a half to read through. Maybe two hours, if I were being generous. I’m not sure if that’s the best use of my money, all things considered, especially when the visual medium means that we don’t get as much of the humorous narration or strenuous attention to every last detail that makes the prose in the main series such a pleasure to read.

I dunno, maybe I’m just not as much of a comics guy as I am a novel guy. Or maybe I’ve been spoiled by free webcomics. Same result either way, really.

 

The Hanging Tree

After the countryside diversion of Foxglove, it felt really good to get back to the main plot. And goddamn, did things get plot-heavy right off the bat. Not everything gets resolved in this particular novel, but we do get a few proper dustups with some villains who have had it coming for a few books now, as well as some new ones who showed up just for the occasion. The plot starts off seemingly simple, and is then twisted and complicated to great effect as half a dozen magical entities and organizations descend upon London in search of a mystic MacGuffin from the time of Sir Issac Newton, complicating the investigation into an accidental drug overdose connected to the daughter of a very important figure in London’s magic scene.

It gets very difficult to say anything else about The Hanging Tree without spoiling details from previous books, so I’m going to continue the conversation in the spoilers section below.

 

Furthest Station

This one is another diversion from the main plot, but it’s a novella so that’s fine and justifiable. There’s ghosts on the Underground, and Peter’s going to team up with his cousin Abigail and his transit cop friend from Whispers to figure out why they’re harassing people. It’s a pretty straightforward little mystery plot, and I quite enjoyed it as a little episodic piece.

No release date yet on the next book, but I assure you I am awaiting it with bated breath.

In the meantime, I’ll have to find something else to read. The latest Laundry Files book by Charles Stross is out, and I’ve got a seven-hour plane ride tomorrow to go to a job interview in Seattle–maybe I’ll enjoy some more British urban fantasy on the trip, with a spies-and-Lovecraft flavor instead of Rivers of London’s police procedural vibe.

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