Recent Reads: Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch

Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch (published by Gollancz in 2011) is the first book in an urban fantasy series set in, you guessed it, London. But this book is also known as Midnight Riot in the US.

Peter Grant was a probationary constable in the Metropolitan Police Force (otherwise known as the Met). Peter was dreaming of being a detective but he’s not exactly the best policeman in the world and he’s mainly trying to avoid a transfer to the worst department with a lifetime of paper shuffling.

One night, Peter and his fellow probationary constable, Lesley, get the exciting job of securing the scene of a beheading outside St. Paul’s Cathedral. During his night watch, Peter meets a man who claims to be a ghost and the ghost explains how he witnessed the crime. Thinking nothing of it, Peter takes the ghost’s statement.

This unusual encounter leads Peter to meet Inspector Nightingale, a man out of step with the twenty first century and the last practicing wizard in England. Nightingale is also in charge of investigating and dealing with anything paranormal uncovered by the Met

Given Peter’s skill with taking a statement from a ghost, Nightingale takes Peter on, announcing that magic is real and that the police and government know all about it. Peter is sceptical at first but glad to get away from the threat of a desk job.

Under Nightingale’s tutelage, Peter becomes a Detective Constable and a trainee wizard. His position with Nightingale is 24/7 and Peter moves in with Nightingale into an old mansion called the Folly filled with artefacts and the rather strange mute housekeeper, Molly.

As his lessons progress and Peter sees more and more of the paranormal side of London, doubt never quite leaves him, there is always a part of him questioning his powers and wanting the scientific answer.

But this isn’t Harry Potter, there’s blood and guts and a little hanky-panky and there is still a crime to be solved. A presence is lurking in London, causing innocent people to go homicidal and their faces to collapse into an unrecognisable mess. 

Rivers of London is a police procedural crime story with wizards, river deities, magic and supernatural housekeepers. The setting and characters in Rivers of London reflects the true diversity of modern day London and Peter himself is mixed race.  

Rivers of London treads the line between reality and fantasy well, including many real details about the folklore and history of London. There is an interesting sub plot running alongside the solving of the crime, about the rivalry between the river spirits of London, Father Thames is an old white guy with a beard, while Mama Thames is a Nigerian woman with three daughters, and Peter is particularly taken with the sexy Beverly.

It’s funny and witty, written by a former Dr Who writer. Aaronovitch is most well recognised for his episode Remembrance of the Daleks and Battlefield for Colin Baker as Dr Who. Any Dr Who association gives extra bonus points from me.

People might liken the Rivers of London to Jim Butcher’s Dresden files – which is a long running urban fantasy series set in Chicago with a paranormal detective. The Dresden Files is more in an American noir tradition than Rivers of London. Whereas Rivers of London is more British and reminds me of British cop/detective TV shows and police procedural novels like The Bill or Inspector Morse, Dalziel & Pascoe, Rebus or perhaps Jonathan Creek, with a paranormal twist.

As I grew with the British cop shows and novels and have a love of wry British humour, the Rivers of London appeals to me more than the Dresden Files. Peter is a lot less cool than Dresden, he doubts himself and his abilities, has unrequited crushes and awkward dalliances, all with a healthy dose of British self-deprecation.

Rivers of London is the first of a series, including Moon Over Soho, Whispers Under Ground, Broken Homes and The Hanging Tree.

If you like paranormal cops, self-deprecating humour, London history and action, please check out Rivers of London.

This book review first appeared as on Madeleine’s Speculative Fiction Review radio show on artdistrict-radio. Listen to the podcasts here.

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1 Comment

  1. Danielle K Girl

    I loved this book! It was laugh out loud in many parts for me at least. I really must get around to the next one, some day soon.

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