Rivers of London  - Ben Aaronovitch Midnight Riot - Ben Aaronovitch

Midnight Riot (Peter Grant, #1)


Ben Aaronovitch

 Midnight Riot is a fantastic debut. It's as if you took a generous serving of Terry Pratchett, half a cup of Dresden Files, a slosh of Doctor Who, a tablespoon of Inspector Dalgliesh, a pinch of Harry Potter, and a sprinkle of Lord Peter Wimsey, mixed well, poured into a police procedural, and baked up a brand new set of original characters.

Constable Peter Grant is a young by-the-book copper, but he has the intelligence and creativity to question the rules around him. Leslie, Peter's love interest and friend, is practical and down to earth, and I totally love the fact that I have not been subjected to descriptions of her body ad nauseum. The other characters are solid mystery stock; Inspector Nightingale, Peter's boss and mentor, is the mysterious mentor, and the antagonists among the police are the standard antagonistic, rigid bureaucracy characters. There is also a small, barky, spunky little dog, and Aaronovitch makes the most of the interactions between Toby the dog, pretentious wizards, and creepy vampires--absolutely hilarious.

The book is described on the cover as a mixture of Harry Potter and a police procedural, and that really is a very apt description. Peter discovers that magic is real and all around, and that there has been a small, magic-specializing branch of the police for hundreds of years. He also begins to experience the world--there are trolls under bridges, vampires committing home attacks, and river deities living all around the city (why the British title, Rivers of London, is much more appropriate).

I will now commit my usual sin of comparing every urban fantasy I read to Jim Butcher's Dresden Files. In Midnight Riot, however, I'm not alone; in an interview, Aaronovitch admitted that his original idea was quite close to TDF; after finding out about them, he sat down, read them, and made significant changes to his own story. He succeeded: the tone is definitely that of a police procedural, and Peter Grant is no Dresden clone. As characters, their approaches are totally different. Dresden is a geek, but not, in my opinion, a nerd. He uses magic like an engineer: he cares about constructing a solution to a particular problem, not about the deep inner working of the system. Peter Grant, on the other hand, is a scientist: knowing that something works is never enough. He wants to know why. It is this "why," that for me, delineates the nerd. Compare their approaches to technological destruction. In both books, active spells destroy technology; in TDF, Dresden describes himself as "the living embodiment of Murphy's law" where technology is concerned. He primarily cares about effects, not causes, and learns how to augment the effects to destroy technology at will. When Peter discovers the effect, on the other hand, he determines exactly what part of the technology has been destroyed, and then sets up experiments to determine at what distance the effects occur. He then tries to isolate the precise phenomenon, buying a set of identical calculators, performing magic with approximately the same intensity from various distances, and attempting to isolate the cause. I adored Peter's descriptions of his experiments. As a computer scientist in the school of engineering, I enjoy both perspectives. It is definitely an enjoyable read to have a character who cares about the deeper mechanics of his world.

I had two major issues with the world that Peter is thrown into. First, the supernatural creatures, to me, lack "magic." Even if supernatural creatures take the guise of humans, I want them to be inherently inhuman: an inhuman perspective, inhuman skills, and a sense of naturalness in the creature's demesne. However, in Aaronovitch's world, the troll looks like a bum and never does anything that differentiates himself from one. The river deities appear to really be fully encapsulated in their human form. From the little we see, wizards may do magic, but they still use all "standard" technology; magic hasn't really changed their world. I think that is really the problem: the supernatural should really warp the way the world is experienced; it really hasn't here. I was left feeling that rather than building a new world, Aaronovitch had slapped a few superficial fantastical elements on top of our own. However, this was just the first book--it's entirely possible that the world will expand and take on richness and depth.

Aaronovitch took an interesting route in how magic is perceived by society. Society in Aaronovitch's world is the same as ours: magic is not accepted as true. Similar to Jim Butcher's Dresden Files and Rowling's Harry Potter, however, magic is a norm for a subpopulation: there are countless books from magic practitioners, the Germans apparently utilized magic in WWII, and more. However, unlike the Dresden Files and Harry Potter, magic is readily accepted by quite a few non-magicians. Even more problematic, it sounded to me like magic was a skill rather than an innate talent. This seems to me to create a host of logical fallacies. Butcher and Rowling got away with the construction of secret societies by having only a small part of the population even be able to do magic; they are therefore treated with alternating derision and suspicion by everyone else. In this world, since magic is apparently well-known enough to be accepted in government, and no one goes out of their way to keep it secret, how is it not ubiquitous? If magic is possible for all, where are all the self-learned wizards? In fact, the book doesn't even show us a magical sub-society. We only meet one wizard, Nightingale. If magic is truly as established as the countless books and years of research indicate, where are all the other wizards? Where are their rules and society? I felt that this was a massive breakdown in logic and I really couldn't get past it.

I loved the novel's voice. It had a fantastically dry wit and did a brilliant job capturing Peter's environment. Peter grew up in London and knows all of the moods of the city. With his Sierra Leonan heritage and his father's past as a jazz musician, he has an interesting voice and perspective without resorting to the standard UF tragic childhood trope. It was, however, definitely a first novel; to me, the pacing seems a little off and I thought the flow of the narrative isn't quite right for a mystery. For example, at one point, Grant realizes why an explosion occurred. However, rather than giving us the information we need to guess along with Grant, he tells us he figured it out, then jumps back in time and explains his research and how it him to his conclusions. It is exactly how a person would tell a story in conversation, but it's not how the story should be told as a novel. I also felt that the long time frame(I think a year or more) tended to dissipate the suspense. I think this made the pacing feel disjointed to me: one minute, a nailbiting adventure, the next, a trip to the countryside or a lesson in magic, then a multi-week break. However, I love Aaronovitch's turn of phrase and wry descriptions. He has a very Pratchetty/Doctor Whoish sense of humor and a great edge of cynicism. Like Pratchett, there are dozens, maybe hundreds, of absolutely hilarious passages. There were several times when I nearly laughed out loud.

Overall, this is a great read. Rather than another Dresden Files clone, it really has the feel of a police procedural and a very satirical and quintessentially British tone. Definitely recommended for fans of both Butcher and Pratchett.