Whispers Under Ground - Ben Aaronovitch

Whispers Under Ground (Peter Grant, #3)


Ben Aaronovitch

 If you like urban fantasy and you haven't yet tried this series, do so. Now. The first book is Midnight Riot. Go find it. You'll thank me later. If you haven't read the first two in the series, don't read my review. It doesn't contain any spoilers for this book, but no promises about the previous two.
It's nearly Christmas, but Peter Grant, intrepid copper and trainee wizard, has been thrown into a case that is definitely lacking in holiday cheer. An American student has been murdered in the London Underground, stabbed in the back with the fragments of a magical ceramic pot, and mysterious figures have been glimpsed in the bowels of London. And that means Peter is going to have to divert his concentration from finding the identity of the evil wizard stalking the London streets to do a little urban caving in the underground and sewers. Soon enough, he's up to his knees in it--literally and figuratively.

I loved so many things about this book that it's difficult to even come up with a coherent list. First up is probably the diverse set of characters--and diverse in all meanings of the word, but without ever taking political correctness too seriously. Peter himself is half Sierra Leonean and has the refreshing tendency to describe the people around him without our horrifically ubiquitous white default. Other members of the cast include Constable Guleed, a family liason officer with an awesome sense of humour, a tendency to speak her mind, and a fondness for pairing her hijab with a furry hat with earflaps, Sergeant Kumar, a cave-obsessed nerd who handles all the "weird stuff" relating to the London Underground, and Lesley May, Peter's partner in anti-crime, who literally lost her face in a previous magic-related accident. I particularly appreciate Lesley's continuing plight. There is a general tendency in most novels to allow the sidekick to sustain horrific injuries but recover by the next book so that she can return to her role as handy hanger-on and Action Girl. Letting Lesley's injuries remain not only brings additional dimensions to her character but also an additional depth and realism to the world itself. Peter and Lesley's relationship melts even my stony heart. And I hope Aaronovitch has the integrity and bravery to leave her injured and scarred and let her develop relationships without magically becoming a beautiful Barbie again.

I also love Aaronovitch's London. He, perhaps more than any other urban fantasy author, stands out to me as using the city as a breathing entity in his novel. London comes alive as a character in its own right, and Aaronovitch's familiarity and affectionate irritation breathes life into the mentions of the city.

On the less serious side, I love Peter's wry voice and the humour of the book. It definitely appeals to fans of Terry Pratchett and Doctor Who--and there were a lot of shoutouts to both of these series. As an American, I loved the entrance of the humourless, suspicious, and gun-ready FBI agent and some of the pokes at our culture. The humour is my probably my favourite thing about the series, and this one delivers--I kept laughing out loud, both at the one-liners and ridiculous situations like a perp chase while wearing only a hospital gown (yes, that type of hospital gown), and since I read at the gym and laughing out loud there is incredibly embarrassing, it's a good indication of just how funny the book was.

There's only one thing that stops this book from being a 5 for me, and that's the worldbuilding. Being a humourless and bulldog-tenacious American, I just can't let go of the serious inconsistencies and contradictions I keep finding. To aid my argument, I'm going to compare it to two kitchen-sink worlds which still manage to maintain some amount of logic: Harry Potter's and Harry Dresden's.

One major difference, starting off, is in the history of magic in the world. In both Potter and Dresden's worlds, magic has always been hidden and knowledge of it has been actively protected. In both, at some point apparently before the Middle Ages, the "magical community" went underground and from that time forwards, did everything possible to hide itself from the Muggles. In Peter's world, on the other hand, magic has been around, and apparently openly discussed, for centuries. Renowned individuals such as Isaac Newton studied it and published books on it, apparently openly. And after all, Newton studied other "magical" properties like electricity and magnetism; given how magic is described in Peter's world, how is it any different? This openness continues: there were schools where you learned magic, you could get a first in it, people published books, during wars there were batallions made up of wizards, and people in the government knew about it and paid for special magical teams in the police and elsewhere. In other words, in all the facts we've been given about Peter's world, it seems that magic was open and accepted. So why didn't it change the world? Why is it hidden now? In Potter and Dresden's worlds, there's a reason why magic never became common knowledge: if a muggle finds out about magic, angry people come around and modify their memory, or, in Dresden's case, probably execute them.

The necessity for harsh measures against discovery and the reason why magic is not generally accepted in Dresden and Potter's world stems from the same fact: magic is restricted to "special people." Magic cannot be learned or transferred, and is therefore both a threat of the unknown and an unbelievable, unreproducible, unverifiable property. Because of this, in both, wizards formed a tight worldwide regulatory body to keep themselves secret. In Peter's world, on the other hand, magic is apparently available to anyone who wants to learn it. So why on earth aren't there wizards everywhere? How is it that there is no community of wizards? How is it that Peter knows no other wizards, and that kids aren't accidentally stumbling on magic every day of the week? It is apparently a difficult skill, and British wizards learn "Newtonian magic", but this "explanation" for why there aren't a billion wizards running around actually creates more contradictions than it solves. If that were true and Newtonian magic was basically the "only way", how come there are foreign wizards with totally different techniques? And since nothing is stopping people from teaching each other magic, why isn't it universal? Why isn't it universal in at least one country, and from there totally accepted?

Last, I love that Aaronovitch treats magic as a science, but this creates the biggest logical break of all. We have that magic is (a) universally available, (b) reproducible, and (c) initially studied at a time before other "magical" properties made their way into mainstream science. So why the heck isn't magic just another science in this world? Why would something that looks like a science and acts like a science and was recognized hundreds of years ago as a science be treated as something mystic and paranormal all of the sudden? This is the biggest logical fallacy to me, and I find it basically an offense to my intelligence as a reader that Aaronovitch hasn't even bothered to provide the slightest explanation for these massive gaps in logic: universal potential, yet no huge community of wizards and long history of openness and no resistance to acceptance, but apparently hidden.

One of the things I loved about this book and this series is that Aaronovitch tries to look critically at magic and describe it as a science. One of the biggest letdowns for me, therefore, was what I considered to be his totally illogical world construction. As an extremely OCD reader, I just couldn't get these discrepancies out of my mind when I read, and I admit that they poisoned quite a portion of the book for me. My irritation just keeps mounting with each book in which Aaronovitch fails to think through and explain the world. Even so, I kept reading and really loved basically everything else about this book. I highly recommend it to any reader who doesn't get bogged down by inconsistencies, and even recommend it to readers like me: despite a few irritations, you'll really enjoy it.