I feel like this book was loaned to me with so many disclaimers: it’s quite different to what you’re used to; it’s just another pace; it’s silly fun. This set up rather low expectations, so when I read this book and bloody loved it, I ended up being quite surprised. The Rivers of London is funny and smart and sharp and very well-plotted, mixing myth and whodunnit and fantasy with good old-fashioned police work.
Billed as “what happens if Harry Potter grows up and joins the fuzz”, Ben Aaronovitch combines wizardry with policework. Peter Grant is a probationary copper, who finds himself one evening taking a witness statement from a man who was already definitely dead, but surprisingly chatty. So instead of moving onto the Case Progression Unit – “We do paperwork so real coppers don’t have to” – Peter finds himself interned with Inspector Nightingale, the last wizard in England, working with Scotland Yard in a kind of agreed and resented gentlemen’s agreement: there is magic, and it can cause crimes too.
From here, a whole parallel world opens up around Peter. The gods of the rivers, practicing magic in a science lab, Isaac Newtown as the father of modern magic, vampires, and the energy that pulses through everything in the world, feeding and drawing on magic’s power. Through training with Nightingale, Peter starts to tap into the sensory experience of magic, the echoes of it remaining, the magic experience everything or one has had and what is left behind.
As Peter begins his internship with Nightingale, something is lurking in London, maliciously using people as puppets to act out its grotesque play of violence and pain. Grant is at the centre of of this horror running through the city, as the spirit of riot and rebellion awakens in the river networks, the river families, throughout London. Caught in a fire in Covent Garden, conveniently with one of the daughters of Mama Thames,
Beverly threw herself down and pressed her cheek to the floor. I saw her lips moving. I felt something pass through me, a sensation like rain, like the sound of boys playing football in the distance, the smell of suburban roses and newly washed cars, evening television flickering through net curtains.
And the writing just captures this all so well; for a fun and sharp whodunnit, it can be lyrical at times, beautifully laying out what it is to be a part of this world. One of these moments occurred when Peter meets the Father of the Thames:
He glanced up as we approached, frowning at the sight of Nightingale before turning his attention to me. I felt the force of his personality drag at me: beer and skittles it promised, the smell of horse manure and walking home from the pub by moonlight, a warm fireside and uncomplicated women.
What evocative and stunning moments are so immediately wrought on the page. I bloody love it, and stopped myself racing through at the traditional thriller reading pace to stop and appreciate how Aaronovitch writes.
The intersection between real police work and magic is a back and forth negotiation, creating a marvellous affect as we cross from, say, an autopsy at Westminster morgue to cryptopathology; knowing that a man died because his skull collapsed in, and then establishing that that happened because of extreme magic consuming the brain away from the inside.
This whole book felt fresh and wicked, well-plotted and addictive, a vivid thriller mixed with the spirit of fantasy. So funny and sharp, The Rivers of London pulls you into a mad world of a young cop finding his place, his odd boss, the girl he has a crush on, his frustrating job; but the wide, incredible world of magic is woven throughout. I can tell, despite all the forewarnings my friends gave me, that I am going to tear through the rest of the series.