Friday, November 16, 2012

The Thing

I read Rivers of London around Halloween, but I never got around to posting my review. I thought it would be a perfect read for the time of year, combining the detective story with the fantasy genre. The plot basically revolves around a gruesome series of murders with a supernatural origin. Some thing is causing normal residents of London to go around brutally murdering each other. Police constable Peter Grant is present at the scene of the first murder, and when his friend goes off to get coffees for them both, a man walks up to Peter telling him he witnessed the crime. Only there’s a bit of a catch: the witness is a ghost.

And thus Peter soon finds himself working for a division of Scotland Yard that deals specifically with the supernatural. Only it’s not quite what it sounds like: there are literally only two people, counting Peter, working for this division, and it seems like half of Scotland Yard is in on the secret. Either way, author Ben Aaronovitch manages to write a good story, which isn’t quite fair-play detection but it isn’t in full cheat-the-reader mode either.

Rivers of London is an okay mystery. What else can I say? There’s nothing particularly brilliant or particularly stupid to distinguish it from the hundreds of other mysteries I’ve read. It’s merely an okay angle. The fantasy elements are a little bit better, though, as Peter Grant learns how Scotland Yard deals with such various things as vampire infestations and bitter quarrels between river spirits. I really liked how the arcane facts of London’s history are drawn upon in these fantasy elements. My one real complaint for this angle is that I felt the fantasy elements went a bit too far when Peter Grant becomes an apprentice wizard and learns magic. It smelled too much of Harry Potter, a series whose massive popularity I don’t particularly understand (though I don’t hold it any grudge). I was hoping such an element would be avoided, but alas it’s front-and-centre.

The one thing that I really liked about this novel, though, is the character of Peter Grant. His mother is African and she came to England and cleans offices for a living. His dad is a junkie who lies around the house and doesn’t do much of anything. Peter is a hard worker who shows plenty of intellectual curiosity about the world of magic into which he’s been thrust. He experiments with magic, tries to determine its properties, and theorizes for the reader about what his results might mean. Also, Peter is not Caucasian… but I’m really glad to say that this doesn’t define him as a character. He’s written first and foremost as a person, and the colour of his skin is merely incidental. Call me crazy, but I liked not having to sit through 300 pages of racial intolerance and a lecture on how cruel society is.

I read this book via audiobook, and there’s no way I would have gotten around to it any time soon if I hadn’t read the audiobook. But the audiobook is a two-edged sword, and I’m afraid that Rivers of London has one of the worst audiobooks I’ve listened to since An Unsuitable Job for a Woman. The reader talks so fast that I began to wonder whether I was keeping him from a dinner engagement—he rushes through all his lines and constantly mixes up the voices of the various characters. A woman will say a line, and then he’ll continue that softer pitched tone until about midway through the next line, where he suddenly realizes that he’s supposed to be doing his tough commissioner voice. And when Peter is theorizing about the properties of magic, the reader goes even faster than normal, as though he couldn’t control the rate of his speech. It also gets particularly bad at the climax; the reader seems to assume that the faster he talks, the more exciting it is, but it gets downright difficult to keep up. If I didn’t pay attention for five seconds, I could end up missing two chapters.

So if you are interested by the concept of Rivers of London – and it is a fun read – I recommend the book, but I recommend staying away from the audiobook. The mystery is okay, but the fantasy elements are pretty fun. The author shows plenty of skill in story construction, nicely integrating the two aspects together. The central characters are enjoyable. There’s just one last caveat I have about the book: it ends on a rather protracted, and not particularly funny, joke about male genitalia. It’s a bit gruesome. You have been warned.


  1. I think I liked this one a bit more than you (probably helps that I live in london and recognised all the locations and also that I haven't read the Harry Potter books as I am no great fan of that perticular approach normally) and am just about to start the second one in the series, MOON OVER SOHO (I haven't tried the aduiobook but Kobna Holdbrook-Smith reads both). I do like the humour and zest of Aaronovitch's writing, smethign which marked his TV scripts for DOCTOR WHO in the late 80s too. Aooarently this book was released in the US as MIDNIGHT RIOT, which is a really lousy title ...

    1. While a fun book, there's no way I'll be listening to the sequel any time soon, since the reading was truly atrocious and really detracted from my enjoyment. I suspect I might have liked it more if I had just read it, but honestly, I have too many books to read right now and there's no way I could have come around to it any time soon without the audiobook...