I’ve been vaguely aware of the Peter Grant series for a while now but it was only a trip to the library in desperate search of something to read on a long plane trip (to Hawai’i – still recovering from jetlag…) that made me pick up Rivers of London, the first of these hybrid police procedural/fantasy books.
PC Peter Grant is just starting out in the police. Still on probation, he and colleague WPC Lesley May are sent to guard a crime scene after a body is discovered missing its head right in the middle of Covent Garden. When Lesley goes to get coffee to ward off the cold, a mysterious witness shows up. Mid questioning, Peter realises that the man is transparent: he’s actually talking to a dead man. During his attempts to track down the ghost for further questions, he encounters Detective Chief Inspector Thomas Nightingale and is recruited to the Folly, official home of English magic (founded by Sir Isaac Newton no less) and a secretive department of the Met police force.
CCTV seems to show that the murder was committed by a man who was able to change his face. Magic is clearly involved and so Grant and Nightingale begin their investigations as more violent deaths occur in prominent locations close to Covent Garden. As if this wasn’t enough, a dispute begins between Father and Mother Thames, and Peter is sent in as mediator, attempting to negotiate with both sets of followers without becoming bewitched, a very real danger.
As well as the obvious magical qualities of the novel, Aaronovitch presents a story populated with diverse characters which sets it apart from the everyday police procedural. Peter himself is mixed race, and Mama Thames and her followers are all black. As far as the tricky question of authors writing outside of their race, I think Aaronovitch does a decent job. Certainly, POC characters in this genre seem, with my limited reading, to be few and far between, and I’d rather someone made an effort than just white washed London or had token minor POC characters that they don’t have to worry too much about. Apart from being a bit heavy handed with reminding the reader that he’s not white, Grant reads as a pretty authentic character and not just a ‘by numbers’ idea of what a mixed race copper would be.
The other main character is London itself. It’s clear that Aaronovitch loves his home city, and the investigation takes in huge swathes of London, from Bloomsbury and the Folly’s Russell Square location, up to Hampstead and across to Richmond and beyond. Without it becoming an information dump, the geography of the city is brought to life and is a perfect fit with the Thames plot in particular. In terms of world building, there is enough here to form a picture of this new London underworld without the book becoming a pure set-up for the rest of the series.
All of which brings me on to my one negative point. There is almost too much going on here in terms of the plot. Perhaps because I was passing through multiple time zones, but I began to lose track of what was going on with the main plot: the murders. I sort of followed what was going on but there was a chapter or so where I was became completely lost but the pace kept me going. The subplot of the river dispute was much easier to follow – the characters involved were well drawn and involving compared to the ghosts who were far harder to grasp (sorry!).
Overall verdict – I’ve already got the next book, Moons over Soho, waiting for me at the library so safe to say, this is a series that has its claws in.