Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch

There must be a million ‘What if Harry Potter was a…?’ written every year. I imagine a tiny fraction actually gets published. Rivers of London is essentially what if Harry Potter was an ordinary rookie police constable. Meet probationary constable Peter Grant, working for the Metropolitan Police in London (clue in the title). He’s about to be shipped off to a less desirable branch of ‘the filth’ and has an unrequited crush on colleague Lesley. And then the novel starts when a routine assignment to a murder scene with the aforementioned WPC takes the supernatural turn that it must, when a ghost steps forward as a witness. What follows is the traditional opening plot of a series. The world is stranger than you think. There’s a branch of the police that deals with this sort of thing. There’s an Inspector who is really a wizard and is older than you think. As is standard in this style of fiction, we learn that the world is full of supernatural along with our hero, as he learns how to be an apprentice wizard while the murder investigation reveals more of the darker side of London and magic. And it’s not just ghosts and magic, but vampires and gods exist too. Now, before you read too much between my lines of apparent scorn, let me rewind a tad. I enjoyed this story. Sure, it’s full of cliché and exposition, and the mystery protagonist is fairly obvious early on, but it really is a lot of fun. In the tradition of fantasy aimed at a more mainstream audience, it is a definite page turner. And it is aimed at the mainstream, rather than the dedicated urban fantasy geek. Although don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty for that audience to enjoy too. There are references to The Krays and Star Wars and football. The setting is not really the seedy, darker underside of London crime, but a slightly tarnished surface, like a kettle with a little lime scale. It is almost twee in its suburbaness. This is no world of John Constantine or Matthew Swift, or even Harry Dresden. This is a new sub-sub genre, the suburban fantasy. The plot takes place around London’s tourist destinations, presumably in an attempt to not alienate non-Londoners. But there’s nothing wrong in that. Everything has its place. Aaronvitch has previously written for TV, including Dr Who, so it’s not surprising he knows how to turn populist tricks. Rivers of London, while weighed down in cliché, is balanced by a wealth of interesting and refreshing ideas. The concept behind the piece, that London’s rivers have what are essentially avatars with personalities to match is an excellent one, and thoroughly fleshed out. The murder investigation is almost a side-plot to the story of the Rivers. There is decent humour throughout the book, although I wouldn’t say it was a comic novel. I particularly liked the reference to only journalists enjoying a riot. The characterisation is interesting and has depth. People don’t always act the way you expect, and their motivations appear to ring true. And that, I guess, is why the novel works. Sure, you can have a hackneyed plot that is a rollicking adventure, but you need to go with the characters in order to get anything out of the book. You need to understand their conflicts and histories. You need to give a… This is what I would call a bubblegum book, not really about anything, not even living in London. But it is fun. Rivers of London was released early in 2011 and its sequel, Moon over Soho is already out, with a further Peter Grant adventure due out later this year. Worth catching, because we can’t live on broccoli alone.

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