Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Review | Rivers of London - Ben Aaronovitch

This is a review I've been meaning to get to for a while, and it's still rather difficult to describe: even with my reread in the meantime. Rivers of London can definitely be pinned down as 'urban fantasy', but where within this broad label I should place it is a dilemma. Rivers is, for starters, very light and comical in tone, with some excellent moments of humour. It focuses on crime - but has far more of the police procedural than the detective. It's got some gory moments; some ghosts; a dash of alternate history (with Newton systemising magic); and a healthy handful of negotiation. In this case, between two feuding gods of the river Thames. Rivers of London essentially affects a genre mashup of its own, and it's a fresh, fun combination.

Rivers follows the life of one PC Peter Grant, a policeman coming to the end of his probationary period: and his superior is insisting he could make 'a valuable contribution' by being placed in the only department solely devoted to paperwork (motto: we do paperwork so real coppers don't have to). But while on overtime, Grant insists on taking a witness statement from a ghost - and before he knows it, he's the apprentice of Detective Inspector Nightingale: the last wizard in England. And he's got plenty of work to do. The God and Goddess of the Thames are feuding over territory. And something supernatural is causing anonymous passers-by to murder each other according to a very familiar script...

I'm in two minds about Rivers of London, mainly because of the dramatic shift in tone midway through. The first section of the book is wonderful: Peter Grant's narration pulls the flippant, lightly comic tone off perfectly, with some fantastic moments (particularly when he believes they're preparing him for a transfer to Trident, the insanely dangerous project tackling gun crime in the black community, and wards this off by breaking out with 'I don't like rap music' in the middle of a career talk). The investigation, likewise, is pulled off well: Aaronovitch mingles conventional police procedural elements with those of his magic (sensing vestigia - magic traces of emotions/sensations - in the mortuary, for instance). And the feuding gods of the river make an interesting side plot, which accustom the reader to a much greater magical influence than that of many urban fantasies in similar sub-sub-genres. I mean, Nigerian Goddesses of the Thames? Go for it! On the other hand, the second part of the book rejects a lot of these elements: the focus is much more on the crime investigation, and while this is quite enjoyable, Grant's narration becomes much less quirky and interesting, sticking much more to simply relaying the facts. There's also more graphic description of quite horrific events - while normally I'm fine with these (GRRM's ASOIAF is hardly kind to its characters), sometimes this just felt superfluous: simply thrown in for an extra thrill or two, and this reduced the book's excellent style. The resolution is also a little anticlimactic compared to the riotous climax. Might just be me, but I felt that the method used to establish the primary resolution was introduced a little late in the book.

Despite this, Rivers of London certainly qualifies itself as a fun read - it's not complex, the magic system isn't quite as original as some, but nevertheless, the tone more than makes up for it. It's not quite Dresden Files standard, but if you like your fantasy with a touch of crime and the detective, Rivers is more than worth picking up.


Rivers of London at Amazon: Rivers of London

Have you read this book, or know any similar novels? Feel free to comment and tell me!


  1. Rivers of London (or Midnight Riot, as I got to see it) felt like old school urban fantasy, akin to older Charles deLint or Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere - where a normal person finds out there is all this weird stuff happening right before their eyes and they get sucked into it and have to find a balance between their regular mundane life and the "underworld" (for lack of a better term). the new UF doesn't do much for me.

    I really enjoyed Rivers of London. It was well paced, kept my attention, had me laughing out loud right from the start, I LOVED the gods and goddesses of the rivers, which exactly as you said, gives the reader a feeling of a much larger world of supernatural influence. I'm happy the next book is already out!

  2. I'm looking forward to this being released in paperback later this year. I like books that don't easily fit in one category.

  3. @littleredreviewer: You're right, actually - I hadn't realised the trend there. On the other hand, although lots of the new UF's sub-sub-genres (for lack of a better term) do little for me, I have enjoyed a number. The Dresden Files definitely fits into the latter category, but for its (admittedly few) flaws, they're fun reads.

    Regarding the next book, I'm eagerly anticipating reading it as well! The synopsis looks original, and the notion of a deeper motive on the part of Grant - revenge - should lead to some interesting developments, and avoid the plot becoming a formula applied to every book in the series (something which can happen with novels containing a crime/mystery component, as well as with conventional fantasies). Can't wait to read it!

    @ Ellie: I'd be interested to know your thoughts when you read it - as you say, there cross-genre reads are often the most interesting.

  4. Good review...sounds like a good book.

    I also have a new giveaway posted.

    Stop by if you like.


  5. The resolution is also a little anticlimactic compared to the riotous climax. Might just be me, but I felt that the method used to establish the primary resolution was introduced a little late in the book. serviced apartments london

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