Magic on the Police Beat: Ben Aaronovitch’s Peter Grant/Rivers of London Series

I love the idea of a Hugo Award for a series. It feels past due. For me, this award covers a slew of books that might otherwise fall through the cracks. As a matter of personal taste, I rarely vote for award for books that are past #1 in a series. It feels odd to reward a random book in the middle of a trilogy. And it’s hard (past #1) to judge a series book on purely its own merits — the rest of the books come bundled along in your mind and well, series have their ups and downs. So, for me,  it’s easy to not vote for Best Novel for a series book. I assume this is the case for other voters as well.

I love the idea of looking at a series as a whole: it gives you a chance to really assess the strengths/weaknesses without one book maybe tanking the rest.

The first works nominated for best series are:

  • The Craft Sequence, by Max Gladstone (Tor Books)
  • The Expanse, by James S.A. Corey (Orbit US / Orbit UK)
  • The October Daye Books, by Seanan McGuire (DAW / Corsair)
  • The Peter Grant / Rivers of London series, by Ben Aaronovitch (Gollancz / Del Rey / DAW / Subterranean)
  • The Temeraire series, by Naomi Novik (Del Rey / Harper Voyager UK)
  • The Vorkosigan Saga, by Lois McMaster Bujold (Baen)

Merrin covered The Temeraire series.

Whitney told you about The Expanse.

Kendra’s tackled The Vorkosigan Saga.

And yesterday, Casey discussed the October Daye series.

Now I’m going to talk about Peter Grant/Rivers of London series.

I chose this series because I have a history with it.  Not exactly a stunning history, but a history.  I hit book 3 and stopped cold, for reasons I will get into, but they’ve lingered in my mind. I was glad to have a reason to pick the series up again.

In the U.K., the books are also called the Rivers of London series because the first book was titled Rivers of London, but when it came to the US, the first book was renamed Midnight Riot. Whichever you call it, the series consists of:

6 novels

  • Midnight Riot (2011)
  • Moon Over Soho (2011)
  • Whispers Under Ground (2012)
  • Broken Homes (2014)
  • Foxglove Summer (2015)
  • The Hanging Tree (2017)

Graphic Novels:

  • Rivers of London: Body Work
  • Rivers of London: Night Witch
  • Rivers of London: Black Mould
  • Rivers of London: Detective Stories

As well as sundry short stories.

For my read, I considered only the novels, since I wasn’t sure if the Graphic Novels were included in the “series” blanket term.  This may have been a mistake.

The Peter Grant series is pure urban fantasy: an investigating character (in this case, an actual police constable) searches out a mysterious and magical enemy that must be stopped before people die/suffer/etc. It’s what I consider ur-Urban Fantasy (like Carnacki, the Ghost-Finder) and it’s my favorite type of UF.

The series has a lot of things to recommend it.

No significant spoilers.

Peter Grant, the main protagonist, is an appealing character. In the very first book, he’s a trainee PC, waiting for assignment to a department. He has high hopes of detective work; instead, he’s recommended for data entry. Support staff. He’d mope more about this, except he’s just spotted and spoken to his first ghost who happens to be a witness to a strange and brutal murder. I love that he’s honest and forthcoming about what he saw to his friend Lesley, and to a senior officer that he’s never met. Naturally, this senior officer is Thomas Nightingale, the sole magical policeman the force can muster, and he drafts Peter Grant into the Folly — the department of magic.

I love that when Peter’s disappointed by his posting, Lesley dishes out home truths that he accepts: he’s too distracted and too curious to make a career as a detective. He’s too unfocused. He wants to follow his nose and ask questions as they come to him. And I like that those traits are also what make him a good magician. He wants to know why and how and he pays attention to the things that other people ignore or fail to notice, and then he asks more questions after that. For me, a curious protagonist is my favorite kind of protagonist. He’s green, but not stupid.

I love this diverse London — no endless crowds of white upper class here. Multiple class levels, multiple races, multiple orientations, and so forth. It just feels like a solid reflection of a multicultural society and I love that. I like that Peter’s mum speaks Krio to him (and thus the reader) and that his father’s a heroin-addicted jazz musician. They’re all very clearly drawn people.

Side note: speaking of drawing, there was an embarrassing bobble on the American publisher’s part when this series first started. The cover for Midnight Riot originally featured a black man on the cover, then someone decided to obscure him?  Now the covers have just duplicated the British cover art instead which has no people at all, only maps of London. While I like the map art, I’m still leery of the publishers’ reasoning since there’s been such an inglorious history of white-washing sf/f covers.

I do love the world-building. Magical London, who doesn’t love that? The system of magic Aaronovitch postulates works nicely here, and he broadens and deepens it in every book. This means that not only does Peter Grant, apprentice, have constant learning to do — thus informing the reader — but so does his teacher, the long-lived Thomas Nightingale.

All too often, the wise old mentor is never wrong and knows everything about everything. Here, Nightingale is often surprised, and is also utterly willing to say, well, I didn’t know that. I like that a lot of the problems in this world — mad magicians running amok — happen because Nightingale assumed he knew things that turned out to be wrong. He assumed magic was fading away as science gained ascendancy. It isn’t. He assumed that no one was teaching “proper” Newtonian magic any longer: there was a whole club of people learning magic, and not for noble ends, either. Their primary enemy managed to get trained right under Nightingale’s nose without him realizing it.

Nightingale thinks women don’t really do magic, unless they’re hedge-witches with minimal power, or Rivers, who are minor goddesses. Yet, he learns that formal magic — powerful magic — has always been taught mother to daughter in England, and taught institutionally in other countries. We meet a Russian witch with a lot of power, who was one of many. We meet a mother and daughter pair who make up the second and third generation of remarkable witches, very strong and talented. So for a form of magic that started out as an “old boy’s club” system, it’s moved organically and encompasses everyone. There’s a quick, but nice little dialogue fumble when Nightingale tells Peter he’ll be his master, and Peter, a young black man, thinks, oh no you won’t. Nightingale learns and moves on.

I like the idea that the rest of the cops know about the Folly and magic, though they’d really rather pretend none of it exists.  When you have a “secret” police force in a series, it’s easy to ruin plausibility or story momentum by having characters have to hide things that would be of use to other people, or to have to maneuver their investigations awkwardly around the regular force. Plus, the whole irritating mess of “I have a secret but I can’t tell you.” Peter’s quite forthcoming about what he’s doing with the various police he has to interact with.

The details are consistently great. Peter is a police constable and even though he’s an erratic, specialized one, he’s still good on procedure. I love the mash-up of police procedure and the unaccountable chaos of magic.

Are they worthy of being the first Best Series Hugo?

Up above, I mentioned that I’d bounced off this series at Whispers Under Ground. This is true. Why? Because in Moon Over Soho, Peter Grant is hit with the stupid stick. Every series has a book that isn’t so hot, and unfortunately, Aaronovitch’s came second in the series. I’d spent the entirety of Midnight Riot learning that Peter always asks questions and that he pays attention to things other people miss. Then in Moon Over Soho, Peter stubbornly stays clueless to the dangers that the readers spot immediately, so it’s 200 plus pages of waiting for the protagonist to get a clue. It was a maddening experience. Then I picked up Whispers Underground and his friend Lesley’s name changed spelling between book 2 & 3. Coming right after the irritation of Moon over Soho, it felt like a weird red flag that the author couldn’t keep track of his own character’s name, so I bailed.

(Turns out his spelling was originally Leslie, but that the British publishers changed it to Lesley, and the American publishers didn’t, then fell in line with the British publishers after Moon Over Soho. Now I know.)

Once I got over the name change, I moved on. Whispers Under Ground thankfully was a return to previous Peter — who might be clueless, but was always asking questions and didn’t remain clueless for long. So I picked up momentum and raced through the rest of the books (though not the graphic novels).

The series is a lot of fun, but it’s not without its flaws.

The pacing is erratic. While Peter is always entertaining company, sometimes the cases he’s supposed to be working feel chopped up between trivial distractions rather than vice versa. Like Peter, sometimes the books’ focus wander. The magical system seems to falter when it comes to the fairy peoples — partly because Nightingale and Peter know so little about them, but also, because it just feels murky, like Aaronovitch couldn’t write the books without fairies (as part of the British landscape), but hasn’t quite worked them out. I feel like the bad guy’s existence should be more arch-nemesis and less… irritant.

I didn’t read the graphic novels — just couldn’t get my hands on them in time — but I didn’t expect that to be a problem. I’m not sure if they’re the cause or not, but there are places where the continuity of the novels suffers odd gaps and a sense of absent story.

As an example, the Russian witch disappears between two books; one moment, she’s a prisoner at the Folly, the next book she’s no longer there.  Nightingale and Peter had discussed sending her back to Russia’s police, but did they? I don’t know; she’s just gone. Since one of the graphic novels is titled Night Witch, I have to assume she got dealt with in those pages. So that’s an irritant to the book readers. I stopped reading comics because there were too many other “related works” that needed to be read for a complete story. I really don’t like my books shifting that direction.

The primary flaw is one of familiarity. I said above, who doesn’t like books about magic London? Well, no one. Which is why there are so very many of them. Often these books hit a lot of the same story beats because the authors are mining the same sources — magical societies, underground peoples, faeries, genii loci, mayhem and magical murder, and so on and so forth. Aaronovitch’s books are a lot of fun, but are they really substantially different/better than Gaiman’s Neverwhere, Paul Cornwell’s Shadow Police series, Kate Griffin’s Matthew Swift or Magicals Anonymous series, Benedict Jacka’s Alex Verus series, or Caitlin Kittredge’s Black London series?  Those are just the magical London books I can recall off the top of my head.

Do Aaronovitch’s Peter Grant books stand out in that pack?  It’s the award question that’s at stake here.  There’s no doubt that I enjoy these books, but should they win the first best series award?

I’m going to go with no. Primarily because the field for this Best Series Hugo is really impressive.

That doesn’t mean these books aren’t fun. They are. Even when they meander around the storyline. I’m going to keep reading them (at least until they catch The Faceless Man and resolve Lesley’s plot), but I’d rather see the new Hugo award go to Max Gladstone.

For a scary peek at how my brain works: this is my thinking about how I’d vote (if I were voting this year), and how I think the chances shake out top to bottom.

The Vorkosigan Saga is impressive as hell, but a new award for an old series? Even one that’s ongoing and ongoing? On the other hand, it really is a saga and well-loved and respected, and Bujold deserves awards. It has a significant chance at winning.

The Expanse: well-worth an award. I wouldn’t be sad if this series won, not at all. It might be a tie for front-runner, just because even people who haven’t read it might have watched it.

Temeraire: I personally found them uneven, and couldn’t keep moving forward. I also know other people are devoted to and passionate about the series.

The Craft Sequence: this is a second world urban fantasy that’s fresh and exciting and constantly surprising to me. Gladstone’s getting to explore his complicated world by shifting protagonists and exposing different parts of the world until they mesh.

The October Daye series.  I adore Seanan McGuire’s writing. I’d love to see this one win just for the rose goblins alone. McGuire has a real talent for taking the tried and true (Fae, in this case) and reframing it so it feels fresh. On the other hand, urban fantasy is kind of the red-headed step-child of fantasy novels.  (A fact that never stops causing me pain, since it’s my favorite division of the genre.)

Peter Grant/Rivers of London: Pacing issues, and a nagging sense of I’ve seen this before drag it down as an award-contender.

It’s a powerful pack of contenders, and I’d feel happy recommending any of these books for people to read. But for an award? Sadly, I think the Peter Grant/Rivers of London series falls short.

7 Comments

  • Shara White August 2, 2017 at 7:05 am

    I read Midnight Riot and enjoyed it well enough, but I guess not enough to keep going with the series. I was a little surprised to see this one make the ballot, but that said, I am very glad to see urban fantasy make the Hugos.

    I do adore what start out as the official UK cover art and is now the standard cover art for the series. To me, it was always so much more eye-catching, but that’s my preference.

    Reply
    • Lane Robins August 2, 2017 at 9:40 pm

      A little surprised sums my feelings up as well. It’s not that these books are bad by any stretch of the imagination. It’s just that they’re so familiar. But hey, two urban fantasy series on the list!

      Reply
  • Weasel of Doom August 2, 2017 at 11:09 am

    I really enjoy the Rivers of London and Craft Sequence books, but my heart belongs to Toby (well, to Tybalt, if we are totally honest 🙂

    Reply
    • Casey Price August 2, 2017 at 9:18 pm

      I love her Tybalt stories! Best part of Patreon, for me. I hope they get collected into a single volume one day *keeping fingers crossed*

      Reply
  • Casey Price August 2, 2017 at 9:17 pm

    I honestly think that the award will probably go to either Bujold (which sort of pains me) or Gladstone (which I would be fine with). Not that Bujold is bad, but it just seems like the OBVIOUS choice, you know?

    Reply
    • Lane Robins August 2, 2017 at 9:38 pm

      Agreed on Bujold. I’d rather see her win a grandmaster or something. I’ll be interested to see how this shakes out.

      Reply
    • Shara White August 3, 2017 at 9:58 am

      Bujold, as much as I’ve enjoyed what I’ve read of that series, has already won Hugos for it. So that’s a big nope from me.

      Reply

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