Review: Whispers Under Ground

And so to book three of Ben Aaronovitch‘s Peter Grant series: see my reviews of book one and book two to catch up with the meta-story so far.

Whispers Under Ground is not the book I was expecting. I’m not sure what my expectations were, precisely: perhaps something focusing more on what seems to be the arc of the series. I should have known better. To reach the end-of-level baddie you must fight several skirmishes, and this is merely book three of n where n ≥ 6 (I’m three books behind the curve).

The arc features in Whispers, of course, as a subplot. Our protagonist Peter makes progress on the hunt for the big bad, with his mentor Nightingale and colleague Lesley.

The main plot is a murder-mystery, with a suitably magical twist. The son of an American senator is killed in a manner curious enough for the Met to call in their experts on the peculiar: Grant and chums. This is one of the things I love about the series. Magic and its attending weirdness is known within the Met, to those in the higher echelons at least. It’s not something they especially want civilians to catch on to, and Peter Grant’s adventures in previous books have become a little too high profile for those with the peakiest of caps.

Nevertheless they need him. And he needs them, for they can bring the corporeal might of the force into play when some old-fashioned coppering is required. In this case, some below-ground sniffing around in the sewers and amongst the tube mice after the middle rail has been unplugged for the night.

The looming question for me – and whether this is tackled by later books I have yet to learn – is for how long the public can remain unaware of the Met’s mini-Hogwarts. Given the number of goings on, and the constabular tonnage that must surely by now be starting to twig, it’s becoming ever more implausible that the secret remains a secret. But then, in Grant’s universe, the secret has already been successfully kept for several generations, and deployed in two world wars. (I’d like to learn more about this back story. I suspect I won’t: clunking out a full chronology causes all mystery to waft up the chimney. Plus it commits the writer, leaving no room for manoeuvre should better ideas spring to mind. Tolkien is the exception, mainly because he knew what everyone in Middle Earth had for breakfast every day of their lives and wrote it all down in elvish poetry.)

I didn’t feel as much tension in Whispers as in previous: the climax is not as jangly. Not a bad thing – too many TV shows, for example, believe that each season’s finale must outdo last season’s by a factor of 2.718, proceeding rapidly to exploding universes resolved by honking red reset buttons, hand-waving, love, dreams, etc. Here it’s a calmer outcome, and I wonder if book four in the series, already on my pile, will include a major revelation or two to make up for it.

The last few pages of Whispers Under Ground indicate Aaronovitch knows where he’s going, back in the past present when this book came out. Pieces on the board shuffling into position. Characters I’m sure we’ll see again In my case, in a couple of months, I expect.

In summary: I’m still amazed this isn’t on TV yet.

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Review: Moon Over Soho

Now that A Room Full of Elephants is out, I’m planning to read more. Top of the pile: Moon Over Soho, the second book in the Peter Grant/Rivers of London series by Ben Aaronovitch. If you remember, I enjoyed the first tremendously.

Although not a sequel, Moon dovetails nicely with the end of the first book. Rivers had consequences, and they’re not funnelled into the Thames to dilute to nothing. Rather, they form an underlying thread at which Aaronovitch occasionally tugs, with the promise of more in subsequent books. I’m glad he didn’t wave the big red magical-realism reset wand: I’m now two books into a series, and I’m certainly here for the duration. (The third book’s already lower down the pile.)

Where Moon isn’t quite as successful, for me, is in the main plot. It feels a little disjointed, less coherent, than Rivers. Some of the plot developments aren’t as surprising as it appears they’re supposed to be. Without spoiling anything, our protagonist displays a certain… lack of due diligence in one particular area. I know from experience that it’s tricky to keep revelations revelatory: as the author, you know whose fingers are in which pies and it’s often hard to judge the correct balance between sprinkling a few crumbs and chucking buckets of pastry at the reader. Here it doesn’t distract greatly from the fun of the book, merely triggering the occasional arctic eye-roll. (I’m sorry.)

One criticism I’ve heard – entirely fairly – about my own Till Undeath Do Us Part regards its detailed geographical references: the “he turned left onto King’s Parade and waved at Charlie the bin-busker” sort of thing. Moon has these too. Not everyone likes them but I think they’re fine here: London’s a minor character, and the details help ground the reader in reality as a counterpoint to the magic. Knowing the locations – through personal experience or by reputation – heightens the fantastical elements.

I do like how Moon ends: both the end of the plot, and the winding up that takes place in the closing pages. Full of bittery sweetness, regrets and promise. The spark of magic glinting at the edges of the grey hardness of police life.

Overall: not quite as enjoyable as Rivers, but a solid, fun read that sets things up nicely for book three.

Review: Rivers of London

I’m scandalously late to the Peter Grant series from Ben Aaronovitch. As I write there are five books, and after making short work of book one – Rivers of London – I plan to read them all.

When Rivers came out I remember spotting it on the shelves and thinking, like everyone else: it’s Harry Potter in the Metropolitan Police (“The sorting helmet has assigned you to the Vice Squad, Peter”, “Buy your truncheon from Inspector Wallander’s on Letsby Avenue”, etc). I suppose I labelled it as interesting but likely derivative-bordering-on-knock-off, and lengthy calculations indicated it didn’t then merit a place in my teetering stack of unreads.

Since then, something has changed. Perhaps it was the end of the Potter hype cycle, perhaps the sight of multiple sequels to River. Most likely a sneaky read of the first few pages in the back of Waterstones: it’s effortless, funny first-person writing, with the protagonist Peter Grant – a newly qualified police constable – finding himself deep into the plot within a page or two, interviewing a ghost after a gruesome murder in Covent Garden.

I plonked it onto my Christmas list, top of the pile for 2015. And here we are.

There’s no denying it: from 10,000 feet it is Constable Potter – just as from the same height, Poirot is Sherlock. There’s plenty of room for both. Aaronovitch’s world of magic is vastly different than Rowling’s. It’s more grounded in reality, if that doesn’t sound perverse for a book where the Goddess of the River Thames is real and Nigerian. As in Potter, magic isn’t common knowledge in Rivers – but those at the top of the Met certainly know it exists, even if they don’t like it. It’s a handy source of extra tension, though I couldn’t help thinking the secret would never be kept with so many people in on it.

Essentially Rivers of London is a police procedural with wizards. The usual pie – violent crime, bunny suits, grizzled old coppers driving classic Jags the wrong way up one-way streets – with a creamy topping of spells and haunting. The plot’s engaging and coherent, and I suspect much shoe leather died in the service of its research. In brief: Peter Grant must come to terms with this new reality, start on the path of wizardry with the help of his mentor Nightingale, and solve a murder or two – while keeping on good terms with London’s bickering waterways.

London is a strong supporting artiste in the book. Aaronovitch clearly loves the place. If you’re a fan of geography in books, Rivers is for you. Descriptions are true-to-life and vivid, albeit marginally too generous for my tastes on occasion – though never approaching get-on-with-it levels.

Our hero Peter is nicely drawn and feels real: a decent but inexperienced copper with a brain and a ready wit. And, great to see, he’s mixed race. In my head he’s Samuel Anderson (The History Boys, Doctor Who) or Daniel Anthony (The Sarah Jane Adventures, Casualty). (On that topic, Rivers adapted for TV could be damn good. The internet tells me it was optioned for TV a few years ago: hopefully it’ll turn up on screen at some point.)

In summary, I’m a fan. Book two will drop onto my unread stack in a couple of months (I don’t want to binge-read all five).

PS One day I’ll review books published recently. I fear this day will not come soon.

PPS The next book I’m reading is non-fiction: Scatter, Adapt and Remember, by Annalee Newitz. If you want to giggle at what else is on my shelves, here I am on Goodreads.