In the first part of Rivers of London, I have no idea what’s going on but I’m here for it.
This review will cover chapters 1-4, in a spoilery fashion.
Content note: for discussion of child murder.
So this book seems to have a fairly standard urban fantasy plot setup: Main Character is Average Joe who discovers Something Uncanny (in this case, both about himself and at large in his city), chooses to Accept His Fate/Go Down the Rabbit Hole and, in the case of PC Peter Grant, proceed to try to solve a very odd murder.
That’s about as far as the plot has gone so far, and if the sum of these parts was as paint-by-numbers as it sounds I might have dropped it already. I don’t have time for paint-by-numbers; have you seen my TBR?
But! What we have is a collection of dryly funny, rather interesting characters – some ordinary human, some not, and some who are, at the moment, questionable in that regard. Yes, I’m looking at Nightingale when I say that.
I love Nightingale! Older copper, implicitly queer (on that note, please just come out – no pun intended – and say so), Knows A Thing About Magic, and is willing to take young PC Grant on as an apprentice with only, apparently, a genuine care for his magical talent and what he can do with it in order to solve this case.
It’s perhaps worth mentioning at this point that a) Peter is mixed race, and b) he was, about five minutes before meeting Nightingale, let down by the Met in his efforts to get the promotion he wanted. It’s never indicated that these two things are connected – his superior officer tells him his skills are better suited to the office job he’s recommended for – but it’s still painfully easy to draw a certain conclusion here. Peter certainly seems to take the reassurances with an understandable pinch of salt; the result being that I’m already sympathising with him.
That said, I have a reservation or two about Peter, himself. He’s a likeable enough person, and personally I appreciate Peter’s fascination with the interesting minutiae of the history of London – as he points out, police work is largely about standing around waiting for things to happen, especially when you’re stuck guarding a crime scene, and it’s surprising how much you can learn because you were bored senseless and happy for any distraction. Peter is the kind of chap who’ll happily be distracted, and this speaks to my nerdy soul. 11/10, would fistbump.
On the other hand, and this is little more than a nitpick for welcome reasons which I will explain… Peter is introduced to us and, within minutes, is idly bemoaning his inability to get into his co-worker Lesley’s trousers.
Lesley is cool enough; she’s funny and somewhat snarky toward Peter, and it’s understandable that an attraction might form. It was irritating to see her being introduced in the light of Shaggable Co-worker, though, because it creates a very particular first impression that I have to say is doing her character a disservice. There is clearly more to her than that two-dimensional role, so why must Aaronovitch go there?
… I suspect I know why, and if I’m right, it earns him a nod of respect. See, the more I thought about this the clearer it became that thinking about going to bed with Lesley is all Peter’s willing to do, without an explicit invitation from her to do more. He doesn’t get one, even when they end up sharing a bed after getting very drunk off duty, and Peter dutifully keeps his hands (and other parts, eager though they may be) to himself. He may not be making a secret of his attraction, but at the same time he’s not making any entitled assumptions about where it might get him. Lesley seems aware of it, and she brushes off any verbal overture with nothing that indicates a lack of confidence, either in herself or in the knowledge that he will take no for an answer.
Peter is attracted to his friend but doesn’t force the issue to get what he wants. I can’t help feeling like this is important somehow… Hmm…
Sidenote: While we’re on the subject of questionably sexist points of view, I just want to note that while I love everything else about the first meeting between Peter and Mama Thames, the Goddess of the River, I am still side-eyeing the part where – though he is, to me, clearly being influenced by her – he has to resist a particular urge:
I was fighting the urge to fling myself to my knees before her and put my face between her breasts and go blubby, blubby, blubby. When she offered me a seat I was so hard it was painful to sit down.
… Who let Mel Brooks get his hands on the keyboard, here?
Meanwhile there’s still a murder to investigate, and after formally taking Peter on as an apprentice, Nightingale (who admits to being a wizard! THE WIZARD HAS AN APPRENTICE EXCUSE ME WHILE I GEEK OUT) moves him into his HQ/living quarters, known as the Folly – complete with a statue of Sir Isaac Newton, who founded whichever shadowy order of magical types Nightingale is a part of.
You guys, I want to live in the Folly. It’s dusty and it’s Old (capital O) and it has encyclopedias and it has Molly, who is Nightingale’s house servant and clearly not human – she’s kind of scary, in fact, and I don’t even know what her deal is yet. But she amuses herself by feeding their small dog (their magic/ghost-hunting dog – the ghost is a murder witness, because of course he is) and hasn’t said a word to anyone yet. Of course I’d find her interesting. WHO AND WHAT ARE YOU, MOLLY?
For all that I’m building a slow-burn fascination here, however, there is one thing that almost brought this whole ride to a screaming halt. I’ve been assured that Aaronovitch didn’t go there for no reason, and I’m willing to take that on faith, but for any author to write the killing of a child, never mind one still in the cradle as in this case, into their story is a decision I cannot condone – at least, not without a damned good explanation. In this case it happens out of the blue, in the middle of a violent incident where the baby isn’t the only victim, but that just makes me doubt even more that THIS death was necessary at all. It certainly wasn’t required in order to shock me, and the end result of it at this point is that I’m just kind of disgusted by it. I had to warn a friend who planned to read it that it was coming, because I knew this kind of thing is often a deal breaker for her, and it almost was one for me too.
Whatever is going to result from this had better be damned good, and that’s all I’ll say about it for now. Saying more will just make me angry again.
So to sum these first impressions up – Aaronovitch is clearly a writer who’s willing to make risky storytelling decisions, and that’s putting it as kindly as I possibly can right now. That said, it’s a sour note in what was otherwise a solid start to this particular story, so I’m hoping he can make up for it. My impressions of Peter Grant are wobbling slightly on the scale between ‘Likeable Goof’ and ‘Bit of a Knob’, but I like him well enough to stick this out.
I love Lesley and Nightingale. I am definitely here for finding out more about Molly and for this magical-history take on London, which is probably one of the best cities to write urban fantasy about even if I’m still on the fence about its ordinary-mortal appeal, personally. *Cough*Not a biased Glaswegian at all*Cough*
So, all right, Aaronovitch. I’m in. But you’d better work to keep me in.