open the pages, read the words, savor the magic
This was one of my Top 10 Favorite Books of 2011. The third book in this series is coming out in June, so I thought I better put up the review now.
Ben Aaronovitch’s River Of London is probably my favorite book of 2011. Well, don’t count on it too much as I say this about a lot of books this year, but it’s entirely possible the book might take Favorite Fantasy of 2011 in my end-of-year list. I’m positively obssessed with it and I can’t help but want to pimp it out to everyone I know.
Let me tell you how this obsession started. A couple of months ago a good friend of mine (who knows my reading taste very well) recommended the book to me, pointing to her very accurate review of the book as a sales pitch. Her review is impeccably written but, really, all she really needed was “it’s Blaise Zabini joining the Filth” and I was sold.
Thanks to the Harry Potter reference and because of my own objection to reading mainstream books on electronic format, especially ones that have the potential to be as lovable as the HP series for me, I waited for the printed paperback copy to arrive instead of getting an e-book. After months of waiting and shipment issues involving the bureaucratic customs process here in this country, I finally managed to bring in this book both for the store and for myself.
I didn’t intend to read it immediately, wanting to keep it as “a read for rainy days”, but then I got really bored and moody in the office last week and needed a pick-me-up. This book was sitting right in front of my computer and I grabbed and… well, I started giggling. I read a few pages and giggled again. Then I read and giggled, read and giggled, and read and giggled. I wasn’t even sure why or what part of the story made me do that but I just did.
And it’s a really amazing book. Not only does it suit my taste, but I think it’s one of the more fun books in the urban fantasy genres in recent years.
Mostly, it’s the mixed race hero (PC Peter Grant whose image in my head is stuck as a young Barack Obama, much thanks to Aaronovitch’s character’s own quip about him being able to be an Obama stand-in) that’s been doing the job of keeping me interested with his keen observations on magic and magical theories and experiments and dry Londoner sense of humor. Emphasis on the magical theories part – this is probably the only book I’ve ever read where a character tries to explain magic through scientific methods and I’m in love with that. One of my biggest curiosities with the Harry Potter series was the magical theory part. Unfortunately, Rowling didn’t get very deeply into that. Aaronovitch here didn’t only delve into the theories of magic, going so far as to reference the literature related to the topic (whether the books he referenced were real or not, I’m not sure, but he makes it sound so believable), but he also got rather technical with it. For some people, this might be boring and unnecessary, but for me? It’s food for the geek that occupy half my soul.
The mystery is also very intriguing and it has kept me guessing until the end. I won’t say anything about it for fear of ruining the story, but Aaronovitch doesn’t try to come up with his own monsters or villains. He makes good use of folklore, the commedia dell’arte and the city of London’s geography itself to build his mystery. The kind of universe he creates is one that’s familiar but at the same time also new because, as readers, we’d be looking at the setting from an entirely new viewpoint.
But rest assured, it’s still London, the city, and it becomes a character itself. Or rather, several characters, because the title, “Rivers of London”, refers to the various spirits/beings/genii locorum that represent the various tributaries of the River Thames. But even edifices and landmarks contribute in either assisting the characters’ investigation and advancing the plot, so it’s almost like the whole city plays a huge part in Peter’s adventure as a sidekick.
Thanks to the above, the book serves like a guide book… if guide books are meant to show parts of London where dark, sinister, inexplicable crimes occur. This works very literally, too, because believe it or not, I know at least one person who’s done a Rivers Of London tour based on the book. It’s a clever way for Aaronovitch to promote the cities–anglophiles around the world must be screaming in joy at the idea of getting to know London through his stories.
And all of this? Recipe for making me a very happy reader.
Granted, I lowered my expectations for the ending (based on several reviews and people’s warnings), and this is probably the right thing to do… but I think, even without the low expectations, I would’ve liked the ending all the same. I wasn’t disappointed at all and was in fact surprised by the twists and turns the story took on the last quarter of the book. Granted, Peter became less funny as the action increased but there were still some really quotable passages there (if I had the book with me, I’d quote them here, but I left it in the car) to complement the resolution of the mystery.
Anyway. I can’t say anything else for fear of spoilers but I really am pleased with this book. A lot of people call this book “dark urban fantasy” and at one point, I wondered why the word “dark” was attached to it at all when the tone is actually quite humorous… but then, looking back, I realized that there was a massive amount of gore and blood in it, which I don’t normally enjoy. But here’s what I love about British authors: they make it all look so classy instead of sensational. They write in such a way that I managed to read the evidence of the perpetrator’s crime in this book (once again, it’s all blood and gore and very horrific) and yet never got any nightmares from it.
I’ve heard the book being likened to The Dresden Files series by Jim Butcher, as well as Neil Gaiman’s works. It’s also been likened to CSI and/or NCIS (with magic! And in truth, it is rather like that, although a British version of it, not the American one). The book itself refers to various pop culture phenomenons in it: books, movies, series and yes, Harry Potter, too. So it’s very modern, very relevant, very easy to get into.
One note of curiosity: correct me if I’m wrong, but this book was writtenbefore the recent 2011 riots in London, wasn’t it? Well, I just can’t help but think that Aaronovitch is rather psychic, having written about a great riot in the book and had it followed by a real one in the actual city he wrote in? Or is London a regularly riotous city? I actually don’t think so because I don’t often hear about it on the news. (Now, if we’re talking about Jakarta…) So, there I was reading about the (probable) reason why the American publisher of the book (nice ol’ Random House) changed the title for the American release to Midnight Riot and I thought, “Is Aaronovitch a mutant who can tell the future and write awesome books? He probably is!”
And because this review is not long enough, let me share with you some of the gems that Aaronovitch wrote that got me giggling in the middle of a crowded office, in front of my bosses. They’re just too lovely to pass up! (Warning: The following part may contain spoilers.)
He was about one-eighty in height – that’s six foot in old money – and dressed in a beautifully tailored suit that emphasised the width of his shoulders and a trim waist. I thought early forties with long, finely boned features and brown hair cut into an old-fashioned side parting. It was hard to tell in the sodium light but I thought his eyes were grey. He carried a silver-topped cane and I knew without looking that his shoes were handmade. All he needed was a slightly ethnic younger boyfriend and I’d have had to call the cliche police.
When he strolled over to talk to me I thought he might be looking for that slightly ethnic boyfriend after all.
‘What was I supposed to do?’
‘You could have talked your way yout of it,’ he said. ‘What do you think Ty is – a gangster? Did you think she was going to “plug a cap” in your head? She pushed you to see where you’d go and you blew up.’
We ate our curries for a while. He was right – I’d panicked.
‘It’s “popped a cap in my ass”,’ I said. ‘Not plugged – popped.’
‘Ah,’ said Nightingale.
‘Cult of Neptune?’
‘London Fire Brigade,’ she said.
‘The London Fire Brigade are worshippers of the god Neptune?’
‘Have you met Neptune?’
‘Don’t be silly,’ she said. ‘There’s no such person. Anyway, I feel bad about the hydrants, but it’s Thames Water I’m worried about.’
‘Don’t tell me,’ I said. “Worshippers of dread Cthulhu.’
(I laughed particularly hard at that last one. And, come to think of it, I might be in love with Detective Chief Inspector Thomas Nightingale as well. He’s like Albus Dumbledore, but funnier and probably gayer.)
Finally, this review is long enough. I could go on and on about this book but I’ll just let you read for yourself and decide if this is either the most brilliant thing you’ve ever read or the dullest thing to have been published in 2011 so far. For me, though, there will be no other adult urban fantasy book that is as fun as this and that alone is enough to warrant a second, third and fourth re-read until the end of time.
* Originally posted on Goodreads, 3 October 2011.