Rivers of London: Urban Fantasy at its Wittiest

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The UK cover of Rivers of London that stole my heart.

I won’t lie, I picked up the first in the Rivers of London series because I thought the cover was pretty. Yes, I’m that reader, the shallow one that judges every book by its cover design. Why that isn’t actually such a bad thing is fodder for another article, but right now I’m thinking back to holding Ben Aaronovitch’s first foray into original writing in my hand and wondering whether to part with my filthy lucre for a hardback book.

I wondered why I recognised his name, so I flipped to the back to check his author profile and stifled a squeak of fangirl glee. Why yes, this was the same Ben Aaronovitch who wrote two episodes of Doctor Who back in the late eighties, and continued to write Doctor Who novelisations during the Great Hiatus. And now he’d written a book about my favourite city (London) in my favourite genre (urban fantasy). Within minutes my money was in the hands of the cashier and I was squeezing into a seat on the tube to start reading.

There’s just one problem. Somewhere in between London! Urban Fantasy! Doctor Who! I’d missed that the story was a police procedural. I loathed police procedural. I never read crime, certainly never anything where you plod through the highly staged plot points to the inevitable and distinctly un-thrilling conclusion. For a moment I was heart broken. But hey, it’s a book, I was stuck on a train. Why not read it anyway.

And this is where Ben Aaronovitch sauntered up with his dry prose, infuriatingly likeable characters and gorgeous world building to beat me over the head with stick until I realised that, actually, police procedural can be quite good. Or, you know, in this case, bloody fantastic.

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The original US cover that caused controversy. The first version of the cover used, showed Peter Grants’ face in detail, then later reprints of the book had his face blanked out, leading to criticisms that the publisher was attempting to hide the fact that the main character is mixed race.

Rivers of London is the first in the series that follows young policeman Peter Grant as he discovers that (as you can guess) magic is real, and, as we find out, the London Metropolitan Police Force has a much neglected department for the investigation of magical crimes. So neglected it turns out just to be staffed by him, and the last officially sanctioned wizard, Thomas Nightingale, whose dry humour and pristine three piece suits had me rolling around in glee. We get a shed load of hints from the get go that something Incredibly Bad went down during the Second World War, but before we can ponder this too much we’re launched into a stunningly plotted investigation of a crime involving a supernatural Punch and Judy show (for those unacquainted with the longstanding British tradition of Punch and Judy, here’s the wiki page, and here’s a video – no I don’t know why its supposed to be funny either). The mystery unfolds to a chilling conclusion that’s more Buffy than CSI, in equal parts dry humour and the horrific, visceral reality of magic operating as a true chaotic neutral. Needless to say, Peter survives, but none of the cleverly drawn cast are quite the same on the other side.

Police Constable Peter Grant returns in Moon Over Soho and Whispers Underground to take us through a highly original magical London, meeting anthropomorphised rivers, ghost hunting council estate kids and in one notable encounter, a case of vagina dentata. I’m currently clawing at my face waiting for the fourth instalment due out in June, and trust me, you will be too.

Ben Aaronovitch’s witty, fast flowing prose and enticing vision of a magical London make this a must read series for fans of fantasy, urban or otherwise. 10/10 would fangirl again.

Note to readers: Rivers of London is marketed in the US as Midnight Riot, the rest of the series maintains the same titles internationally. 

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