Book Review – Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch

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It’s not often that I am completely torn about a book. I first read ‘Rivers of London’ a few years ago. I liked it but I didn’t love it. I don’t think it helped that I discovered Benedict Jacka’s ‘Alex Verus’ series at the same time. If you’ve read my reviews of Benedict Jacka’s books the you will know that I am completely head of heels in love with them. They aren’t perfect, but they are still brilliant. Aaronvitch’s book isn’t perfect either, however ‘Rivers of London’ just is not on an equal footing.

rivers of london

They are both urban fantasy books set in modern day London dealing with mysterious magical occurrences that need investigating and solving. The reason why Jacka trumps Aaronovitch in my opinion though is because Jacka created Alex Verus, a deeply complicated ex-dark Mage who finds himself in dangerous situations. In  comparison there’s, PC Peter Grant, a probationary police constable who joins up to become a wizard policeman, in order to avoid having to join the data entry department where he’s being sent because he gets easily distracted.

Honest to god, PC Grant’s superiors had a really good point, at least based on the plotting and telling of the story, because Grant gets so distracted with telling you information about by-gone times and interesting facts about London that the storytelling just grounds to a halt. Honestly, I very rarely put down a Jacka book to go make something as complicated as a cup of tea. I got water out the tap because it was quicker and I didn’t have to put down the book to fetch it.

‘Rivers of London’ though I put down and left down for long periods of time because I had got so tired of hearing about barely relevant facts about London that cluttered up the plot and got in the way of the murders being solved. There was more than one occasion that I essentially felt the author was showing off that he had done his research in order to set the scenes, while ramming it down the reader’s throats that London is the greatest city on earth.

Now admittedly being a northern member of the British North/South divide I can be a little bit defensive when it comes to people boosting about the south. However, I love London, I think it is one of the greatest cities in the world, and as a historian I am interested in the quirky little facts about my capital city. I have no problems with the information I’m being told, I just don’t want to be told it by a protagonist who is as dull as dish water in the middle of a very interesting and imaginative storyline.

And here is where I am torn about ‘Rivers of London’; the ideas in the book are very good. The mysterious murders of London citizens, which are very violent and result in some people having their faces fall off because of the effect of the magic being used on them is compelling. As a murder investigation, with a magical twist it is a bloody brilliant.

Unfortunately it’s not the main plot in the book and not the plot the book is named after. The ‘Rivers of London’ are the human personifications of the deities of the rivers in London, who are in conflict with each other. Again as a plot line it is very good, it’s just a shame it gets in the way of the better story of the murder investigation all of the time.

The book is a cross between a crime and a fantasy genre book, but it is mainly sold as a crime novel with a bit of a magical twist. While the idea behind the personifications of the rivers is fascinating, the very loose and tenuous link to the murders at the end made me roll my eyes and the fact it got in the way of the murder investigations all the time shot to pieces the type of fast paced plot I expect from a crime novel.

Crime novels are meant be filled with tension, and frustration at the lack of progress. While Aaronovitch wrote a very good plot that is more reflective of reality, if I was looking to read about the reality of modern police work I would have visited the non-fiction section. Books are not about reality, especially ones with wizarding police.

And then there is Grant’s introduction to the magical world by Inspector Nightingale, who is as equally as dull and as uninteresting as PC Grant. And he’s a wizard. I hadn’t believed it was possible to make a wizard dull, but in ‘Rivers of London’ its been achieved. I also have absolutely no idea why, because everyone else in the book, the rest of the entire cast of characters who you see through Grant’s eyes leap off the page and grab your attention. Aaronovitch is capable of making interesting characters, he just hasn’t quite managed to achieve it with his protagonist and his wizard mentor.

Which is a massive shame, because the type of stories he’s writing in his series about Grant and Nightingale working in London as modern day policemen fighting crimes of a magical nature are unique. It’s a brilliant idea, and it is only because it is a brilliant idea that I’m willing to try the rest of the series, in the vague hope that all the things that made ‘Rivers of London’ nearly damn near impossible to read get ironed out as Aaronovitch develops the series.

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