“So magic is real,” I said. “Which makes you a… what?”
“Like Harry Potter?”
Nightingale sighed. “No,” he said. “Not like Harry Potter.”
I’m pretty indecisive. I like to take a day or two to mull over a book before I write a review, just in case I change my mind and regret it later. You can imagine, then, how strange it was for me to read Rivers of London and know almost immediately how I felt about it. In fact, I’d made up my mind before I was half way through so actually finishing the book was just a formality. I’m not sure I like it when my feelings are so clear cut (some ambiguity is good, right?) but it certainly makes organising my thoughts for this review much easier!
Peter Grant, the narrator, is a young constable at the end of his probationary period in the Met Police. While guarding a murder scene late at night he interviews a very chatty witness whom, he later realises, has been deceased for some time. This ghostly discovery alters the course of his career. He abandons a future spent pushing paper in an administrative department to work for Chief Inspector Thomas Nightingale, in the Economic and Specialist Crime division. Here he trains as an apprentice wizard, mediates between warring river gods and hunts down a vengeful spirit who’s been re-enacting the gruesome plot of a Punch & Judy show on the streets of London.
So here’s the good stuff…. I liked the narration. Grant is a funny guy and his dry humour is one of the things that made this book readable and entertaining. Through him Aaronovitch can also chuck in references to Time Team, Harry Potter and Twilight without making it feel like he’s trying too hard to be contemporary. It makes the setting feel very real and modern and, well, ordinary… despite the fact that there are wizards and vampires and river gods running around all over the place. I liked it, this weaving together of the ordinary and extraordinary, and sometimes I think it works quite well.
And then there’s the stuff I wasn’t so keen on and this takes a bit longer. Firstly I think Aaronovitch missed a trick with the Punch & Judy storyline. Those puppet shows can be pretty darn sinister but although Aaronovitch’s idea is a clever one it never feels particularly creepy. This could have been so much better, so much more gripping, if it had been darker. The lack of suspense isn’t really helped by the fact that there’s no sense of urgency to the murder investigation carried out by Grant and Nightingale. The pair spend ages barely doing any investigating at all which gives the impression that they aren’t overly concerned, and if they’re not bothered why should I be? I half expected that this part of the story would end up being cleverly interwoven with the river gods storyline… But no, that was completely unrelated and didn’t really seem to serve any purpose except to give the book its name (in the UK, at least).
Secondly, I had mixed feelings about some of the characters. I liked Grant at first but his narration wasn’t really enough to keep me interested on its own. I was a little disappointed by his reaction to events around him – there was no disbelief, no questioning. He accepted the existence of magic, and the sudden change in his career, very calmly and with very little fuss. It didn’t feel right. I also got a tiny bit fed up with him gawping at women’s breasts all the time. And then there were the supporting characters. Nightingale could have been really interesting but there wasn’t much effort to give him any backstory besides a couple of hints about his murky past. And the women…? If they’re not in the attractive-with-breasts-you-can-stare-at category then they’re probably vampires, a bit elderly or an angry lesbian. Well, that’s womankind summed up quite neatly. Ultimately what I’m trying to say is that the characterisation was a bit lazy and I didn’t really care about any of them.
It’s hard sometimes to write a truthful review without sounding like you’re being spiteful and I certainly don’t want to be mean. In all honesty I was at times quite entertained by Rivers Of London, particularly at the start, but overall I wasn’t wowed by it. I’ve certainly read other books with similar themes that have more intensity, cleverer plots and more interesting characters. I’ve definitely read ones that are less derivative, less sloppy. It’s possible of course that some of my issues would be addressed in the sequels but, in fairness, I probably won’t read them so I’ll never know!
This review has been sitting on my desktop for nearly a week but I’ve only today had chance to turn on the laptop and post it. I finished The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton this morning too so I’ll do my best to get a review of that up here much more promptly!