Midnight Riot or Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch
With Midnight Riot by Ben Aaronovitch, we enter the weird and wacky world of publishing. Never ones for being slow in coming forward, the US publishers decided they could improve on the title of this book so, after hours sitting in a darkened room, fed only cafe latte via a straw inserted through the keyhole, the top marketing team decided that the wimpy travel guide effort from the Limey end of the operation, Rivers of London, should be renamed Midnight Riot. It was, they thought, much more catchy, using “riot” in both the sense of a massive and violent public disorder and a joke that, at the time, seems extremely funny although, when sober again, it may seem less so. For reasons not yet clear, the title for the second in the series, Moon Over Soho, will remain the same (presumably “mooning” has the same meaning in both versions of English). Perhaps they had run out of cafe latte or someone neglected to draw the curtains and so darken the room sufficiently. Who knows, for the ways of US publishing are forever obscure and difficult to discern (which is, of course an example of redundancy, obscure meaning difficult to discern, and so the literary device matches the first unnecessary decision to retitle).
Anyway, here we are in the London of magic, where a young Peter Grant is completing his probationary period as a police constable. As he’s about to be assigned his first post as a newly qualified officer, he has the good fortune to encounter the only fully-fledged magician in the employ of HM Constabulary, a man of indeterminate age going by the name DCI Thomas Nightingale. Because of his ability to say, “”ello, ’ello, what’s this there ’ere, then” to passing ghosts and other symptoms of magical ability, young Peter is recruited as an apprentice which is just what he wanted — a life of crime-solving and keeping the peace between the disputatious supernatural folk of London.
In this instance, it’s a tale well-told of a revenant who, feeling London has become somewhat staid, decides to enliven proceedings with an entirely harmless entertainment. After all, was not Mr Punch a figure of fun (albeit somewhat anarchic and prone to the odd outburst of violence). Perhaps he was a party animal more in the spirit of the Lord of Misrule but, hey nonny no, what’s wrong with putting on the motley and carrying around a big stick with which to stir things up for a little riotous May Madness? Absolutely nothing, you say, enjoying the novel’s cheerful blending of the instinctive with the scientific.
For, when you think about it, there do have to be some rules when it comes to magic. Nothing comes for free. If you’re going to make heat, the energy has to come from somewhere. So it’s particularly interesting to watch young Peter Grant apply the scientific method to simple spells. After all, it’s useful to know whether he can prevent the chips in his mobile phone from disintegrating every time any strenuous magical work is performed. If the spell doesn’t work to defend him, he wants be able to call for back-up. The first answer of removing the battery before casting the spell seems less than practical since, if there’s general mayhem, finding time to reinsert the power source may not be so easy.
All in all, this is terrific fun, recasting the spirits of London as magical beings, drawing their power from the places they represent. This book focuses on the folk of the rivers, some still flowing naturally, others now culverted safely underground until it’s convenient to let them flow into the Thames. In this, it’s particularly important to remember the problem of tides. Rivers, at some point, have to negotiate with the sea for safe passage, slowly changing their nature to absorb the necessary salt ions to convert the stuff we drink into the buoyant liquid that covers the surface of our planet. Unlike the rivers, we won’t get into the issue of absorbing the sewage. All we can say is that, over the last two decades, the Thames has been cleaning up its act and showing us a clean pair of heels on the way to the sea. Turning to the mundane side of proceedings, the book also cracks some good jokes about law enforcement in the Big Smoke. Perhaps with the theme being about water and its significance, it should be required reading for the senior officers now confronted by the latest court decision holding kettling unlawful. Being able to flood an area rapidly certainly dampens enthusiasm for mayhem.
Ben Aaronovitch is a real find. He has the kind of writing voice that just leads you on, page by page. You can hear the smile and catch the quirk of his head as he crafts a line, holding his reading audience in the palm of his hand. Midnight Riot or Rivers of London is one of the most entertaining supernatural books of the last few years and marks him down as a writer to follow.
And for those who like reviews to be complete, here’s the Gollancz jacket art.