Broken Homes by Ben Aaronovitch
Broken Homes by Ben Aaronovitch (Daw, 2014) is the fourth outing for Peter Grant and a book I’ve been looking forward to reading for some time. The old saying is that “things” tend to come in sets of three and, more often than not, the third time is the best. Which means, of course, that the first in the new set of three is not necessarily going to be better. We’re following on from the events in Whispers Underground with Lesley May struggling to come to terms with her facial disfigurement as more information about the Faceless Man’s activity surface. The first sign comes through a body dump. Jaget Kumar then quietly passes on a very suspicious suicide on the London Underground. This leads to an interest in the now deceased Erik Stromberg, a German architect who may have built something interesting near the Elephant and Castle. As constructed, the book provides a very elegant trail of breadcrumbs which leads up to a final confrontation and the big surprise to lead into the next in the series. So far so good.
It would also be fair to say that the general standard of gentle humour is maintained with some pleasing repartee between Grant and May. But the overall effect is less satisfying this time round. Perhaps I just had to wait too long before reading this. Perhaps I’m beginning to find the ideas just a little repetitive. It’s hard to put my finger precisely on the spot so I’ll scratch around and see what comes out.
The first three books have built themselves around the magic woven into the bricks and mortar of London. Making the whole scene work are the fey who live in and around the rivers of the metropolitan area. Given their power, a treaty has been put in place which requires the local police force to maintain a buffer unit that can respond to wrongdoing on both sides of the magical divide. This is the Folly, currently run by the appropriately named Detective Inspector Nightingale who actually gets more prominence in this book. Think of him as the White Wizard of London with Peter Grant and Lesley May as his apprentices. This leads to two major narrative strands. The young Grant and the now injured May must learn their trade as wizards. This is not a rerun of the Hogwarts experience because the lives of this pair are rooted in the reality of London and they are often in real danger. The second element is the relationship between different figures among the fey and the humans responsible for maintaining a workable interface with the magically challenged police. Not unnaturally, the average coppers on the beat tend to be less than enthusiastic if something wicked their way comes. While not exactly considering Nightingale to be one of the wicked, they prefer conventional cases. This is one of the less well explained features of this version of London. A large number of the police and their support staff are aware of the magical infrastructure of their city, but there’s little or no sign of general public awareness. In our world, it would be impossible to keep this from the news media.
The problem for the author is one of thematic repetition. So Aaronovitch has tackled the problem head on with the increasingly important battle for power between the Folly and the cohorts of the Faceless Man, this time reinforced by the redoubtable Varona Sidorovna. This adopts the more formal tradition of protagonist and antagonist in adventure and thriller novels, and gives more scope for crimes to be committed which would require the Folly’s intervention. In this book, there’s a remarkably spectacular crime which would certainly interest the news media to the exclusion of most other stories. However, this shift of emphasis brings its own challenge. The success of the first two books lay clearly in exploring the relationship with the fey. Now we’re looking at a criminal wizard, Aaronovitch must decide what balance to strike. In this instance, there’s a major set-piece as the magical beings come on-shore for their annual bash. Although some of what happens may be setting plot lines in place for the next novel, there’s little obvious contribution to the forward progress of this book’s plot. Indeed, you feel some of the characters are just being given walk-on moments to remind us they are still around.
So there’s some interesting discussion of urban planning and the politics of redevelopment. There are also one or two illuminating developments from Nightingale who’s beginning to emerge as a more rounded figure. But the feel is less coherent and I have the sense newcomers to the series might find this book less easy to follow. This leaves me recommending the first three books in the series and suggesting new readers might read Midnight Riot aka Rivers of London, the first book, before setting off on this. I found Broken Homes slightly disappointing.