Posts Tagged ‘Ben Aaronovitch’

Broken Homes by Ben Aaronovitch

Broken Homes 1

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.

Ben Aaronovitch

Ben Aaronovitch

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.

For my review of two other books in the series, see:
Midnight Riot or Rivers of London and
Whispers Underground.

Whispers Underground by Ben Aaronovitch

June 6, 2012 2 comments

Whispers Underground by Ben Aaronovitch (Rivers of London 3) (Del Rey, 2012) continues the story of Peter Grant, the new member of the Isaacs, and maintains a high quality of style and panache (even throwing in a sideways swipe at Tolkien nerds who can read Elvish script). This prompts the notion that it’s a lot more difficult to write gentle humour than you might think. It’s all very well an author falling about laughing as he or she writes the stuff. It’s easy to convince yourself you’re the ultimate dispenser of comedy when the muse is in the ascendant and words are tumbling out of you faster than your fingers can type. But it’s when the cold light of day shines on your treasured prose that the first fickle fingers of doubt start to work on your self-confidence. There are some writers, of course, who really don’t care whether the readers find their work funny. They laughed so that’s them satisfied. After all, there were probably paid for the words, so what you do with them is up to you. This is the approach of those poor suckers who take the money and write humour to order for the mass market. Pity the fools who run regular columns in newspapers or must meet the deadline for the magazine or website. Not for them the luxury of afterthought. If it worked when the creative juices were flowing at peak rate, that’s good enough. A quick tidy up for the grammar (unless that’s part of the humour) and then press return with relief and get on with the next piece.

Ben Aaronovitch watching the birdie with lens-assisted eyes

In all this, the people you have to admire are the novelists who work to the timetables set by the publishing industry. For reasons connected with the need to market and distribute hardbacks and mass market paperbacks and allow each a fair shot at building sales, a year can pass as quickly as the blink of an eye between one book and the next. This tempts the author with the opportunity to edit the text just one more time. I’ve always been of the opinion that the first time you write something, you’re already approaching the target and, with a little polishing, you hit as good as you’re going to get with the idea. Those of you who read these reviews will understand that I don’t spend much time making them beautiful. This is more or less stream-of-consciousness content. However, an author who has a year before he or she needs to deliver the next book faces the challenge of believing the book is still as good as it was when it was first written. Having now read two books by Ben Aaronovitch, it’s obvious he trusts his own judgement. No matter what the first version, what emerges for us to read is genuinely amusing.

Now back to the task of reviewing. As already advertised, this book is a joy, but made doubly so by the historical arcana that keep floating to the top of the prose soup. For example, I’ve already squirrelled away the late-arriving news of Victorian butty gangs and their rise to financial glory — I knew all about the Truck Acts but this and several other buried gems had passed me by. However, when you take the overview, it’s the gentle humour that gives the book its edge. The chase through the London sewers just reeks of amusement (as one might say in an idle moment of unselfconscious depravity before the self-editing mechanism clicks in). Indeed, I found myself smiling on a regular basis as I turned the pages. Completing the perfection of the whole is a nicely constructed police procedural. For all we’re deep into the supernatural with various types of magic, different varieties of being and the occasional divine river, this remains a crime-solving book with Peter Grant now ably assisted by PC Lesley May (and monitored from a distance by Detective Inspector Nightingale) confronted by a murder while continuing to track down the Faceless Man. We also have contributions from the British Transport Police in the shape of Jaget Kumar and not always helpful appearances by Agent Reynolds, i.e. the FBI operating outside their jurisdiction. When you add up the magical lore, put it into its historical context and understand how everyone is related to everyone else, this turns out to be a most elegantly constructed puzzle for our hero to solve.

An alternate cover for US distribution

So, whether you want to enjoy a murder mystery or a supernatural crime novel with a wry sense of humour, Whispers Underground delivers. Perhaps even more importantly, there’s no pressure from anyone on the marketing front to classify this as urban fantasy. Obviously the London milieu is not sufficiently urban for it to register on the marketers’ radar. Or may be it’s not got enough magic or supernatural stuff happening. Or perhaps it’s got a scruffy young man as the hero. As a final thought, if there are people living in the sewers, it would be a good idea to rescue them and bring them into mainstream society, say by tempting them with the title of the fourth in the series by Ben Aaronovitch due in 2013. It’s called Broken Homes.

For review of two others in the series, see:
Broken Homes
Midnight Riot or Rivers of London.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Midnight Riot or Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch

April 14, 2011 1 comment

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.

Ben Aaronovitch on static observation

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.

The jacket art for the Del Rey, Ballantine paperback edition shown above is by Wes Youssi of M80 Design.

And for those who like reviews to be complete, here’s the Gollancz jacket art.

For reviews of other books by Ben Aaronovitch, see:
Broken Homes
Whispers Underground.

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