This is the sixth book in Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London series. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the premise, it centres on a fictional division of the Metropolitan police which deals with supernatural crime (codenamed ‘Falcon’). In this instalment, PC Peter Grant investigates a case involving the daughter of a local river goddess caught up in the drug-related death of a wealthy teenager.
I love this series. It’s deadly funny, with strong crime-solving plots that carry you through at breakneck speed. However, there are a few elements of the supernatural world that I find slightly under-developed.
Aaronovitch blends the supernatural with the police procedural, hilariously mocking the parlance of modern policing (think risk assessments, cost-benefit analysis and stakeholder engagement) as PC Grant couches his supernatural encounters in terms that his superiors will understand.
The central character is one of the very best things about this series. PC Grant is funny, intelligent, irreverent and self-deprecating. The book is narrated in his unique voice, which is maintained exceptionally well and is totally believable (even if the frequent (intentional and realistic) grammatical errors set my teeth on edge).
The other characters are great, too. Not as well developed as Peter’s, but somehow perfectly painted in just the right (smallish) amount of detail. The hijab-wearing DC Sahra Guleed gamely throws herself into the unfamiliar world of supernatural operations, while DI Stephanopolous and DCI Seawoll, who would rather get on with more down-to-earth policing, thank you very much, react with resigned exasperation as they are forced to acknowledge yet another Falcon-related incident.
However, the book is far from perfect. Throughout the series I have been plagued by a slight uneasiness about the supernatural mythology that frames this fictional world. The practice of magic by humans is given a pseudo-scientific, vaguely steampunk, framework, with a legacy centred around Isaac Newton, Charles Babbage and the Enlightenment.
Spells are classified and categorised with Latin nomenclature. But the descriptions – the attempted explanations – of spell casting are less developed than in, say, Debora Geary’s A Modern Witch series. An explanation is attempted – something to do with sensing the formae created by another practitioner and then somehow copying them with one’s mind. With this sort of urban fantasy slash police procedural it is understandable that a ‘rational’ explanation should be attempted rather than asking the reader to completely suspend disbelief. But I don’t really buy into it.
Another aspect of the mythology that I don’t quite ‘get’ is that of the London river goddesses. I like the idea – Mama Thames is the Goddess of the River Thames between the estuary and Teddington Lock (from where Father Thames assumes jurisdiction). Her daughters are the goddesses of the tributaries, both buried and extant, that feed into the Thames within London. So we have Beverley Brook (girlfriend of our hero Peter), Lady Tyburn, Effra, Fleet, Brent and so on.
Interestingly, Mama Thames is Nigerian. It is explained that she was once mortal, a Nigerian nurse, who committed suicide in the 1950s by jumping into the Thames and was subsequently incarnated as the river’s goddess. Her court, a warehouse in Wapping, is hot and humid, with banana trees growing and the smell of plantain in the air. In other words, a mini-Nigeria. Her ‘daughter’ rivers are also of Nigerian heritage. No-one could call this set-up clichéd or predictable, but I’m not quite sure I ‘get’ the explanation. I wonder whether there was supposed to be a goddess of the Thames before the 1950s. Or whether the tributaries are her biological daughters or if they were similarly ‘made’ from mortals. And it is not clear what powers, perks and responsibilities come with being a river goddess. But maybe that’s just me.
Of course, I also must mention the typos that cropped up in this first hardback edition. They were distracting and annoying and I doubt the manuscript was proofread. It is rumoured that when an author gets to a certain stature that their books are guaranteed to sell (for example, a long-awaited sixth-in-the-series), publishing houses try to save money by cutting out one or more of the editing stages. Why bother making the product perfect when it is guaranteed to fly off the shelves no matter what? This is, of course, a crying shame and I wish I had thought to mark all the errors as I found them and send the book off to the publisher with one of my business cards, but I can’t be bothered now!
This won’t work as a standalone book – you need to read the whole series in order. And I would whole heartedly recommend you do just that.
Please feel free to chime in below with your opinions if you've read this book or others in the series!
This year I have set myself the challenge of reading 40 books. Pre-baby I'd have gone for the big 52, but that may be a tad too ambitious! I shall be posting a review of every book here on my blog, and welcome your comments and discussion.