I am not a fan of urban fantasy, but I was curious to read Ben Aaronovitch‘s Midnight Riot because of a recurring blurb associated with it: that it was Harry Potter all grown-up and working as a policeman. It seemed like a silly idea, but I am pleased to report two things: that is not what this book is about, and for that and other reasons, this is an enjoyable book. Aaronvitch creates not a demon-stalking jaunt into some hidden underworld, but a charmingly gruff police procedural/mystery tinged with magic. While the novel’s twists don’t always work, the central conceits of the story hang together well enough to propel the characters through a story that has equal amounts of fun and thrills in it.
Peter Grant is the son of an African mother and an English father who has just finished his probation as a London police officer. As he and his best friend/hidden crush Leslie prepare for their first assignments, Grant discovers a ghost at a murder scene. This soon leads him to an absurd revelation: that magic exists, and that a lot of people know about it, mostly to their annoyance. Grant soon discovers that he has a talent for magic, and is reassigned to work with one Inspector Nightingale, the official police wizard. Quickly they are caught up in a complex murder-mystery, an ancient conflict between river gods, and both arcane and prosaic political struggles.
Aaronovitch mixes a number of novel elements into this story. The world of magic is not “hidden,” merely hard for most people to apprehend or understand. Detecting vestigia is a peculiar talent, but magic happens out in the open. Its use is often limited because of its price, which can range from anchorage to a geographical feature to the ossification of one’s brain, as magic always needs a source. Magic not only has many costs, from the ruination of a cell phone to derision from one’s peers in the police force, but it exists in the world in an often organic way. Aaronovitch has very ably brought magic into the modern world without it being either overwhelming nor merely comical.
He also has a deft hand with characters. Peter Grant is a well-drawn character, mostly because while he is clever, he is often wrong, and while perceptive, is kind of a dick. He is a young man who thinks about women and cars, soccer and beer, even as he discovers the wonders and dangers of magic. His wry sense of irony is sometimes hilarious, other times off-putting. I am not sure that I would like Peter Grant if I met him, but his adventures are enjoyable to read because he acts in all things like a real person. He is engaging because he is unapologetically himself, and this unforced perspective brings believability to the novel.
Aaronovitch’s characters are not always deep, but act like people, sometimes heroically, sometimes contrary to their own interests, and are often unthinking in their actions. Nothing is ever easy, and plans rarely work out as anticipated. Inspector Nightingale, while well-versed in wizardry, does not possess all of the answers, and Grant sometimes finds solutions that the Inspector misses. Because of this the story has the heft and feel of life to it, which makes it a more compelling read.
The writing is solid and straightforward. Aaronovitch is very good at sketching out a scene with a few lines and evoking a sense of place with a physical detail and a wry observation from Grant. What is particularly striking is how he does that and also keeps the observations in-character. You get a very palpable sense of the world through Grant’s eyes, without an excess of description. This technique stumbles a bit in the second half of the novel, when descriptions become broader, and I felt this also affected the pace of the novel, slowing it a bit. The writing is still quite clear; it just misses some of that distinctive conciseness that early on in the novel draws you into the story.
I wasn’t sure what to make of the ending, because it felt to some extent tacked-on, which was more grating given the relatively organic progress of most of the novel. It felt as if Aaronovitch had backed himself into a corner and was not sure how to get out of it. The solution to the mystery did not jibe well with the world that he had created, and I felt that he raised the stakes rather abruptly to increase the tension of a plot that was already running along quite well. Towards the end of the story a point is reached where we suddenly discover a “Big Bad,” and this detracted from the novel’s earthiness and removed some of its distinctive feel.
It is a busy novel, because there are at least three plotlines at work: the hunt for a ghostly murderer; the mediation of a conflict between genus locii who represent the waterways of London (and gave the novel its much better UK name, Rivers of London); and Grant learning about the world of magic and his place in it. All of them mix together well and keep the story moving along at a brisk pace. All three of them also exemplify the underlying theme of the novel, of bridging worlds and perceptions.
Grant is biracial, a cop and an apprentice wizard, someone who can communicate with the living and the dead, and an interlocutor who must mediate a rivalry and somehow bring together two families who distrust each other despite their reliance on the same thing (the River Thames). The novel is full of moments of bridging gaps across hierarchies and spheres of influence, between parents and children, those in power and those who serve. This is not an uncommon theme in urban fantasy, but those worlds are often kept separate. In Aaronovitch’s world they must co-exist and be dealt with, and are often not easily traversed or reconciled. One cannot step out of one world into another, because in some way everything is linked together. That inescapable verity, that one must have one’s feet in multiple worlds, gives this novel authenticity and verve, and I look forward to seeing if Aaronovitch can build on that in the next book.
Midnight Riot is a mass market paperback (320 pages) available from Del Rey.