Book Review: Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch

Jayna Rohslau, ‘22

January 2019

*to be internally processed in a British accent*

What if magic was real?  What if only a select group of people knew how to harness said magic?  If these questions may sound familiar, then good. You’re reasonably literate.  After all, these are only the questions asked by practically every fantasy book nowadays: just think of Percy Jackson and the millions of copies that franchise has given birth to.  Or Harry Potter and the hundred million copies that franchise has given birth to, in a particularly difficult labor.

And in that regard, Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London is no different than the rest.  The book, first in an ongoing series of currently seven, follows a police officer named Peter Grant.  As the title implies, he lives in London and as the genre implies, he develops magical powers. If this sounds only mildly intriguing, I don’t blame you.  I sure didn’t expect much when my aunt thrust it at me while I was on vacation. The cover looked awfully serious… and I was on vacation.

Truth be told, I expected it to be just another generic fantasy book, with unbelievable characters and little life imbued to otherwise fantastic events.  Truth be told, I was not prepared for the contents of the first page alone:

“It started at one thirty on a cold Tuesday morning in January when Martin  Turner, street performer and, in his own words, apprentice gigolo, tripped over a body in front of the West Portico of St Paul’s at Covent Garden. Martin, who was none too sober himself, at first thought the body was that of one of the many celebrants who had chosen the Piazza as a convenient outdoor toilet and dormitory. Being a seasoned Londoner, Martin gave the body the ‘London once-over’ – a quick glance to determine whether this was a drunk, a crazy or a human being in distress. The fact that it was entirely possible to be all three simultaneously is why good-Samaritanism in London is considered an extreme sport – like base-jumping or crocodile wrestling. Martin, noting the good-quality coat and shoes, had just pegged the body as a drunk when he noticed that it was in fact missing its head.”

Which brings us to what makes Rivers of London great in my eyes, and Ben Aaronovitch a bloody (sorry) brilliant author: Not in the concept alone, of a cop with magical powers, which has the potential to be very good or very dull. But in the execution, which truly manages to transports the reader to a magical version of London—complete with witty humor, representation of many different types of people and creepy violence, not to mention witty humor.

Take the main character, for instance.  PC Peter Grant is a normal guy caught up in a supernatural mystery, in the first entry of the series.  There is a murderous magic entity going around ripping people’s faces off, which I personally would find very daunting. So it would be understandable for Aaronovitch to make him a cowering wimp, or an overwhelmingly confident magician able to confront the situation at hand (“Like Harry Potter?” he asks at one point.  “No,” he is told, “not like Harry Potter.”) Yet Aaronovitch makes him neither, a semi capable magical cop who vanquishes vampires and accidentally destroys their houses at the same time. He’s funny, too: the series is narrated in a compelling voice that keeps the pages flipping until 2 AM, when one comes to the realisation that it’s 2 AM and they probably ought to get some sleep.

The rest of the supporting cast is just as entertaining.  Between the saucy water nympths (goddesses of the rivers of London, hence the title) and Nightingale Peter’s magical mentor, there are plenty of supernatural elements.  Yet another of Rivers of London’s strengths lies in it’s real world representation: Peter himself is biracial, while his supervisor Miriam Stephanopoulos is a “terrifying lesbian.”  They are not diverse because Aaronovitch is trying to be politically correct; they are diverse because that’s how people in the real world are.

Oh, and did I mention the ghost hunting dog?

Rating: 5/5 bardvarks

Rivers of London can be found wherever books are sold.  Probably at a bookstore, come to think of it.