Aug 1 2012 12:00pm

Magic and Murder in London: Whispers Under Ground by Ben Aaronovitch

A review of Whispers Under Ground by Ben AaronovitchOlympic spirit is at an all time high. Or so I’m told. Sappy human interest stories about athletes are already popping up left and right, and I even received a very disturbing spam message mentioning “Olympic-sized” pieces of anatomy. It must be time for London 2012! So, why not take this opportunity to read some fantasy set in present day London? It’s almost as good as being there!

No, really: the Peter Grant novels by Ben Aaronovitch are a great way to feel like you’re actually visiting the city by the Thames. Whispers Under Ground, the third novel in the series, is out this week and it’s just as much fun as the first two books Rivers of London (which for some reason was retitled as Midnight Riot in the US) and Moon Over Soho.

At the start of the series, main character and narrator Peter Grant is a constable-in-training in London’s venerable police force. It looks like he’s in line for an exciting career of boring desk work, but that all changes when he draws the luckless duty of guarding a crime scene overnight because, to his eternal surprise, he is approached by the only witness to the crime... who also happens to be a ghost. Peter is swiftly recruited into a secret part of the police force that focuses on the supernatural and magical, and apprenticed to the mysterious Thomas Nightingale, the leader and only other active member in this centuries-old department.

Rather than becoming a desk jockey, Peter ends up as the newest member in a long line of wizards who secretly assist the London police force. He begins to study magic, which in these books has a methodical, even scientific underpinning going back to centuries of research. During his studies, he also helps Nightingale investigate the many magic-related mysteries and crimes that apparently take place in present day London.

The result of all of this is a series that crosses several sub-genres: definitely urban fantasy, but also elements of police procedural, a tiny bit of horror, and a generous helping of humor. The police procedural aspect is surprisingly pronounced: Ben Aaronovitch has obviously done his research and writes convincingly and in great detail about the inner workings of the London Police Department. The horror isn’t a defining part of these books, but they do contain a few scenes that are shockingly dark and really drive home how meaningful the central mystery of each novel is.

Maybe those few gruesome scenes are more shocking because, for the most part, Ben Aaronovitch writes some of the funniest prose in current fantasy. These books are extremely entertaining, mainly because narrator Peter Grant has a hilarious voice and a sly sense of humor I really appreciate. In Whispers Under Ground we learn that Grant has an interest in architecture, which explains why he’s paid so much attention to London’s famous and infamous buildings throughout the series. Take for example this quote from series opener Rivers of London/Midnight Riot:

City of Westminster Magistrates’ Court is around the back of Victoria Station on the Horseferry Road. It’s a bland box of a building built in the 1970s; it was considered to be so lacking in architectural merit that there was talk of listing it so that it could be preserved for posterity as an awful warning. Inside, the waiting areas maintained the unique combination of cramped busyness and barren inhumanity that was the glory of British architecture in the second half of the twentieth century.

The entire series is full of this type of quirkily effective prose and dry humor, making it a pure pleasure to read. They’re the kind of books that often make you grin and, occasionally, laugh out loud. Here’s another example from the newest novel, Whispers Under Ground:

The media response to unusual weather is as ritualized and predictable as the stages of grief.  First comes denial: “I can’t believe there’s so much snow.” Then anger: “Why can’t I drive my car, why are the trains not running?” Then blame: “Why haven’t the local authorities sanded the roads, where are the snowplows, and how come the Canadians can deal with this and we can’t?” This last stage goes on the longest and tends to trail off into a mumbled grumbling background moan, enlivened by occasional ILLEGALS ATE MY SNOWPLOW headlines from the Daily Mail, which continues until the weather clears up.

Peter Grant is the most well-defined character in these novels, mainly because Ben Aaronovitch deftly balances Peter’s various struggles throughout the book. On the one hand, he’s trying to master his magic and investigate the strange, random murders occurring in London, but he’s also a bachelor in the city, dealing with the various young women he encounters, including an attractive colleague who plays an increasingly important role in the series, as well as the female personification of a Thames tributary. (Did I mention that, in this fantasy universe, each river has its own god? And that they occasionally play important roles in the novels?) Because Peter comes from a mixed-race family (his mother is West African) these novels also give an interesting look at what life’s like for a vaguely Arabic-looking young man like Peter in modern day London—especially when he’s out of uniform.

The other characters rarely reach the same level of depth as Peter, but several of them do grow in complexity as the series progresses. Especially Peter’s colleague Leslie continues to develop from novel to novel, but we also get more and more looks at Peter’s family (his father, a musician, features prominently in the jazz-focused Moon Over Soho) and at other members of the police department. Still, this probably won’t be a series you’ll want to read for the deep character studies. These books are fast reads, full of humor, mystery and magic, and it’s best not to take everything too seriously and just go along for the ride.

I’m usually not a big fan of urban fantasy, but this series is so much fun that I always look forward to the next installment. If you’re looking for a fast-moving, entertaining urban fantasy that’ll make you feel like you’re visiting London vicariously this summer, pick up series opener Midnight Riot/Rivers of London. And if you’ve already read the first two books, you’ll probably be glad to hear that the newest installment Whispers Under Ground is just as good.

Stefan Raets reads and reviews science fiction and fantasy whenever he isn’t distracted by less important things like eating and sleeping. His website is Far Beyond Reality.

Becca Hollingsworth
1. bibliobeque
I've been looking forward to this one! All through the first two, I kept having to read bits out loud to anybody who happened to be nearby, just because the narration was so funny.
Alain Fournier
2. ALF
Really looking forward to reading this book. I plan to read it while on vacation. The first two novels are quite interesting. I hope he expands on the little bomb shell Lesley May drops at the end of the second novel.
Pamela Adams
3. PamAdams
Ooh, am I jealous- my copy hasn't shown up yet.
Kate Nepveu
5. katenepveu
I am also excited that the US is getting the UK covers for this one. I would like them better even if the US covers hadn't been changed to obscure Peter's biracial appearance.

These are so much fun--not great plots, at least not the first two, but I love Peter and his friends and the voice and the worldbuilding so much that I don't care. I'm so looking forward to this one.
Chuk Goodin
6. Chuk
Good to hear that the third one is up to par. I am not a huge UF fan either but the first two were quite fun. (I also like the handling of race in the books (except I just read about the US covers and now I'm pissed off))
Steve Taylor
7. teapot7
A big thumbs up for this series - I've read the first two and enjoyed them for all the reasons given in the review. They really do feel like London and gods of the various rivers are wonderful.

And the mixed race main character - sometimes when I find significant non-white characters in books I can't help feeling the author is very aware that they're making a political/social point, but not here - Peter Grant is just a guy, and he feels like a decently real character.

I'm not usually a big fan of the modern vein of paranormal urban fantasy, but these worked very well for me. So if you normally avoid that kind of stuff you might like them too.
Claire de Trafford
8. Booksnhorses
I love this series and it is crammed with geek references. My fav in this one? Not quite geek but a Pulp reference. Anyone else spot it?

Like Teapot I'm not a big urban fantasy reader but this is just what I think the genre SHOULD be about. And it definitely captures the character and multi-racial nature of London.
Ashley Fox
9. A Fox
mmm, Ive been eyeing these up in the bookshop since the first came out. This may have actually tipped me over into buying them soon. I like the dry humour in the qouted passages...
10. mssherlocked
Lovely review! You've managed to capture the insouciant spirit which makes this book a joy to read.

There is nothing groundbreaking about the Peter Grant series, but the author's wit (and that excerpt about the weather is indeed my fave of the book - I laughed aloud on the Tube) and his obvious affection for the characters set it apart from most "gritty" urban fantasy stories.
Bruce Wilson
11. Aesculapius
As someone who has both lived in London for a long time and worked with the emergency services out on the streets of this great city, I think the other think Aaronovitch captures really well is the vibe of the city itself; London is both modern and ancient, vibrant and mysterious.

It may be that I just recognise the nuances because I know the places in the book so well but I think the credit must lie with the writing. I have seen some references to Harry Potter in relation to these books but, to me, that is entirely erroneous; the nearest equivalent that springs readily to mind is Jim Butcher's Dresden Files but that is not really an adequate comparison. This is a series set in London by a British author and the whole tone of the books is beautifully underpinned by wry British sensibilities but remains broad enough to capture the individual quirks of immigrant ethnic communities. I'm more of a fan of "traditional" fantasy than modern, urban fantasy but Aaronovitch really pulls it off and artfully puts together all the disparate elements of these novels.

I love his world-building and I like his characters (and the way he is developing them). I read the first two books in the series back-to-back and thoroughly enjoyed them. Inevitably, there is a degree of exposition early on that explains the rather carefully structured approach to magic in this world, as well as its historical context but all of this is deftly handled and nicely creative. This all slots together surprisingly well with the more readily recognisable crime novel / police procedural aspects of the story and PC Peter Grant is an engaging and drily witty narrator of his own adventures.

I waited for the third book, Whispers Underground, with growing anticipation for several months and pre-ordered it; I was delighted the day it popped up in the Kindle app on my iPad. It had a lot to live up to and it was a good read but ultimately wasn't quite as satisfying as the first two books. The plot felt a little more contrived and the underlying development of the characters wasn't quite as interesting as the earlier novels. Equally, the parallel arcs of Peter Grant's mysterious nemesis and the developing historical backstory of his boss, Detective Chief Inspector Thomas Nightingale, and just what happened to wizardry and formal training in magic in Britain (and indeed the rest of Europe) felt somewhat neglected in this novel. My overall impression was of a "bridging" story; a relatively harmless A-plot that allowed Aaronovitch to introduce a few new characters and some new situations which were somehow incomplete in this book but which clearly give the impression of being parts of a greater whole in what is yet to come.

Having said all that, I really do like this series. The first two books are great and the third is still good, I just get the impression that Aaronovitch is using it to build up to something much bigger a little further down the line — and I can't wait to find out what that is!

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