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

Olympic 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.


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