This is a novel about a magician-policeman set in modern London. The policeman, Peter Grant, is drafted from the normal police service to work for a special investigations department that consists of a single policeman, Inspector Nightingale, and takes on all the investigations into things that no one else believes are real. In order to work in this department, Grant must also become the apprentice to Inspector Nightingale, and thus also begins learning the rudiments of “modern” magic – that is, magic as systematized by Sir Isaac Newton back in the day.
In essence, then, this is a kind of Harry Dresden story, but set in London rather than Chicago, and featuring a policeman rather than a private investigator. It’s the first, apparently, of a series. I hope no one from Chicago will be displeased with or misinterpret me when I say that London is a much more romantic and interesting setting for a novel of this kind than Chicago, and this is not the first novel to use London’s historical complexity and its modern multicultural mish-mash as a setting for the bizarre or the unusual: Gaiman’s Neverwhere and Mieville’s UnLunDun are two other good examples of stories in this field, and both draw heavily on London’s peculiar synthesis of the historical and the modern to lend their tale an additional edge of romance that more uniformly modern cities cannot get. It’s particularly well-suited to a magical policeman story because, well, because London is a city full of crime and trouble. It has a violent and depressing history, and a violent and depressing present, which makes it a bad place to live but a very good place to set a fantastic story of this kind – especially since in novels all the little irritations of London life can be ignored, and the picture can be painted using the broad brushstrokes of history, crime, modernity and multiculturalism.
Which is what we get in this book. Something is up in London, and Grant has to investigate a spate of murders connected to it. The something-that-is-up is connected to a violent grudge that has passed down through history, and is being played out in the very modern setting of post-2007 Covent Garden. There is also a conflict between the different rivers of London – whose spirits are personified in some amusing human forms, and appear to have come to an “arrangement” with the various departments and authorities of the British government. Grant is investigating all this while also studying magic as a new apprentice, trying to get laid, and trying to enjoy his new life as a freshly-graduated police constable. Much of the context of the story is very ordinary and very real – he goes to pubs I’ve walked past, in streets I’ve frequented, and talks of real very recent events that we’re all familiar with. The author also appears to be familiar with police culture and language, and we get a lot of very British policing attitudes coming through. Also interestingly for a novel from London, the author is very aware of London’s overcrowded and multiracial culture, and this is very smoothly worked through the story so that, for those of us who have lived in London, it really does feel like the London we know rather than the sanitized all-cockney-all-the-time London that, say, the Imperial War Museum likes to present. The lead character is himself mixed-race, his mother West African and his father British, and grew up on a council estate in Peckham. Witness reports are particularly amusing because they present us with such a classic hodge-podge of London life as it is now. There’s a classic report of two hare krishnas beating up their troop leader: one is a New Zealander and the other is from Hemel Hampstead. It’s so mundane, and so spot on in its mundanity, and I think this mundane realism serves to ground the magic and mystery of the story very well, so that you really can believe that someone like Peter Grant can learn to use magic and see ghosts and work for the Metropolitan Police Force.
The book also shares with the Dresden Files a well-constructed (so far) theory of and structure for the magic Grant uses. It’s very different to Dresden, and a nice attempt to imagine how magic might feel when you work it – he talks of forms, that you can feel in your mind and have to learn to understand like music. There’s also the first exposition that I’ve ever heard of why magic might need to use language to be cast, and why it must be latin at that. On top of that, the book also attempts to explain magic’s bad effect on modern technology, and Grant of course begins experimenting on this issue as soon as he discovers it, so that not only can we generate a working theory of why the problem happens but he can use it as an investigative tool, and find ways to safeguard his stuff. This is how I imagine a modern wizard would work, and it’s very well done in the story. His depiction of ghosts in modern terms, and his attempts to understand all of magic in terms of the language of computers and science that he grew up with, is also very interesting and I think a quite new take on the genre.
The book is well written and overall the flow of the story is good, though I thought Grant’s first case was a trifle too complex near the end and I’m not sure I understood the relationship between the rivers of London and the case Grant was working on – maybe that will come later. The characters are good and believable and the setting very powerfully like the London I know, but the author has weaved into it all the powerful romance of the city we see in the history books, so that while you always feel like you’re in modern London you don’t forget that this is a London built on layers of history and rich with magic and power. I think in this use of setting the book is definitely superior to a Dresden novel (and, on balance, better written too), and gives a richer and more nuanced vision of a modern magician than Dresden does.
Other comparisons to the Dresden Files also fascinated me while reading this book. The Rivers of London is to the Dresden Files like Coronation Street is to Beverly Hills 90210. In the Dresden Files, the creatures of faerie are always supernaturally beautiful and amazing, and they and the bad guys live in enormous wealthy villas. Dresden gets his girl and is constantly being offered sex by crazed sex goddess super girls, and when he gets a dog it’s a great big supernatural hound of a thing that is more dangerous than most monsters. Finally, of course, there is a lot of heavy weaponry. In The Rives of London, the spirits live in quite mundane buildings – one of the spirits of the river is a traveller – and the characters’ homes are nothing special. Grant doesn’t get his girl and is either warned off the spirit girls, or gets an erection around them while they completely ignore him. He also inherits a dog as a by-blow of a crime scene, but it’s a stupid little ordinary lap dog that doesn’t have any special powers and is a bit overweight and not very helpful. And the only gun that appears in the story is fired once and then disappears, no one can find it and its appearance is frankly shocking because people in London – even criminals – just don’t use guns. I’ve no doubt that things will get more upmarket as the books go on, but it’s an interesting contrast between the artistic styles of the two countries: just like in soaps and dramas, this story conveys that sense of humility and shame-faced shuffling it’s-not-quite-good-enough-is-it?, frayed-carpet and slightly daggy cardigan atmosphere that the British are willing to put into presentations of their own culture. In short, it lacks the brashness of a similar American story. Usually I’m inclined to prefer the brash and the beautiful in American stories to the grotty and mundane in British ones, but in this case I think I like the ordinariness that bleeds out of the pages of this book. I think it helps me to understand Grant as a newly-minted wizard cop better than I understood Harry Dresden.
This is an excellent story, overall, and if this series improves as it goes along (which most series like this do, I think) then it’s well worth getting into. I heartily recommend this tale!