For years I’ve been rolling my eyes at people who said SFF needed more diverse characters, but if they had just handed me this book I would have been an instant convert. What a tremendous lot of lively fun Mr. Aaronovitch makes out of his protagonist’s encounters with a wide variety of Londoners!
The confidence is what shows most. Not only are there characters from different backgrounds — not only are they allowed to be individuals instead of exemplars, and allowed to completely ignore social issues — but there are enough of them that they even get to be members of groups. Peter Grant knows what to expect in a room full of African ladies, for instance, even if they happen to be river-spirits. This book is about people who actually live together rather than people who wonder whether it’s possible to live together. This milieu may be par for the course in modern British novels, but for me, coming out of the fraught discussions in US fandom, it was magic in itself.
The second stand-out feature was the thickness of Mr. Aaronovitch’s descriptions of London. I grew up reading British police procedurals, many of them set in London, but this book made me feel as if I was seeing it for the first time – as if those older books might have been written by ladies in New England with a Fodor’s guide in front of them. (Though a Fodor’s wouldn’t have been a bad idea, as the one thing I really wished for was a map of the rivers involved.)
The third thing that made me love this book was the flashes of insight — the forma — the protagonist has as he meets the different rivers. I don’t know quite what it is that makes them work so perfectly, but they call up different varieties of human pleasure so intensely in just a few words! Here he is meeting Father Thames:
I felt the force of his personality drag at me; beer and skittles it promised, the smell of horse manure and walking home from the pub by moonlight, a warm fireside and uncomplicated women.
This is the stuff of archetype. It reminds me of Sam and Frodo reminiscing about home as they trudge through Mordor, or C.S. Lewis’s tramp asking for toasted cheese in the bowels of That Hideous Strength. Suddenly, with just a few words, I’m on board with a lifestyle whose charms I never understood, wishing the men who like that sort of thing could have beer and skittles and uncomplicated women every day. More! More!
I’m the sort of person who always likes the stage setting more than the play itself, so the mystery and magic and various arcane creatures who strut their hour in this fantastic London get a solid ‘Oh, that’s nice!’ from me. The magic is interesting, the way it’s learned is neat, and the way the police interact with it is refreshingly low-key. I loved finding out how you get a warrant to arrest a ghost. The villain and what he does to people, on the other hand — well, it seemed arbitrary. I needed more, and earlier, grounding in the basic premise. The final solution likewise seemed to come out of some assumptions I didn’t share, but I was more than willing to go along for the ride just to see the scenery.
The author is very clever in handling the romance so that there’s real tension about whether the original love interest will survive. I was sure all along, however, that our hero would live through the magical procedure that had an 80% chance of killing him. Why do authors even bother telling us these procedures are dangerous and unlikely to work, when they always do work and the hero always survives them unscathed? The Martian is the only recent book I’ve read in which tension is actually heightened by mathematics, and that requires a lot more build-up … well, never mind. </petpeeve> Aaronovitch is not the first, last, or greatest sinner in this regard, and it did leave me with interesting questions about Molly.
All in all, Midnight Riot is great fun, with an engaging protagonist, marvelously drawn world, and a plot that kept me reading long past my bedtime. And there are sequels! I can’t wait to dive into the next.