Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch

Rivers Of London CoverRivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch infuses magic into the police procedural. The narrator is Peter Grant, a young London Metropolitan Police Constable newly apprenticed to a wizard. It’s a strangely compelling read that I could not put down until I finished it.

The novel is deeply rooted in the day to day realities of policing modern London and offers humor and a number of twists. Because the narrator is only an apprentice magician he understands some of the hows for performing magic but little of the why so he is conducting three investigations in parallel: the first is to understand not just the surface skills needed for magic but the real mechanisms for spooky action at a distance, the second is to find a way to resolve a dispute between a number of powerful river spirits, and the third is to uncover the real culprit behind a series of assaults and murders.

A Sense of History and of Place

Living in Silicon Valley any building that’s 50 years old is ancient and it’s hard to find anything that’s even 150 or 200 years old. Agnews Insane Asylum (1885), Winchester Mystery House (1884), and Mission Santa Clara (1777) are probably the three oldest Silicon Valley buildings I have been in. Rivers of London takes place in modern streets with stone buildings that are hundreds of years old and Roman Londinum ruins more than two millennia old. I didn’t know that the Salvation Army was founded in London and triggered a backlash Skeleton Army–one of the ghosts that Peter encounters was a member of the latter.

The Worst Part of the Job

“If you ask any police officer what the worst part of the job is, they will always say breaking bad news to relatives, but this is not the truth. The worst part is staying in the room after you’ve broken the news, so that you’re forced to be there when someone’s life disintegrates around them. Some people say it doesn’t bother them–such people are not to be trusted.”

I don’t know how Aaronovitch researched the practical day to day experience of policing in London but he anchors the narrative in the emotional realities of being a police officer. When Peter Grant narrates a fantastic or supernatural event it is all the more believable as a result.

Safety, Accuracy, Speed

Nightingale, a master magician, explains his approach to teaching magic to his new apprentice Peter Grant:

“Young men are always tempted to use brute force. It’s like learning to shoot a rifle: because it’s inherently dangerous you teach safety, accuracy, and speed–in that order.”

I think this is true for any decision you have to make: understand what is an affordable loss, how to find the most effective course of action, and make it in a timely fashion.

Vision Precedes Action

Peter Grant tries to explain the practice of magic to another Police Constable:

“It doesn’t feel like I am moving things around in my mind,” I said. “It’s like I am making shapes with my mind, which affects something else, which makes stuff happen at the other end. Do you know what a theremin is? […] It’s the only musical instrument that you don’t physically touch. You make shapes with your hand and you get a sound. The shapes are completely abstract, so you have to learn to associate a particular shape with a note and a tone before you can get the thing to make a tune.”

The magic in Rivers of London remains a mystery. Isaac Newton is credited with founding the practice of modern magic and there are allusions to magical combat in WW2. Since there are four sequels in the series I have yet to read perhaps more will become clear.

The Secret To a Happy Life

Peter Grant explains his lack of follow through with a beautiful woman to the reader:

“My dad once told me that the secret to a happy life was never to start something with a girl unless you were willing to follow wherever it led. It’s the best piece of advice he has ever given me, and probably the reason I was born.”

I think what I liked most about the book was it’s Fleming effect. Fantastic encounters with ghosts and power spirits are embedded in the day to day realities of policing in real locations and provided deep historical context. There were two major twists for me where Aaronovitch violated my expectations for how the story would progress: the first is that a series of puzzling attacks are show to be part of a larger ritual based on the script of a play and the second is when it becomes clear after the entity behind the attacks mounts a successful counter-ambush that Peter’s involvement was not fortuitous but part of a deeply laid plan.

The book would have been very satisfying just with it’s strong sense of place and character, but the plot twists took it to another level. The magic in the series feels to me like the impact that learning about X-Rays, sound recording,  or the telephone might have on someone from the 17th century: strange but not inconceivable.

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Other Series That Blend Magic and Science

  • Of Tangible Ghosts by L E. Modesitt, Jr. also suggests ghosts are a recording embedded in a location, especially where they suffered a violent death. It’s embedded an an alternate history that provides an interesting perspective on American and European character.
  • Lord Darcy Omnibus by Randall Garrett describes magic in terms of hardware and software, also set in an alternate history.
  • The Laundry Files series by Charles Stross has a much darker worldview (similar to much of H. P. Lovecraft’s horror writing) but is firmly anchored in the world of devops and IT/network administration. Pentagrams are generated by lasers and spells are executed on microprocessors (as in Rivers of London too much magic in a given period of time causes your brain to deteriorate).

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