Rivers of London

Reviewer: Ian Leroux

Author: Ben Aaronovitch

Published: 2011

Reviewed: 2016-01-06

Publisher: Gollancz

The weekend I read Rivers of London, my only vehicle was stolen. I
didn't care. I was too engrossed in the book. It's easily that good.

The back-cover blurb describes this novel as Harry Pottter in the
Metropolitan Police Force, which is accurate only if you interpret
"Harry Potter" to mean "made in England, contains magic". Just as
Charlie Stross' Laundry novels take the cynical, bureaucratic world of
Le Carré's and Deighton's cold-war counter-intelligence novels and add
fantasy and fan-service for computer geeks, Aaronovitch takes the
cynical, bureaucratic world of British police procedurals and adds
fantasy and fan service for history geeks. The result is wryly, darkly
funny, without any of the moral earnestness of the Potterverse.

Aaronovitch is clearly, obsessively in love with the history and
geography of London, but he manages to keep things understandable for
us foreigners by having his narrator cheerfully explain just enough
historical context to follow what's going on (if you want more details,
Bill Bryson's "At Home" has plenty). Charmingly, these expository
passages never come out of nowhere; our narrator always has a plausible
excuse for knowing the history he recites, such as reading plaques on
monuments while bored. On the other hand, don't expect any help
catching the British pop culture references. If you can't spot
allusions to Blackadder, The Avengers (no, not the Marvel ones),
Monty Python or Doctor Who unassisted, you'll still be reading a fun
novel but you'll miss many of the in-jokes.

Here are three more things this novel gets right. First, it portrays
modern, cosmopolitan London honestly: the cast is full of characters
who are no less Londoners for having ancestors born on other
continents. The division between lily-white Englishness and ominous or
exotic foreignness was questionable even in Conan Doyle's day; today it
is ridiculous, and I'm glad to see this story pointedly not making it.
Second, Aaronovitch completely nails the description of an eager,
sharp-minded but inexperienced student. The narrator, as he learns
magic, keeps reminding me of UROPs I've supervised. His mix of
critical, questioning inquiry and dangerous ignorance makes the
treatment of magic in this book oddly scientific: magic is a mystery to
be studied and understood, not a set of fully worked-out rules handed
down, nor a mystical filler for plot holes. Third, nearly all the
characters are credible enough to like. I liked many of them, and
cared about several. Including some who were threats to each others'