Rivers of London: Ben Aaronovitch’s 21st century London (Peter Grant series)

There are books I can’t write. This is a good thing.

What a limited world it would be if the only novels available were ones I could think up. I’m not dissing myself or my writing; I’m just saying I have certain stories to tell and I get the greatest pleasure imaginable out of experiencing the stories other people have to tell.

What’s odd is when I find a book that feels tailor made for me because it has oodles of my favorite fictional things presented in ways that most please and entertain me–and it is a book I definitely could not have written. How do these authors know to make the book just for me in that particular way?

Late last year I picked up Ben Aaronovitch’s MIDNIGHT RIOT (original/UK title: Rivers of London) because I had seen it mentioned enough times that I thought it was time for me to try it, and because I was looking for a modern fantasy fiction read.

It turns out that the series hits so many of my favorite things that I read the extant three novels (#1 MIDNIGHT RIOT/RIVERS OF LONDON, #2 MOON OVER SOHO, and #3 WHISPERS UNDERGROUND) in three days, one a day. It was like I fell into the world and couldn’t (and didn’t want to) climb out.

What did I love? (this list will be as spoiler free as I can make it, but the comments will not be)

1) London!
I love London. These books are set in London and written by a Londoner. The sense of place is so grounded that I am 99.99% certain that Aaronovitch has been to every place he writes about. It feels utterly real because it is real. As an added bonus, there are a number of architectural asides relating to the history of the city that I love unreservedly because I love architecture. The details make the setting, and they all ring true and are exactly right to bring this London to life like I could go there next week and meet some of these people and see these secret places if only I knew how to get into them. Also, the magic is tied in to London and to the land itself. SO AWESOME.

2) Furthermore, the London of the series is the truly multicultural 21st century London that exists today rather than an antiquated London with a primarily white cast and a few random people of color thrown in. When people object to inserting people of color into narratives just to “make quota,” this is an example of a series I would point them to in order to show how to write a story about the real world and seeing what is in front of our eyes every day.

3) The narrator, Peter Grant, is a young constable just off probation.
Okay, he just works for me as a narrator. If I was 24, I would totally have a crush on this guy AND I would know that he was exactly the kind of guy I should not have a crush on, because he is bad boyfriend material but good friend material. Yes, in case you’re asking, I identify in that sense with Lesley. Don’t judge me.

3) The well-crafted first person narration.
He has a charming, funny, humane, and observant voice that is a pleasure to read and follow along with.
But there’s more to it than that. The narration does double duty.
We sometimes see things Peter does not.
We occasionally get things about him he misses.
We can in some cases understand people differently than he does.
He is often very observant and sometimes entirely clueless.
We are told, through the mouths of others (mostly Lesley and Nightingale), things about Peter that are often critical and which he repeats faithfully even if he disagrees with them (I will quote two of my absolute favorites in the comments section), and at the same time the narrative itself reveals through action how true those things are (for instance, Peter’s “short attention span”).
Meanwhile, some of his weaknesses can also at times be strengths (e.g. his way of focusing which is sometimes a lack of focus allows him to see things and to experiment with magic in ways that other people do not).
He makes mistakes. At the same time, he is good at a lot of the things he does without being way too good.
Asides are paid off later. Nothing is wasted.
The next book is set up, and the seeds of further books down the line are being laid in place as well. I can’t know how much BA plots out the larger narrative arc in advance but it feels to me like there are several unfolding plots here that could run to many more books in the way that a really well done tv series has season arcs and an overall series arc. And I will be there for every one.

4) Magic! Magic! Magic!
Magic that makes sense, with rules and limitations, and which is about the hard repetitive learning curve not about special inborn talent that manifests to miraculously make the Chosen One the bestest of all around. It’s difficult to come up with a way to integrate magic into the modern world that doesn’t feel cliched, dull, shallow, done a million times, or tainted with an underlying message of aristocratic chosen-ness. This magically infused world really worked for me. Besides magic, there are also people and creatures with inborn natural magic, and that is categorized and fitted into the entire schema as well.

5) Human Positive
This first person narrative is told from the point of view of a young man in his 20s with a healthy (hetero)sexual appreciation for women, a male gaze, a not inconsequential good opinion of himself (leavened by a grain of salt in his sense of humor), and yet which is COMPLETELY RESPECTFUL OF WOMEN. Furthermore, the female characters feel like real human beings and appear in a variety of roles all of which he pays attention as human beings.
This should not be as unusual as it is, but it is, so let me repeat that again:
RESPECTFUL OF WOMEN. Treats women as human beings and portrays women in a wide variety of roles which are not limited to sexual object or male caretaker.

5a) Over on my Book Smugglers Smugglivus guest post which you can find here, I discussed the idea of writing a healthy male heterosexuality as opposed to an obsession with unhealthy sexuality . It is completely possible to write about male heterosexuality in a way that is positive and real without it becoming puerile, juvenile, tittering, demeaning, filled with abuse and rape and an objectifying male gaze. It’s one of my favorite things about the book because I never felt that, as a woman and a human being, I had to cringe.

6) Secondary characters.
Loads of them, with distinct personalities, the sense that they have their own lives and plot arcs, and a feeling that we may re-meet these people at any time because they are not automatons in service of the plot. Also: his mum. Trust me on this.

7) FINALLY: Wit.
Not every sense of humor works for everyone but this one absolutely nailed a blend of serious and witty that totally works for me.

In short, I love this series because it works for me on every level. Will you love it? I don’t know, but I encourage anyone who hasn’t read it to at least try it if my description sounds at all appealing.
Those who have read it, feel free to join with me here to discuss it, spoilers, predictions, scars, and all.

39 thoughts on “Rivers of London: Ben Aaronovitch’s 21st century London (Peter Grant series)

  1. And I quote:

    “The original forms are in the Principia Artes Magices,” said Nightingale. “There have been changes over the years.”

    “Who made the changes?”

    “People who can’t resist fiddling with things,” said Nightingale. “People like you, Peter.”

    [From Rivers of London/Midnight Riot]

  2. And the other quote:

    I’m not a player, but I’d never had a girlfriend who’d lasted more than three months. Lesley said that my exes knew that past a certain point I’d lost interest and that’s why they always packed me in first. That’s not the way I remember it, but Lesley swore she could have constructed a calendar base don my love life. A cyclical one, she said, like the Maya–counting down to disaster. Lesley could be surprisingly erudite sometimes.

    [from Moon Over Soho]

  3. I picked up the first one based on your a gushing tweet you made and devoured all three books one after another, plus gave all three to my brother for Christmas.

    And I agree whoe-heartedly with you on your reasons for loving the series. He’s like Jasper Fforde in a real London.


  4. Between you and Bujold I am all asquee to see authors I hart squeeing over someone else’s work which I looooove. And yes to everything you’ve said here; these books are urban fantasy in the absolute best tradition. They couldn’t take place anywhere else, London is so deeply woven into the characters and the plots. I thrust the first book into the hands of everyone I know!

  5. This first person narrative is told from the point of view of a young man in his 20s with a healthy (hetero)sexual appreciation for women, a male gaze, a not inconsequential good opinion of himself (leavened by a grain of salt in his sense of humor), and yet which is COMPLETELY RESPECTFUL OF WOMEN.

    I love these books for all the reasons you list above, but this is the one that keeps surprising me. (And yes, it’s sad that it keeps surprising me.) A first person male heterosexual viewpoint character who will look at women and admire how sexy they are, who doesn’t creep me out! Written by a man, and still clearly respectful of women as their own characters with their own desires! There is never one god damn moment in which the narrative thinks that some sexy woman not returning Peter’s interest is a failing on her part. And even Peter knows that, not just the narrative.

  6. I absolutely agree with you. I bought Rivers of London for my Kindle the day after Christmas, and I loved it so much that I got the other two right away and read the whole lot in one go.

    Sadly I haven’t been able to describe to my friends why I enjoyed it so much, but yes, it totally worked for me, too. I enjoyed seeing things through Peter’s eyes, he’s likeable and smart, although not freakishly so. And it was only when I read your post that I fully realised that yes, the writing is extremely respectful of women (I just thought he’s really nice in his interactions with women, even those he doesn’t fancy/have sex with).

    How depressing that this is so unusual.

  7. As you know (because we discussed it on Twitter), I also adore these books. The setting is just fabulous, similar in many ways to that in Kate Griffin’s Matthew Swift books (modern, multicultural, the City almost acting as a character rater than a place), but also with it’s own unique spin. And I love Peter’s voice. He could easily be one of my younger colleagues or friends, and I like seeing the world through his eyes, and also hearing his asides. For example, he notes wryly at one point how different his experience on the police force as a POC would have been a few years back, not in an angry way, but more with a verbal eyeroll at the past. This does not stop him from politely correcting his superiors when they use less-than-modern turns of phrase such as “black magician”, which I could totally see myself doing…
    I also like some of the details about policework, such as as asking a belligerent person “do you want to be arrested?” to make them stop and think about the answer. I’ve seen cops do that! Also, making sure that he gives the official warning before (magically) opening fire was terrific. He really does try to do things the right way, although it is sometimes *his* right way and not someone else’s version.
    And finally: if you had a mother like that, you would respect women too. Because my god, disrespect her and you would not like to see adulthood. She is the BEST.

  8. I particularly love his aside: “That’s not the way I remember it”


    I mean, whose recollection and ability to pay attention to things are we trusting here, Peter’s or Lesley’s?

  9. Both Peter and the narrative know it. Exactly what you said: it keeps surprising me because there is never one moment, not one.

    I realized reading this that with male writers there is often a part of me that reserves trust and that stays wary because I am waiting for the slap in the face, the one the nice guy writer doesn’t even realize he’s delivering because he doesn’t have to think about it. (This would work intersectionally for a lot of other things too).

    The exact point where I thought — my god, I can trust this guy (the writer, that is) — is that scene in book one where he and Lesley (who we know he lusts after) have just returned from that awful murder (baby out the window, etc) and she asks him to stay over night. That scene — his understanding that she is so shaken up that she doesn’t want to be alone and that this is not about sex, that he is also shaken up and doesn’t want to be alone, that naturally when he climbs in bed with her he gets an erection, and that they both accept and ignore it and that nothing happens except the comfort and sleep — is where I realized I could trust this author.

    There was none of this “men cannot control their lust” which has this whiff of adolescent immaturity about it.

    He’s a young man, he’s heterosexual, and he’s in control of himself. Done.

  10. I am pretty sure the author really did his homework on policework. One of the things I dislike about the rash of CSI like shows on US tv is this almost magical-exceptionalist hero view they promulgate (similar to the “huge battle being won by single hero fighting” thing that all too many US films use rather than, like, disciplined armies). But the policework in these books feels like policework which includes a few high octane chases but a lot of routine, thorough, boring legwork. Also details like “do you want to be arrested”

    re: his mum. It’s impressive to me how much we know and understand about his mum without huge rafts of pages being spent on describing her.

  11. I felt like we know about his parents less from what he says or what is shown of them directly, and more in how they shaped Peter as a person. he treats women respectfully because who grew up around women who both deserved and demanded respect. I also notice that he has very good manners in general, which seems to serve him well in his work.
    I was especially tickled by his dealings with Mother Thames, knowing the types of gifts she would appreciate and etc.

  12. Ain’t that the truth.

    But, I should note, it is one that some first person narrations forget. If there is no bias in the account, then what (I ask) is the point of writing in first person?

  13. Her style is harder for me to fall into because for some reason I have to think while I’m reading it. It’s good stuff, though.

  14. That’s an excellent point: one of the appeals of the London setting is that the story could not be picked up and moved to, oh, Seattle or New York. But the best done settings in uf all do that, of course.

    I think I tweeted about how now I had to wait in agony for the next volume, which amused those of my own readers who are waiting for Cold Steel.

  15. Thinking more about this I realize how many books have this undercurrent of resentment of women, and these lack it entirely.

  16. Yes, on all of that. What’s interesting is that he does in some ways get along better with and have more close relationships with women than with men. He does have some nice banter with, forex, Kumar (can’t recall the guy’s rank) and there is a bit in book two I think with a constable from the country he gets along with, but he doesn’t seem to have any close male friends that I’ve seen or heard tell of. Yet.

  17. I hope you enjoy them!

    I love recommending books but I’m always aware that we can’t know how much another person will like something.

  18. I picked this book up on your Book Smugglers rec and love it. Halfway through Moon Over Soho now. I’m doing the audiobooks, and the narrator is excellent.

    In regards to your comment saying there’s none of the “men can’t control their lust” business – I disagree. It’s not that it isn’t there, it’s that it is actually realistic. Peter cannot control his body’s reaction – his erection when he touches an attractive woman. But, and this is the part we’re responding to, he CAN control what he DOES about this involuntary reaction.

    Men can’t always help looking at, thinking about, or responding to beautiful women (or hot men if that’s what floats their boat). The problem is when people think that their involuntary physical reaction is actionable… that it’s an excuse for bad behavior.

    What makes Peter so realistic and refreshing to me is exactly this lack of apology for the biology of his sexuality COMBINED WITH his uncompromising refusal to let it turn him into an animal.

  19. In truth, we agree: you’ve just phrased it far better than I did. Because that is EXACTLY what I love about it, too — that his body has reactions–normal physiological reactions–but he controls what he does about it. I should have separated those two elements in what I wrote because what I meant was what you just stated so well.

    The scene that really hooked me on the series is the one after he and Lesley witness the baby thrown out the window, etc, and she doesn’t want to be alone, and etc. That for me said it all.

  20. I thought so but also thought it was worth discussing since it’s something that is so easy to get wrong – to accidentally write male characters who have no sexuality at all because we have biology mixed up with ethics in our heads and we don’t want a lecherous beast of a character. It seems hard even for male writers to walk that line, probably because of the cultural training they go through… that they only thing they are allowed to want from women is sex.

    I thought this was Ben’s first novel and was shocked that it was so mature and walked so many delicate lines with success. When I found out he’s actually been around for a while, just not in this genre (and writing Doctor Who! squee!) I felt a lot better because my own first attempts at male characters are… well, at my day job we would say “I have code in that direction but the feature is not implemented yet.”

    Yes, I know it’s not a competition! But it is heartening to imagine that after a great deal of hard work I might someday be that good.

    Will never be able to write Rivers of London, though. I had the exact same reaction you did with regards to appreciating a book I could never have written myself.

    Anyway, I’m looking forward to getting home and finishing Moon Over Soho. I left poor Peter in the ethically challenged magician’s basement with Larry the Lark’s head on a pole and I am both dreading and anticipating finding out what’s making the scrabbling sound in the dark!!

  21. For some reason WordPress won’t let me reply to your other comment, so I’ll do it here: Very much agreed on flattening out male sexuality. Obviously people have varying degrees of sexual interest throughout their lives ranging from the asexual to the hypersexual, but pretending a sex drive doesn’t exist doesn’t solve the problem of the “lecherous male default” either. As you say, the ability to accept instinctive reactions and control response is what matters.

    As for your own writing: I always say that persistence is the key. Good luck!

  22. I love, love, love these books. Lived in London a long time ago, so I didn’t mind that sometimes the story veers off to the history of architecture of a place or building. Makes me nostalgic instead. Can’t wait for Broken Homes. I also have them as audiobooks, the narrator Kobna Holdbrook-Smith potrayed all the characters exactly as you and I would have “pictured” them. It’s hard to believe that the Peter Grant and Nightingale characters are read by the same person. But his potray of Peter Grant is the best, he captures all his nuances, underlying snarks, dead pan humour perfectly. Have been caught frequently tittering, or giggling to myself when listening to these audiobooks.

  23. I have never listened to a book on audio but your description makes me consider doing a “re-read” of the series via audio book.

  24. Oh you should 🙂 Starting with the second book they’ve added a jazzy intro note which kind of sets the tone for the books.
    I read somewhere that the author is adding new characters with different accents in the upcoming book to see if the narrator is up for the challenge. And it seems that he is 🙂
    But I have to warn you though his American accent or his voice for Agent Ryan is terrible. I don’t know maybe it was purposely exagerrated so you get the hint of annoyance or irritation in the voice of the character.

  25. I just finished “Whispers,” and I love this series too. Was so sad when the last book was over, but it begs the question, will he write more? The reader is left hanging a bit in the last book, so I assume he will, but can’t find anything online about the potential for more books! Have you been able to find anything?

    Also, I listened to the series on Audible and it was OUTSTANDING! A reader can really make or break an audio book and this guy was so, so good!

  26. Book four is coming out in June in both the UK and US!!! So excited!

    I’ve not listened to the audio books but they sound excellent. Do you know who the voice actor is?

  27. i agree with all above and specially about the audiobooks

    if they ever turn this in a tv series (looks at the bbc and especially at the creators of luther and sherlock holmes)
    the guy reading the audiobooks (performing?) should have the lead.

    i do have some bad news, according to the author the us version will only be available in 2014 a us audio is not even a date available

    nothing the internet cant solve i guess

  28. This is one of my favorite quotes from the book! I love the relationship between Leslie- the up and comer and Peter.

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