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)
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.