Ben Aaronvitch’s ‘Rivers of London’ follows probationary officer Peter Grant, who is saved from an impeding future as a desk-jockey for the London Metropolitan police, when he accidentally finds the only witness of a bloody murder in Covent Gardens. There’s one problem however. The witness is a ghost. The resulting fallout finds Grant as the latest member of the Met’s supernatural crime division and consequently, the first wizard’s apprentice in fifty years. Naturally, Grant’s problems begin right from the go. The murder in Covent Gardens soon reveals itself to be part of a larger supernatural crime wave, where victims are possessed and reduced to violent puppets. If that wasn’t enough Grant must also negotiate peace terms between the warring god and goddess of the river Thames. Their extended families however are taking beginning to take more than a passing interest in his investigation . . .
Aaronovitch’s approach to the urban fantasy genre is refreshing. This is not a magic of the earth and spirits; this is a magic of knowledge and science. In fact, its pseudo-science is one of the many things that sets the book apart from obvious comparisons with J. K. Rowling’s ‘Harry Potter’ series. Aaronovitch attempts to explain and normalise the possibility of magic in the real world and in doing so he transforms ‘modern magic’ into something hard, shiny and logical. Grant spends a lot of the narrative exploring magic as a set of scientific experiments. Personally, I have a great love of magic as something old and pagan and slightly unknowable, but I enjoyed this new spin.
The characterisation of the book was good for the most part. Grant is funny and self-deprecating, his narration punctuated with a cynical humour that feels classically British:
The role of the Case Progression Unit is to do the paperwork for the hard-pressed constable so he or she can get back out on the street to be abused, spat at and vomited on.
I also enjoyed the personification of London’s different rivers from the regal Nigerian Mama Thames to the wily travelling Oxley. The inventiveness and energy was clear from each initial introduction. My only trouble was with Grant’s two key love interests, Beverley Brooks and PC Lesley May who are woefully under-developed and seem to act more as props. Whilst her dialogue is humourous, Beverley in particular spends more time brushing up against Grant and running in-and-out of rivers naked than contributing to the plot in any significant way. However I will hold my hands up that, as this is the first novel, there might be more development of her character in further books.
One key aspect that stood out for me was the whiff of race relations that permeates the plot. Grant informs the reader early on that he is mixed-race and the text is peppered with Barrack Obama jokes and white suburban fears of ‘The Scary Black Man’. Grant even suffers a violent racial outburst from a superior officer under supernatural influence.
Yet it is the book’s external issues that has come under fire. The book’s US edition (renamed ‘Midnight Riot’) changed its photographic cover of the protagonist to a man in silhouette, effectively hiding his ethnicity. This was commented on by a number of critics, including journalist Steve Bitsoli of The Macomb Daily, who wrote: ‘while NOT showing that the character is black may not necessarily be racist, to alter the illustration to disguise the fact that the man IS black seems awfully suspicious’. The question is do publishers still the need to blur a protagonist’s race to appeal to readers? I would not for a minute suggest that Aaronovitch attempts to hide his own protagonist’s race within the text, references to his Sierra Leonean roots abound, but the actions of the American publishers do seem to show a certain lack of faith in its audience. So where does this lack of faith come from? Are we to blame? Are we as collectively liberal-minded about black male protagonists in mainstream modern literature, as we think we are individually?
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