Faren Miller reviews Ben Aaronovitch

Midnight Riot opens in modern police-procedural mode, with the discovery of a dead body and (six meters away) its missing head. Probationary Constable Peter Grant, the book’s young narrator, can only hope that someday he’ll be able to deal with that kind of case, instead of a newbie’s quiet beat or mounds of paperwork. At this point he doesn’t even believe in magic, let alone think that he could play some part in it. But soon enough he’ll encounter things undeniably magical, reluctantly acknowledge his keen sense for them, and catch the interest of London’s one wizard who also works with the constabulary, in a sequence that might seem entirely familiar to all but the most probationary readers of fantasy.

Mind you, it’s already fun. Early on, we get a few glimpses of the parents who gave Peter his mixed race (white jazz player/addict, black charwoman born in Africa), though his brash tone derives more from a combination of youth, intelligence, inexperience and some bits of worldly wisdom he had to acquire in childhood. When the wizard starts spouting Latin – official language of magic ever since Isaac Newton explored and codified it, along with alchemy – this boy doesn’t have a clue. Obliged to learn the dead language as part of his training, naturally he grouches, feeling especially put-upon since he can handle the latest tech far better than his mentor, Inspector Nightingale.

But the old inspector’s own wealth of experience and lore opens up a world where ghosts, demigods, assorted demons and (above all) those genii loci also known as ‘‘spirits of place’’ regard the great sprawl of London as their own. Something nonhuman has to be behind the ongoing series of gruesome and bizarrely linked murders. Early on, our hero meets an eye-witness to the first killing: a tricky fellow who also happens to be dead, though it takes a while for Peter to admit that he has spoken with a ghost. As the plot winds its way further into the supernatural, interrupted by brief episodes where lust, angst, sarcasm and the normal pursuits of youth get the better of him, he manages to learn more about detection, magic, and the history of London.

The city’s past becomes important to both the murder plotline (which may stretch back to events a century or more ago) and a subplot where two major spirits of place are on the brink of war, while Peter shuttles between them and attempts to keep the peace. Father Thames and Mother Thames – neither with the guise or background one would expect – rule different parts of the great river, but now some little brawls have broken out among their followers, and worse could follow. Mother’s the more flamboyant of the mismatched pair, with a large family of ‘‘daughter’’ rivers and streams, one of whom Peter gets to know if not exactly love, given the prickly interaction between young man and spirit in her human form.

Towards book’s end, another supernatural being takes him on a trip that only resembles hallucination:

Above, the sky seemed strangely ill-defined, blue at one moment, cloudy the next, and then gritty with coal smoke. As I traveled, I noticed that the clothes on the passersby changed, the ghost cars vanished completely and even the skyline began to alter. I realized I was being drawn back in time through the historical record.

It’s a journey he must take, to help him find his way into the origins and aspects of a folktale that could lie behind the current string of deaths and horrific transformations. Peter and his mentor also delve into mysteries whose answers only a river could know. Can the apprentice policeman establish enough mutual trust to get one final, vital clue from the waters?

Though I’ve tried not to give away too many of Midnight Riot’s plot turns and surprises, by now you may gather that Aaronovitch’s first novel is not a conventional Urban Fantasy. Soon there will be a sequel (Moon Over Soho), and likely this will turn into a series. But if future volumes manage to keep our hero and his mates from settling into ‘‘types’’ in a retold tale, they could provide both entertainment and sweet relief for readers allergic to cliché.

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