Rivers of London (series) – Ben Aaronovitch

I picked up the first book, “Midnight Riot” (UK release is named “Rivers of London”) because it was in a list of recommendations from Daniel O’Malley in the back of his “The Rook: A Novel”, which I greatly enjoyed. Initially, I wasn’t sure if I liked “Midnight Riot” or not, but then I missed my T stop because I was too busy reading and that settled it.

I went to Porter Square Books the following day and picked up the next books in the series, “Moon Over Soho” and “Whispers Underground” in addition to enough cookbooks to overload my bag. I feel that this bookstore merits a specific naming because it had every single book I was looking for that day, and how cool is that? It’s a magic bookstore that has books that I want to read.

So this series is an urban fantasy set in London, and is the cap on my belief that the best (English language) urban fantasy nowadays is not written by Americans, but the English (and Australians… and Canadians). I should just say non-Americans?

Another thing this series brings up is the lack of racial diversity in the other urban fantasies I’ve read. First off, the man character is obviously ethnic and this fact is brought up constantly. He interacts with a lot of different races and religions because it’s always going to happen in an urban area, and everyone will act and dress differently. I like it. At first, I thought the author was tossing the racial difference of the protagonist around a lot, then I decided that it was important.

It shows a shocking lack of reality when urban fantasies in the USA feature characters that are uniformly white, or interact with mostly white characters. Look at Los Angeles, New York, Boston, Washington DC. How is it possible to only interact with Caucasians, or even people who haven’t lived in the USA for generations? And then apply that to books. How are the only people you see, know, etc white? It’s not logical, and it could possibly indicate some race issues in books and our reading habits.

Is it because we’d rather read about characters that are white? Is it the set default we imagine when we picture a character, even if we’re not white? I feel a sense of complicity in this … white washing is too strong of a phrase and not quite right, but I cannot think of another… of the genre because I mostly read books with a European (specifically, Irish) fantasy bent. Generally, I do not read a lot of urban fantasy with Asian myths in it, but I cannot decide if it’s because it was neglected in the genre or if my strong feelings against exoticism result in me selecting against it.

Anyways! The “Rivers of London” books are great reads. The protagonist, Peter Grant, is a police officer that gets thrown into the midst of magical dealings when investigating a police case. Interestingly, his superiors know that magic is possible (and they dislike it), and push him off to be apprenticed to the last known English wizard, Lord Thomas Nightingale, a relic of a by-gone age made even more apparent when the reader learns that magic was supposed to be on a serious decline.

Lord Thomas Nightingale handles the supernatural part of law enforcement, and had not been called into duty for years until the case, and Peter himself, was flagged. From then on, Peter begins his schooling (and his experimentation) in the subject of magic, whether it is casting spells, meeting the human personifications of the rivers of London, seeing the effects of previously unknown dark magic users, or experimenting in methods to blend his previously modernized life with his new one.

As it turns out, magic and technology do not get along.

The plots were intriguing, and the tie-ins with history and pop culture references were always good for smile and wikipedia moments. My favorite one involves Peter asking Lord Nightingale about the largest object he used a spell on. The answer was, “A Tiger”, but it’s not the feline kind; it’s a Panzerkamfwagen. (There was a special joy in this reference because M loves history and has been playing “World of Tanks” for the past year. He got the reference immediately.)

I think what I enjoyed the most about these books is that I felt like I had not encountered all of the ideas before. It felt good to read them and think, “Oh, I like this idea a lot” as opposed to skimming over bits that match another plot or world.

There weren’t any overflowing descriptions that seem to have become the staple of urban fantasty, and I loved the sparser wordings. I am not a fan of an outpouring of descriptive words, akin to word vomit, and so I was pleased to enjoy imagining the world as I read without having to read overblown efforts to describe everything.

I cannot wait for the next book to come out. My only dilemma is, do I buy it in hardback for immediate gratification, or do I wait for the paperback so it matches the rest of the books on my shelf?

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