Normally I take this section and ramble about writing. Technical tricks, what I’ve been doing, what I think about the male gender, that kind of thing. Today, I’m going to talk about a subject I first introduced in my Wednesday segment: Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London novels.
If you haven’t read any of these excellent books let me just warn you –
– so if you’re not into that kind of thing then maybe you need to go read those books (or at least the first four, since you may be reading this in 2020 when there are considerably more books in the series.) The kind of discussion I’m aiming for today can’t really dodge around spoilers and still make sense, so I beg you to read the books or accept that going beyond this paragraph may ruin many things for you. Okay?
Okay, so what’s this all about? If you’ve made it this far you undoubtedly already have a grasp on the themes and characters of Rivers of London and are wondering what, exactly, I’m going to go on about with this whole “series in transition” title and whatnot. It’s actually pretty simple. In Midnight Riot (Rivers of London for those of you across the pond) we’re introduced to all the major players in Peter Grant’s world and the general formula of the series is set. Said formula is (so far) thus:
The discovery of a body is described to us in fairly clinical detail. While Moon Over Soho and Whispers Underground don’t begin with this, things happening before the discovery of the body basically amount to a prologue.
Peter winds up on the case. In the first book this is a sizable chunk of story, since Peter isn’t yet a wizard-cop in training. In the other three it’s usually just a matter of getting the call from somewhere and showing up to get the rundown from the officers on the scene.
Investigation takes place.
Peter is drawn into unrelated matters pertaining to the balance of power in London’s supernatural community.
Investigation and politicking cross paths a couple of times.
Peter learns new spells!
There is a break in the case.
Peter puts all the pieces together and confronts the criminals.
Everyone lives weirder ever after. The level of weirdness keeps escalating, presumably because Peter isn’t a fully trained wizard yet. Although if his boss is any yardstick to measure by, full wizarding credentials doesn’t mean weirdness stops increasing.
I don’t want to waste too much time breaking this formula down, and I know it’s very loose and not everything fits nicely everywhere. What I want to show is that, magical nonsense aside, the formula of a Rivers of London novel is much closer to a police procedural than the typical urban fantasy or even paranormal investigation novel. That’s important, because, with Broken Homes, the series is starting to make some changes.
It’s been most apparent in the way Aaronovitch is building his myth arcs. The biggest arc, of course, revolves around the eponymous rivers. While the Thames is the biggest river in London it has a myriad of tributaries that run into it, and each river has an anthropomorphic embodiment that Peter and Nightingale have to deal with. The scariest of them is undoubtedly Tyburn, who is both magically and politically powerful, and ambitious. Exactly what her ambitions are is kind of unclear, even at this point, but it seems like the wizards of the Folly could be in the way.
But the rivers were always going to be an issue. You could tell that from the first book – even if you read the American version, which was titled Midnight Riot rather than Rivers of London. What’s more interesting is how the other long-running elements in the books are snowballing into bigger and bigger hurdles.
The first book introduced Mr. Punch, the embodiment of riot and unrest. He was the culprit in Peter’s first case with the Folly and, as a metaphysical manifestation of an abstract concept, he was not arrested and sent to jail but rather dragged deep into the Jungian unconsciousness of the city and staked to the ground. Later, in Whispers Underground, while Peter is buried in a collapsed subway station, he wanders into the past again and hears Punch still wailing in misery. One of the old riverine spirits warns him that the time will come when Peter will let Punch go of his own free will. Ominous, no?
But Mr. Punch is far from the only recurring villain in the series. In Moon Over Soho we were introduced to the Faceless Man, a wizard who somehow learned Newtonian magic without getting the government’s blessing and is now using it in horrible, evil ways. He starts as a sidestory to Moon‘s primary plot, the investigation of jazz musicians who are dying mysteriously. But the two narrative threads converge when the Faceless Man tries to recruit the Jazz Vampires responsible for the deaths Peter is investigating. His involvement in Whispers Underground is less pronounced, but by the time we reach Broken Homes things have changed.
And this is what I mean by the series being in transition. The first three books were straight up murder investigations. Sure, they went all over the place because real people have messy lives and working out which part might have killed them can be a real headache sometimes. Worse, Peter wears many hats in his little department of two, and he has many responsibilities outside of the murders he looks into. But Broken Homes, while it opens with a body being found just like the first three, is never really about solving the murder. They never get any proof of whodunnit but by the end it’s pretty clear to everyone involved.
Broken Homes is not about the who, it’s about the what. The Faceless Man is shaping up to be an honest to goodness supervillain, and the story this time around is less about whodunnit or how you’re going to prove it and more about running down the Faceless Man’s schemes. It’s kind of troublesome.
If you remember Disappointment Deconstructed, we’ve talked before about how audience expectation can factor into how they receive a story. This is a perfect example. People who have read Rivers of London are used to a police procedural with paranormal elements. What we’ve gotten is closer to a traditional urban fantasy. The story itself isn’t bad, per se. But it’s not what I was expecting.
In many ways, Broken Homes is a great example of how to introduce a major change in the direction of your story, in direct contrast to Out of the Dark. That said, if things continue on this path Rivers of London will slowly become less a police procedural with wonderfully quirky paranormal elements and more the traditional intrigue fueled urban fantasy. There’s nothing wrong with that, except the first is much rarer than the second. Only time will tell.