Cool Things: Foxglove Summer

Usually when I talk about books or movies I enjoy I try and avoid spoilers. But this is book five in Ben Aaronovitch’s excellent Rivers of London series and, while I’m going to try and avoid spoiling anything about this book, there are some major spoilers for the rest of the series. If you haven’t read the first four books and you want to do so without spoilers now is the time to bow out. You can come back after you read up to this point, though!

So if you read Broken Homes you know that Rivers of London has gone through a major transition. Leslie May, a major player in PC Peter Grant’s life, has abandoned the forces of good and joined up with the Faceless Man to work against Peter, DCI Nightingale and the rest of The Folly (namely, the maid, Molly, and the department mascot, Toby the Dog). In exchange she hopes to get a new face to replace the one she lost to Mr. Punch at the end of the first book.

Foxglove Summer opens with Peter being sent out of London (gasp!) to investigate a case of missing children. There’s no evidence of this being the kind of case The Folly normally investigates but due diligence is due diligence and that goes double when children are involved. That goes double again when witnesses report the children talked to invisible friends that, unlike the typical invisible friend, are actually there. Moving things. Giving rides. Touching people. It seems like you can’t go anywhere with Peter and not find something Folly-esque.

Beyond saving the kids Peter has issues of his own to work out. First, by going into the country he’s quite literally run from his problems back in London. He hasn’t dealt with Leslie’s betrayal or the near-death experience he had on his last assignment. The Metropolitan Police aren’t entirely sure he wasn’t in cahoots with Leslie. And Beverly Brook, London River Incarnate, has come in on this case to consult and there’s unresolved emotional issues there, too.

All in all, Foxglove Summer is kind of a renaissance for the series. Peter is put in unfamiliar circumstances so he can get perspective, set new goals and come to grips with his very unexpected place in life. At the same time, it provides a jumping on point for new readers. If you want to get into this series in the middle, don’t want to go back and read a bunch of backstory or just want to enjoy a good suspense story with an otherworldly twist then this book will fit your bill. The one disappointment you might find as you read will stem from the title’s failure to advance it’s overarching plot, as Beverly is the only river of London in the book and the machinations of the various riverine incarnations is alluded to but never comes into play. While events in this book may eventually play a part in future parts of that story the lack of obvious advancement might be frustrating to some longtime readers.

All in all this is another solid installment to the series and reaffirms my belief that Aaronovitch will be able to transition things well from the opening act of his story to the larger stage of whatever is coming down the pike. But it’s also probably the last really accessible entrance point for new readers so if you want to get on board do it now.

Broken Homes – A Series in Transition

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 –

There Will Be Spoilers 

– 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: 

  1. 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. 

  2. 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. 

  3. Investigation takes place. 

  4. Peter is drawn into unrelated matters pertaining to the balance of power in London’s supernatural community. 

  5. Investigation and politicking cross paths a couple of times. 

  6. Peter learns new spells! 

  7. There is a break in the case. 

  8. Peter puts all the pieces together and confronts the criminals. 

  9. 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.

Cool Things: Rivers of London

Ben Aaronovitch is a man who can spin a tale. He has written TV scripts and audio dramas and includes both episodes and novelizations of the famous Dr. Who franchise among his many credits. And I’m sure all of those things are very interesting. But they’re not what I want to talk to you about this week.

No, today we’re gonna talk about the Rivers of London series. Police Constable Peter Grant is our plucky protagonist, an up and coming beat cop who has little to look forward to in his career beyond a life behind a desk, making very important contributions in the field of clerical work. That is, until he is placed on guard at a homicide scene and winds up interviewing one of the most important witnesses in the case.

It just so happens that that witness is a ghost.

This makes PC Grant’s life exponentially more difficult. Particularly when the information he gets from the ghost is verified by other developments in the case. Naturally, Grant goes out in attempt to ask the ghost some more questions. What he finds instead is Detective Chief Inspector Thomas Nightingale. Rather than signing up Grant for a long stay in a padded room, DCI Nightingale offers Grant a job – as an apprentice to the last officially sanctioned wizard in England.

Life as an apprentice wizard is more than just study and practice for Grant, however. In addition to his exhaustive study of Latin, the language Isaac Newton codified magic into, Grant has to log several hours of practice each day (but not too much, else he cause a fatal brain aneurysm), help Nightingale keep the Queen’s Peace among the many supernatural denizens of London and figure out exactly what magic is and where it comes from.

And that’s in addition to trying to figure out what happened to the murdered man and the helpful ghost he saw. Oh, and the job comes with supernatural politics, too. In particular, one of the local rivers incarnate wants to take a hand in regulating and enforcing the Queen’s Peace among the paranormal folks of London. Juggling his obligations to the Crown while navigating the tricky byways of the Thames River tributaries is a running theme of Grant’s life, hence the name of the series.

Peter is a believable character living in a lovingly detailed rendition of modern London, and his stories are told with wit and charm, along with a healthy dose of heart that makes them both engaging and enjoyable. As a note, part of what makes Peter believable is that he behaves and talks like a cop, including coarse language. If that bothers you, the Rivers of London might not be for you.

If that sounds intriguing, Rivers of London (or Midnight Riot if you live in the States) is the first book in the series, and is well worth your time to check it out.