I picked Rivers of London up for a £1 in a charity shop attracted to the artwork on the front cover that features an interesting hand drawn section of a map of London with the Thames picked out in red and a groovy calligraphy style title. Once I got it home I realised that the mental push my subconscious had given me was linked to the fact that I already had the third book of this series (Whispers Underground) with a similar style cover in my collection of unread paperbacks. This was a gift from a work colleague who was having a clear out while moving house. I have put the second book (Moon Over Soho) on my Christmas list to hopefully complete the circle.
After reading the blurb on the back, I thought ‘this is my kind of book’ and indeed this turned out to be the case. I am a fan of similar books that marry the everyday with the fantastical by the likes of Neil Gaiman (Neverwhere, American Gods), Terry Pratchett (Good Omens), China Mieville (Un Lun Dun), Haruki Murakami (The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, Kafka on the Shore) and Clive Barker (Weaveworld). And of course, as I realised when I started reading it, there are obvious similarities to the Harry Potter series – although I have only ever seen the films.
The main protagonist in Rivers of London is Peter Grant, a young mixed race officer in the Metropolitan Police. While on guard duty in Covent Garden at the scene of a grizzly murder Grant has an encounter with a ghost who says that he witnessed the murder. Grant is subsequently recruited into a secret police unit that deals with the paranormal. The unit isn’t like Mulder and Scully investigating The X-Files because it is clear that Grant’s new boss, Inspector Nightingale, is an old wizard intent on teaching Grant some magic.
While Grant learns the ropes of his new job, he continues to investigate a string of violent incidents that are happening across the city. He is also given the task of trying to sort out a local turf war between two families of local ‘small gods’ (to borrow a term from Pratchett) representing tributaries of the Thames – hence the title of the book. The murders turn out to be a strange case of ghostly possession and the resolution is ultimately and unsurprisingly interlinked with the apparent river subplot.
Aaronovitch has a good sense of comedy and tragedy in a fantasy London comparable to Gaiman’s Neverwhere tinged with the violence of Barker. I found some of the characterisations a little lightweight and the bigger scenes (for example a riot in a theatre) a little oddly pacing, but overall I was impressed by the imaginative storyline and description of police procedures juxtaposed with the supernatural along with interesting insights into the history of London.