These days, it’s hard to find entertainment that doesn’t involve a screen. Luckily, books are here to save the day and possibly quarantine too. And what’s better than one good book? A whole freaking series of them. So let me introduce to you: The Rivers of London Saga by Ben Aaronovitch.
Full disclosure, I’ve listened to them as audiobooks on audible so if they are somehow worse as actual books I wouldn’t know. But like, how would that work? I did, however, really like the narrators voice and subtle musical score in places, so I think the audiobooks are at least as good as the actual books. But I digress. The Rivers of London (RoL) saga currently consists of 8 full-length novels, two novellas and further comic books. The series isn’t finished and a new book comes out roughly once a year. I have listened to all novels twice at this point but haven’t ventured into the other volumes.
The saga is set – somewhat unsurprisingly – in London. We are roughly in the same time period that we are living in right now – give or take a couple of years and a pandemic. Everything is normal as we know it, except it isn’t. Or maybe it is and real life is actually like it is in the books. Anyhow, there’s magic but most people don’t know that. So, you see, our world could totally be like that and we wouldn’t know. Except, some people do know. At this point, these people are mainly law enforcement because they have to deal with the ugly aftermath of it.
The first we learn of it, is when Police Constable Peter Grant is out and about, trying to take a witness statement. From a ghost. Now Peter doesn’t know that anything supernatural or magical exists in the world, prior to that evening. He is a policeman doing police work. But once he realizes that he has just conversed with a ghost, he has an amazing train of thought that I hope I would have if confronted with anything inexplicably. It goes somewhat like this: Ghosts aren’t real. I must be crazy. But I’m not crazy. So, I guess ghosts are real. Let’s roll with that.
It’s that every pragmatic and scientifically minded attitude that makes all of the RoL books so relatable. Peter is thrown into a new line of work, and discovers a whole new world of magical and supernatural creatures, history and mechanics but it just doesn’t faze him – much. Following his first supernatural encounter with the ghost, he is introduced to branch of the Metropolitan Police that deals with “weird bollocks” as most officers like to refer to the magical world.
And when I say branch, I mean the sole person responsible and the only human left who knows and legally practices magic: Detective Chief Inspector Thomas Nightingale of the Metropolitan Police who has been doing his job of dealing with the weird end of police work alone for at least 70 years.
Peter is more than intrigued and successfully becomes the first magical apprentice since the second world war, learning magic while being part of the now two-men team keeping everything magical in the UK under control.
Every book in the series has its own open and shut case but also contributes to an overarching storyline with uber villains and that kinda stuff. What I like about the series – as with most urban fantasy books – is that we learn what Peter learns. From the perspective of a very logical and intelligent person who is confronted with a very chaotic magical world. It is great to hear him question the mechanisms of behind magic – especially since in this universe, magic fries cell phones and generally costs the spell-caster life energy.
Peter is very satisfying in his approach to magic, as he questions absolutely everything. He even devises experiments, consults with experts and learns Latin – the last one is most impressive to me as someone who hated Latin lessons with a passion. It’s basically a full on Hermione Granger approach to someone telling you “magic is real” and it’s so much more satisfying than say, Harry Potter’s magical-schoolwork-is-still-schoolwork-and-thus-sucks approach.
On the other hand, even though we get swept deeper into the magical world with every book and every case, Peter is one thing above all: A police officer. He really knows his legal stuff too. And we also get to see something that I feel like is missing in a lot of characters: Believable use of his life experience. Sure, he knows police work because he’s a policeman.
But he also knows architecture because he started studying in that direction once – it’s really fun to hear him apply architectural knowledge or offhandedly describing scenes with the most accurate descriptions of style and build. He is also the son of a cleaning lady who he has helped on the job as a teenager and thus knows about professional cleaning and telltale signs of disturbance on crime scenes. His dad on the other hand is a jazz musician so Peter couldn’t help but pick up a fair bit of musical knowledge and connections there.
That level of personal and very random knowledge is something you don’t really get much in fiction even though every single person has it. That reservoir of knowledge that just comes from growing up and living within your very personal circumstances. Like you might know specific regional terms for foods because your parents are from somewhere else. Or you might know something about an obscure field of business because your aunts second husband is in that business and likes to tell stories when drunk. Or you took a job as a call center assistant during college and now have intimate knowledge of the spending habits of tele-shopping victims.
Aside from this much appreciated realism, a lot of RoL is obviously fantasy. But again, it is fantasy based on common legends and believes and introduced in a way that makes you think: yeah, that checks out. There are all kinds of creatures of the demimonde, the fey, vampires, spirits and such. They mostly have their “traditional” characteristics but they can mostly pass in society or live in a kind of sub-culture that isn’t hard to picture in a city like London.
Which brings us to another big part of the series storyline, set-up and even name: The Rivers of London. Like in many folkloric texts and heathen naturalist beliefs, natural structures have spirits. The bigger and more important the structure, the mightier the spirit. Thus, the rivers flowing through London each have their own namesake spirit. The goddesses of each river all refer to the Thames spirit as their Mama Thames and have a longstanding feud with their old-time counterparts surrounding the much older Father Thames who along with sons abandoned the inner-city rivers long ago – making space for Mama Thames and her girls.
But this already goes too deep – suffice it to know that the spirits of the rivers are all fascinating strong women of color at this point d the play a big part in most of the storylines. They have to be appeased like the goddesses they are, but they also wield political power, have secret networks and of course, watery super-powers.
There are a lot of them, and I must admit that I had no idea, London had this many rivers but then again, most of their rivers have long gone underground inside city limits. It’s a really cool concept that there are actual natural gods and goddesses around, and even a lot of lesser spirits like tree nymphs. At times it is also frustrating because they have eons of history and so much secret knowledge and power and we only ever get to see the glimpses that Peter is witness to.
Of course, there are villains too. Cases to solve, intrigues to uncover and all those police/magical good guys things to do. The cases are all very different and interesting so far, Peter’s life moves on (which I didn’t find particularly necessary) so we get more of his personal life in the later books. But the star of the show is definitely the overarching plot, which reveals that there might be more people practicing magic than anyone thought. And they don’t seem to want to be policed. The series is a good combination of policework and hidden magical world. And for once, it is witty and grown-up too. So, go give your screens a break and read a book or eight.
I thoroughly enjoyed all of the books (twice!) and my only critique would be that the novellas and/or other texts are not treated as spin-offs but seem to further the main story too – which leads to minor knowledge gaps if you only read the main novels. I don’t think that’s well designed and it did confuse me a couple of times.
And if you like the Rivers of London and the kind of grown-up urban fantasy with a government agency and hidden magic world, go on to Daniel O’Malley’s Chequy Files series, where an operative of a secret government organization dealing with magical stuff wakes up without any memory of herself and needs to catch a bunch of magical bad guys. It’s currently a two book series and I enjoyed its relative realism and grown-up approach to a hidden magical world too. I believe it’s currently at two novels – The Rook and Stiletto – but still going.