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REVIEW: Midnight Riot by Ben Aaronovitch

Dear Mr. Aaronovitch,

I’ve been recommending enough books here lately that I have started to worry that my grades are overgenerous. But when a book is as much fun as your debut urban fantasy/police procedural, Midnight Riot, what is a reviewer to do?

Midnight Riot by Ben AaronovitchI picked up Midnight Riot (also known as Rivers of London in the UK) to read with my husband after I saw it recommended three times. The first recommendation came from a good friend whose taste in books is a bit lighter than mine. She loved your book and thought I might too. The other two recommendations were made by readers here at DA – this comment and this one. As it happens, I agree with the comments, and my friend was right— I thought your book was a delight from start to finish.

The first book in a series, Midnight Riot opens with Peter Grant, a young probationary constable with the London Metropolitan Police and the book’s narrator, guarding a scene in Covent Garden where a decapitated body was found. Peter’s friend and fellow probationary constable Leslie goes for coffee and when she is gone, a man who answers to Nicholas Wallpenny tells Peter that he witnessed the murder.

Only this was no ordinary murder and Nicholas Wallpenny isn’t an ordinary witness. When Peter asks him come and give a statement, Nicholas states that this would present a problem, since he is dead, and Peter “must have a touch of the sight” to be able to talk to him. And indeed, when Wallpenny steps into the light, Peter sees that he is transparent.

The ghost tells Peter what the victim and killer were wearing and where they passed one another and nodded in acknowledgement. He describes killer knocking off the victim’s head with what looked like a stick, and then going down New Row. He also says the killer was uncanny in his ability to change not just his coat and hat, but his face as well.

As soon as Leslie returns with the coffee, the ghost disappears. Peter thinks he’s losing his mind, so he does not share the ghost’s account with anyone.

Peter and Leslie are at the end of their probationary periods and the next day, they get their new assignments from Inspector Neblett. Peter is given a “horrifying assignment” – paper pushing in the Case Progression Unit. He is devastated to realize that “What Neblett was saying to me was that I wasn’t a copper, not a thief taker, but I might play a valuable role freeing up real coppers.”

To make matters worse, Leslie, to whom Peter is attracted, gets a far better assignment. The two go out to celebrate/drown sorrows and get plastered. Afterward, they discuss the differences in their approaches to police work and Leslie gives Peter a candid assessment of his professional flaws. The scene contains some great dialogue:

“Okay,” I said. “Why are you in the job?”

“Because I’m really good at it,” said Leslie.

“You’re not that good a copper,” I said.

“Yes I am,” she said. “Let’s be honest, I’m bloody amazing as a copper.”

“And what am I?”

“Too easily distracted.”

“I am not.”

“New Year’s Eve, Trafalgar Square, big crowd, bunch of total wankers pissing in the fountain—remember that?” asked Leslie. “Wheels come off, wankers get stroppy and what were you doing?”

“I was only gone for a couple of seconds,” I said.

“You were checking what was written on the lion’s bum,” said Leslie.”I was wrestling with a couple of drunken chavs and you were doing historical research.”

“Do you want to know what was on the lion’s bum?” I asked.

“No,” said Leslie. “I don’t want to know what was written on the lion’s bum, or how siphoning works or why one side of Floral Street is a hundred years older than the other side.”

“You don’t think any of that’s interesting?”

“Not when I’m wrestling chavs, catching car thieves, or attending a fatal accident,” said Leslie. “I like you, I think you’re a good man, but it’s like you don’t see the world the way a copper needs to see the world—it’s like you’re seeing stuff that isn’t there.”

“Like what?”

“I don’t know,” said Leslie. “I can’t see stuff that isn’t there.”

But as it happens, it is exactly Peter’s ability to see stuff that isn’t there that gets him a better assignment. A depressed Peter tells a dapper stranger about his encounter with the ghost and the stranger turns out to be Inspector Nightingale, who comprises by himself a secret police unit in charge of investigating the paranormal. Within a day or two, Peter moves into The Folly, an old building protected by supernatural means, and begins training in wizardry and paranormal police work.

But Peter’s studies have only begun, and he and Nightingale are in a race against time, since no sooner do they find the killer of the decapitated man, than that man commits another crime and then dies, his face collapsed. And that is only the beginning in a string of violent London crimes.

Meanwhile, there is also a feud between a god and goddess of the River Thames which threatens to escalate. Can Peter get the god and goddess to make peace, and more importantly, will he solve the murders before someone he cares about dies?

One of the most charming things about Midnight Riot is its wit. Not only is the dialogue frequently snappy and funny, as in the example I quoted above, but Peter’s narration is at least equally witty. Even the descriptions are frequently amusing or snarky. For example, here is Peter describing his parents’ building:

The flats were solidly built, so at least I didn’t grow up listening to next door’s live docusoap, but they were built on the dubious assumption, so beloved of postwar planners, that the London working class was composed entirely of hobbits.

Beyond that, Peter himself is endearing and sweet. Despite his cleverness and his newly acquired magical abilities, his characterization feels grounded in reality. He is an ordinary policeman just learning how to solve extraordinary crimes, yet he is made heroic by the courage he shows even when he feels afraid and the tenacity he exhibits when giving up would be understandable.

The side characters are interesting and distinct. For example, Inspector Nightingale, to whom Peter apprentices himself, wears herringbone tweed, carries a silver-topped cane and drives an old jaguar. Leslie is “short, blond and impossibly perky even when wearing a stab vest.” But they are both more than these descriptions might make the reader think they are. Nightingale is older than anyone might guess and may be involved with his housekeeper, Molly, who has strange powers and a taste for raw meat. Leslie is keen witted, the furthest thing from ditzy despite her blond hair and her perkiness.

I also appreciated the way the book dealt with race, neither dodging the issue nor centering the story around it. Peter is biracial and prejudiced people sometimes mistake him for a thug, but this is just one of many facts in his life. While it is clear that he does face discrimination at times, and we get glimpses of both his parents, his ethnic background isn’t the be-all of his existence. Since I’m neither English nor black, I don’t feel qualified to say whether or not the book is authentic in its portrayals, but for what it is worth I enjoyed them and was never struck by any jarring notes.

I cannot confirm whether the book is well researched, but Peter comes across as knowledgeable about everything from the various departments of the English police to the history of a number of places around London, to his mother’s cultural background (she is an immigrant from Sierra Leone), and these details make the world of the book come alive.

In addition, the paranormal and police procedural aspects are melded beautifully in this book. It is an entertaining blend of fantastical goings on and investigative legwork. The mystery is at the center of the story, and yet it is also a vehicle for so much more: humor, fantasy, action, excitement, but best of all, the humanity that makes Peter so very worth rooting for.

I have just a couple of complaints – one is that even at the end of the story, after the villain was nabbed, there were still things I did not fully understand about that villain’s fantastical nature. The other is that I liked Peter so much that I wanted to get to know him even better and see more of the hopes, dreams and fears beneath his witty surface. In the end, though, Midnight Riot was such a good read that I gladly recommend it. B+.

Sincerely,

Janine

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Janine Ballard loves well-paced, character driven novels in historical romance, fantasy, YA, and the occasional outlier genre. Recent examples include novels by Katherine Addison, Meljean Brook, Kristin Cashore, Cecilia Grant, Rachel Hartman, Ann Leckie, Jeannie Lin, Rose Lerner, Courtney Milan, Miranda Neville, and Nalini Singh. Janine also writes fiction. Her critique partners are Sherry Thomas, Meredith Duran and Bettie Sharpe. Her erotic short story, “Kiss of Life,” appears in the Berkley anthology AGONY/ECSTASY under the pen name Lily Daniels. You can email Janine at janineballard at gmail dot com or find her on Twitter @janine_ballard.

26 Comments

  1. Liz Mc2
    Mar 21, 2012 @ 12:52:12

    I see you’ve already linked my earlier comment praising this book, so I’ll just say glad you liked it, and thanks for the reminder that I want to read the sequel! (And though my expertise in these areas is limited, the theatre and folklore/rivers stuff in the novel seemed pretty well-researched to me).

  2. Isobel Carr
    Mar 21, 2012 @ 12:55:55

    SOLD!

  3. Janine
    Mar 21, 2012 @ 13:07:04

    @Liz Mc2: I’m grateful for your comment and other readers’ as it kept the book on my mind and eventually I got to it. I really want to read the sequel too, and there’s a third book in the series that will be out in late June.

    Midnight Riot read well-researched to me, in that there was a lot of detail about a variety of different subjects. Since I haven’t researched them myself, I can’t vouch for the accuracy, but it sounds like we had similar impressions.

    @Isobel Carr: Enjoy!

  4. Jill Sorenson
    Mar 21, 2012 @ 13:07:28

    Nice review Janine. I see Liz is to blame! She just made me buy a book from Goodreads and here she is again.

    Any romance in this?

  5. Janine
    Mar 21, 2012 @ 13:29:17

    @Jill Sorenson:

    Yeah, Liz is among the three culprits.

    Hmm. There are two potential love interests who are introduced in this book, Leslie (who may or may not reciprocate Peter’s interest) and Beverley (who is definitely interested but not entirely human). Since it’s the first book in a series, it’s not clear yet at the end of the book exactly where these friendships/attractions will go.

  6. DS
    Mar 21, 2012 @ 14:50:55

    Moon Over Soho is the second one and in June Whispers Underground. is to be released in the US. I need to harass Audible some more about selling the British audio version to the US. This was one of my favorites last year.

  7. Janine
    Mar 21, 2012 @ 15:06:20

    @DS: I can see how Peter’s witty narration might come across really well in audio.

  8. Darlynne
    Mar 21, 2012 @ 15:10:07

    I have this one in my TBR pile, one of the few full-price new-to-me authors I was willing to take a chance on. Your review convinces me it was money well spent. Thanks!

  9. Janine
    Mar 21, 2012 @ 15:52:50

    @Darlynne: You’re welcome. I hope you enjoy it!

  10. JenniferH
    Mar 21, 2012 @ 17:13:18

    I read both the Rivers of London and the sequel following the recommendation from Liz Mc2, and thought they were both great reads. There is more information about Peter Grant’s family in the sequel. The third book is on order at my library, and I am waiting with anticipation.

  11. Mireya
    Mar 21, 2012 @ 18:22:40

    My husband is a fan of Simon R. Green and of course, Jim Butcher. As I was looking for other urban fantasy authors for him to try, I stumbled upon Ben Aaranovitch. Definitely a must try author for fans of Green and Butcher. Another author along those lines that I found for him is Anton Strout. Has anyone read Mark del Franco, if so, how are his books? I am looking at his work next.

    Mireya

  12. Janine
    Mar 21, 2012 @ 18:23:56

    @JenniferH: Based on reviews at Amazon, it seems like the sequel, Moon Over Soho, has made a positive impression on its readers. I’m glad there’s more about Peter’s family — his parents both seemed interesting.

  13. DS
    Mar 21, 2012 @ 18:24:19

    @Janine: The narrator is Kobna Holdbrook-Smith who is a handsome young British actor with good accent skills. http://www.flickr.com/photos/youngvictheatre/6770112913/

    I will be very disappointed if they don’t hire him for the 3rd book.

  14. Andrea
    Mar 21, 2012 @ 18:43:41

    I thoroughly enjoyed “Rivers of London” (Midnight Riot) – mixing magic with police procedurals is my idea of a great time. :)

    “Moon Over Soho” doesn’t quite live up to the first book (and I have a faint problem with things revolving around Leslie and what magic can and cannot do) but it’s still enjoyable.

  15. Liz Mc2
    Mar 21, 2012 @ 19:27:25

    Wow, I didn’t realize I had such book-recommending powers. I’ll try to use them for good.

  16. Merrian
    Mar 22, 2012 @ 06:22:41

    This was one of my favourite books last year. I also enjoyed the sequel. One of the things that is a breath of fresh air in this series is that events have consequences and those in turn shape what happens in the stories. I also liked finding out about this complicated world along with Peter; that it is his intelligence that matters not his alpha-ness and the poignancy of the honour boards at the old abandoned school.

  17. Anne V
    Mar 22, 2012 @ 09:15:37

    This is yet another author I really enjoyed and probably wouldn’t have found without DA (4 in 2 weeks. Yay!) Thank you. I, um, read both Midnight Riot and Moon Over Soho last night.

  18. Isobel Carr
    Mar 22, 2012 @ 09:26:18

    Started this last night and am LOVING it!!! I’m not big on first person either, but when the voice is right, you just gotta give in. Thanks so much for reviewing this book.

  19. Josephine
    Mar 22, 2012 @ 11:09:21

    I’m reading this right now. It is a lot of fun, especially the police procedural aspect. I’ve been looking for more detective-y urban fantasy novels lately, and this book is an excellent one.

  20. Janine
    Mar 22, 2012 @ 15:04:20

    @Andrea: Glad you enjoyed this book, and sorry to hear the sequel isn’t quite as satisfying. I still plan to read it and see for myself, though.

    @Liz Mc2: LOL. Book recommending powers are like a drug, aren’t they? Very easy to get hooked on.

    @Merrian: Glad to hear you enjoyed the sequel. I hope I do too (it’s hard to imagine that I won’t).

    that it is his intelligence that matters not his alpha-ness

    This. I tried to get this across in my review but you articulated it better. I also love that there is real investigative legwork not just magic powers involved in finding the killer.

    @Anne V & @Isobel Carr: Wow, I’m so glad this rec is working out for you guys! That’s one of the reasons I review; it’s very gratifying to turn readers on to good books. And it’s especially great to see a not so well known book get some love. Anne, I am impressed with your reading speed. And Isobel, agreed, the first person voice is special here. You’re both so welcome.

    @Josephine: Yeah, I really like a good urban fantasy/detective story but the protagonist has to appeal. Peter is such a sweet guy, and since he’s also the narrator, I think he’s what makes this book stand out.

  21. MrsJoseph
    Mar 22, 2012 @ 22:06:50

    I adored this book! I really need to get on reading books 2 &3. Thanks for the reminder!

  22. Shiv
    Mar 26, 2012 @ 03:13:49

    And I am English, and a Londoner, with an interest in folklore and local history and I can confirm that it is incredibly well researched.

    I love both of these books.

  23. Janine
    Mar 26, 2012 @ 13:36:49

    @MrsJoseph: You’re welcome. Glad to find another fan.

    @Shiv: Thanks for confirming. I really need to get my hands on book two soon.

  24. Heather Greye
    Apr 03, 2012 @ 14:31:35

    Thanks so much for this review. It sounded interesting so I picked it up at the library…and devoured it. :) I’m even passing it on to my guy.

    I really enjoyed the writing and while I’m sure I missed some of the British-isms, the nerd-isms really cracked me up. Plus it was such an interesting new take on magic and things that go bump in the night.

    Looking forward to the other books in the series.

  25. What Janine is Reading in February and March 2012
    Apr 26, 2012 @ 10:02:23

    […] villain who threatens those close to him. Witty, snarky, and immensely entertaining. Review here. Grade: […]

  26. REVIEW: Whispers Under Ground by Ben Aaronovitch
    Jul 30, 2012 @ 12:56:11

    […] like to hear more about the Peter Grant series but remain spoiler free are invited to check out the review of the first book, Midnight Riot (also known as Rivers of […]

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