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REVIEW: Moon Over Soho by Ben Aaronovitch

Dear Mr. Aaronovitch,

Back in March, I read and reviewed your terrific debut, Midnight Riot (Rivers of London in the UK), an urban fantasy/police procedural narrated by an endearing London police constable named Peter Grant.
Moon Over Soho by Ben AaronovitchPeter is a new recruit in a secret (and very small) department of the London Metropolitan Police which investigates supernatural crimes. Moon Over Soho is the second book that follows Peter, and I’m pleased to say that like Midnight Riot, it was highly enjoyable.

The two books are closely related so it’s impossible to review the second without revealing spoilers for the first. Therefore, readers who have not yet read Midnight Riot and who don’t want to read spoilers for that novel should read no further.

Moon Over Soho begins a few months after Midnight Riot has ended. Due to the events that took place toward the end of Midnight Riot, Peter’s superior officer, wizard/Chief Inspector Nightingale, is very frail, and Leslie, a coworker on whom Peter had a crush, has been horribly scarred. Beverley Brook, another potential love interest of Peter’s, is still away from London, and the murder that took place at the end of the last book remains unsolved.

As Moon Over Soho opens, Peter is visiting Leslie, who conceals her disfigured face beneath a hood, a scarf, and sunglasses. Leslie wants to know whether magic can “fix” her face, but Peter doesn’t think it can. Soon after parting from Leslie, Peter gets a call from Dr. Walid, the department’s coroner, about a body which may belong to a victim of supernatural foul play.

At the morgue, Peter senses vestigia, the remnants of magic, emanating from the body in the form of the jazz tune Body and Soul. The dead man is a saxophonist named Cyrus Wilkinson. At Cyrus’s house and in the vicinity of his address, Peter meets Simone Fitzwilliam, Cyrus’s girlfriend, as well as Melinda Abbott, Cyrus’s fiancée. Later he locates the rest of Cyrus’s band, and in this way he learns that Cyrus died shortly after a big gig.

Further investigation reveals that Cyrus isn’t the only jazz player to die immediately after a brilliant performance. There appears to be some kind of supernatural being hunting down these talented men, and Peter is determined to find out why, how and who.

Meanwhile, two other murders with a very different MO take place. A dark haired, pale skinned woman seduces men only to bite off their sexual organs with her own. The vagina dentata case (featuring a killer with teeth in her vagina) from the previous book remains unsolved, but when a journalist/amateur practitioner of magic is killed in this same way, Peter is pulled in on the case.

Then there is Peter’s private life. While the investigation unfolds, an attraction blooms between Peter and Simone Fitzwilliam, the deceased Cyrus’s girlfriend, and their mutual infatuation grows consuming. Concurrently, Peter’s father, a former saxophonist somewhat famous in jazz circles, takes up the keyboard and hooks up with Cyrus’s band members.

Is Peter’s father in danger? Is Peter himself in danger? Who are the killers in each case, and can Peter track them down before they do further harm?

Moon Over Soho answers these questions and the joy of reading the book is at as much in Peter’s narration as it is the process of solving a paranormal mystery. The book crackles with wit and humor even as it tackles some dark subject matter. For example, here is a brief description of Camden Market, one of many funny bits in the book:

The important thing about Camden Market is that nobody planned it. Before London swallowed it whole, Camden Town was the fork in the road best known for a coaching inn called the Mother Red Cap. It served as a last-chance stop for beer, highway robbery and gonorrhea before heading north into the wilds of Middlesex.

The dialogue is equally wonderful. Take for example this bit, which deftly handles the race and diversity issues. Here’s Peter, who happens to be biracial, discussing the case his white supervisor, Inspector Nightingale, while they walk Toby, their dog. Since they are searching for the magician who trained the dead journalist, and Nightingale says there weren’t many people who could have done so in England, Peter asks about magicians from other parts of the world.

I asked about other countries—China, Russia, India, the Middle East, Africa. I couldn’t believe they hadn’t at least some kind of magic. Nightingale admitted that he didn’t really know, but had the good grace to sound embarrassed.

“The world was different before the war,” he said. “We didn’t have this instantaneous access to information that your generation has. The world was a bigger, more mysterious place—we still dreamed of secret caves in the Mountains of the Moon, and tiger hunting in the Punjab.”

When all the map was red, I thought. When every boy expected his own adventure and girls had not yet been invented.

Toby barked as we overtook a juggernaut full of God knows what going God knows where.

“After the war it was as if I was waking up from a dream,” said Nightingale. There were space rockets and computers and jumbo jets and it seemed like a ‘natural’ thing that the magic would go away.”

“You mean you didn’t bother looking,” I said.

“It was just me,” he said. “And I was responsible for the whole of London and the southeast. It never occurred to me that the old days might come back. Besides, we have Dunlop’s books so we know his teacher wasn’t from some foreign tradition—this is a home-grown black magician.”

“You can’t call them black magicians,” I said.

“You realize that we’re using black in its metaphorical sense here,” said Nightingale.

“It doesn’t matter,” I said. “Words change what they mean, don’t they? Some people would call me a black magician.”

“You’re not a magician,” he said. “You’re barely even an apprentice.”

“You’re changing the subject,” I said.

“What should we call them?” he asked patiently.

“Ethically challenged magical practitioners,” I said.

“Just to satisfy my curiosity, you understand,” said Nightingale, “given that the only people ever likely to hear us say the words black magician are you, me and Dr. Walid, why is changing them so important?”

“Because I don’t think the old world’s coming back anytime soon,” I said. “In fact, I think the new world might be arriving.”

As I stated in my review of Midnight Riot, Peter is a loveable character. He genuinely cares about every life he attempts to save and wants to believe that a good outcome is possible. At the same time, he isn’t blind to flaws, especially flaws in systems, and can snark with the best of them.

Still, I liked him a little less in this book than I did in Midnight Riot, perhaps because he struggled less in this one. It seemed like he had grown not only better at his work, but also significantly more physically coordinated, to a degree that seemed less than completely believable given the span of three months that had passed between the two books. It also bugged me that he was occasionally distracted from his casework by his involvement with Simone.

Additionally, I found the vagina dentata idea sexist and if the female character this subplot centered around hadn’t been treated so respectfully I might have been offended. That I was able to go along with it is a testament to the sensitivity and humor with which every subject in this book was approached.

In other ways, though, Moon Over Soho was a stronger book than its predecessor. The mysteries at its center were even more compelling, the investigative legwork was still there, and this time, the villains’ paranormal abilities were explained more clearly than in Midnight Riot.

Most importantly, though, I felt that this book dug deeper into the characters and I got to know them better. Though I am starting to get the sense that Peter will never be the kind of touchy-feely guy who talks about his emotions, those emotions nonetheless came through more in this book.

Readers who are looking for a great urban fantasy series with a fresh setting, endearing and vulnerable characters, a threatening villain, humor as well as substance, and smart writing can’t do much better than this one. B+/A-.

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.

20 Comments

  1. DS
    May 21, 2012 @ 14:12:16

    Good review. I am so looking forward to the third book. If there was more than a month between the UK release and the US release I think I would have to order it. There’s not a lot of authors any more who inspire me with this degree of enthusiasm.

  2. Lslcw
    May 21, 2012 @ 14:18:02

    I really enjoyed the first two – I was tired of urban fantasy narrated by a jaded, yet strangely vulnerable woman who was being courted after a fashion by two or three unsuitable prospective lovers. This series has great characters and a wonderful sense of place – reminds me a bit of Misfits, an EXCELLENT British series on Hulu.

  3. Barb in Maryland
    May 21, 2012 @ 15:01:55

    I actually got my husband to read these! He’s very much a mystery reader and no big fan of the paranormal. But I kept reading bits of Peter’s snark out loud and he decided to give “Midnight Riot” a try. He’s just about through with “Moon Over Soho” and I think we will have to fight over who gets to read the next one first!
    I’m with Lslew–it is so refreshing to have a different narrator. And Peter is a gem.

  4. Darlynne
    May 21, 2012 @ 15:10:54

    I really enjoyed the first book, especially the humor, which was low key and very smart. But I was also intrigued by the stories of London and the rivers. So glad to hear you enjoyed the second, Janine. It’s on my list.

  5. jenniferH
    May 21, 2012 @ 15:46:36

    I really enjoyed these books and I am waiting on the third in the series.

  6. Maili
    May 21, 2012 @ 15:53:44

    My husband and I enjoyed both books so far. Kept giggling over some bits. I’m quite nervous about the third book, Whispers Under Ground, as the second book has small draggy spots. What if those spots become bigger in the third book? Hope not. *fingers crossed*

  7. Janine
    May 21, 2012 @ 17:01:00

    Glad so many of you are enjoying them!

    @Maili: I didn’t feel it was draggy, just a little (seemingly) meandering, but in hindsight, once I knew the solution to the mysteries, I realized that what seemed like detours were actually relevant to the case. I don’t know if that makes sense.

    I’m a little nervous about book three too, mainly because the publication date has been pushed back a couple of times. I have the ARC but haven’t read it yet.

  8. Sirius
    May 21, 2012 @ 17:04:12

    I love urban fantasy and the narrator sounds different enough so I will try the first book, thank you for the review Janine.

  9. Janine
    May 21, 2012 @ 18:11:43

    @Sirius: You’re welcome! I hope you like Midnight Riot.

  10. Angela
    May 21, 2012 @ 19:09:25

    I just started Midnight Riot on your recommendation – so I’m not reading this review yet – but I’m so glad to see it continues to get high grades from you.

  11. Janine
    May 21, 2012 @ 20:24:41

    @Angela: Oh, I hope you like it! I’d love to hear what you think of it when you finish.

  12. Merrian
    May 21, 2012 @ 21:57:15

    I love the sense of place in these stories and how London is a character shaping events. I also like that a lot of what Peter does is unpack assumptions; his own and other people’s so that the resolution of the stories come not from force majeur but from changing understandings so new choices and different outcomes become possible.

  13. Heather Greye
    May 21, 2012 @ 22:43:29

    I liked this one, but not nearly as much as I did the first one. Enough that I’m looking forward to the third.

    I read bits and pieces to my husband too. He enjoyed Midnight Riot but hasn’t had time for this one yet.

  14. Janine
    May 22, 2012 @ 10:52:26

    @Merrian: Those are really good points.

    @Heather Greye: Can you say why you liked this one less than the first one? What made the difference for you?

  15. Heather Greye
    May 22, 2012 @ 21:52:59

    @Janine: I never quite put my finger on why it didn’t work for me as well as the first. I’ll try though. :)

    I think I wanted more of the mythology, like the rivers. The result of the mystery was interesting, but getting there seemed really slow going. I think the pacing of the first one pulled me along faster…it was easier to put this one down for a break.

    Not sure if that makes any sense. I thought it was fun — I love Peter’s voice — but it felt like some of the magic (har, har) of the first one was missing.

  16. Jocelyn Z
    May 22, 2012 @ 23:13:20

    Oh, I really liked these books (and so did my husband – do I sense an undercurrent of “hey! I can make a boy read this one!” in this comments thread?). I learned about the first one from a Nancy Pearl recommendation on NPR. Really good points from Merrian, I think that this theme is a little stronger in the second one, and that’s why I liked it a little better than the first. That, and getting to see more of Peter’s family.

  17. Sirius
    May 25, 2012 @ 09:34:03

    I really enjoyed Midnight riot and will be getting this one, thank you again Janine, I just really hope that romance does not get in a way of all the action in this one.

  18. Janine
    May 26, 2012 @ 01:52:31

    @Sirius: I’m so glad you enjoyed Midnight Riot! I didn’t feel that the romance had gotten in the way of the action, FWIW, but it did occasionally distract Peter.

  19. What Janine is Reading — April and May 2012
    Jun 13, 2012 @ 10:02:41

    […] Meanwhile, Peter gets involved with the former girlfriend of one of the dead men, investigates the violent death of a magical practitioner, trades witty quips with his supervisor and makes snarky remarks about London architecture and history. This series is adorable. If you haven’t tried them yet, what are you waiting for? Midnight Riot is the first book. As for Moon Over Soho, the review can be found here. […]

  20. Aaronovitch, Ben: Moon Over Soho (Rivers of London II) (2011) | humanitysdarkerside
    Aug 25, 2013 @ 13:49:09

    […] Dear Author […]

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