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REVIEW: Broken Homes by Ben Aaronovitch

Dear Mr. Aaronovich,

I enjoyed all your earlier books in the Peter Grant urban fantasy series, from Midnight Riot (aka Rivers of London) to Moon Over Soho to Whispers Under Ground, although I put off reading book four, Broken Homes, because I had mixed feelings about your comments in the discussion thread following this post.

BrokenHomesThen my husband and a good friend urged me to read the book, saying they enjoyed it a great deal. I decided to read Broken Homes to see what I was missing, but while I enjoyed some of it, it wasn’t to the same degree that I enjoyed your earlier books.

The book begins with a strange car accident. The driver, Robert Weil, runs a red light and hits another car, but when the police investigate, they find blood in the backseat but no sign of the missing passenger.

Police constable and magician’s apprentice Peter Grant receives an email alert because Weil is a member of the Little Crocodiles, an Oxford University dining club investigated by Peter and his cohorts in earlier books for dabbling in magic.

The car accident case turns up nothing of a magical nature, however, and life goes back to normal, which means that Peter and the coworker he’s had a crush on, Leslie, study for detective classes, learn Latin for their magic practice with their supervisor Nightingale, and begin work on crafting their wizard staffs.

Then a few other unusual things happen. A man named George Nolfi is hospitalized with burns after conjuring a fireball for his six year old granddaughter’s birthday party. He claims he hasn’t practiced magic since early childhood when his mother taught him a few spells.

Another man, Richard Lewis, kills himself, but his apparent suicide may be no suicide at all. And Peter stumbles on a German book whose title translates to On the Fundamentals that Underlie the Practice of Magic in the London Stolen Art Directory.

Of this handful of cases, one on further investigation inarguably points to the Faceless Man, a magic practitioner whom Peter and Nightingale have been fighting for three books now. But are these cases connected? What is the Faceless Man plotting? And are Peter, Leslie and Nightingale adequately prepared to face an opponent of the Faceless Man’s power and skill?

The beginning of this book felt exciting, with one incident of magical violence following after another. But that level of excitement wasn’t sustained and Broken Homes didn’t hang together quite as well as the earlier books.

As the most helpful positive review on Amazon points out and this plot summary shows, the structure of this novel is different from that of the earlier books. Rather than following one case, Peter and company work on a few cases before one turns up something that leads them to their archenemy, the Faceless Man.

Consequently, the book feels more disjointed and episodic than the earlier books. It meanders here and there but doesn’t gel into anything cohesive until the final third of the story.

On the upside, there is an interesting development in Leslie’s personal life. On the downside, I really missed the London history that was woven into the first three books. It felt like a significant loss.

The novel’s pacing feels off, too. After the exciting beginning, not enough headway is made on the cases being investigated during the long and sagging middle. In the final third, the engine of the story revs up and things finally start happening again.

Fortunately the writing is as witty as ever. Here’s an example:

Negotiating the inerface between the Folly and the rest of the police is always tricky, especially when it’s the murder squad. You don’t get to be a senior investigating officer unless you have a degree in skepticism, an MA in distrust and your CV lists suspicious bastard under your hobbies.

And here’s another:

Tracking down the exploding granddad’s antecedents was yet another thing that was still sitting in the low priority things-to-be-done pile. It might have to be moved up.

“Indeed,” said Nightingale. “I’d like you to have a look at the house today.”

“Today?”

“If possible,” said Nightingale which meant, yes absolutely today.

I still love Peter. He still has the same core of human decency and honor, and he still makes me laugh. He still comes up with creative solutions to the problems that he faces. He still wants to do the right thing by the people he cares about and by the people of London, whom he serves.

I still like Peter’s companion characters, from by-the-book Leslie to bright, curious Dr. Walid, to snooty-but-impressively-good-at-magic Nightingale to magic-sensing dog Toby. I still like the Rivers and the goblin Zack and the Quiet People and the other magical characters. The diversity of the cast (Peter himself is biracial—his father a white jazz musician and his mum a black immigrant from Sierra Leone) appeals to me as always, and the Faceless Man and those aiding him still scare me.

But much of Broken Homes feels like groundwork being laid for future books, and for the explosive twist that comes at the end of Broken Homes. For a reader who doesn’t foresee what happens, the big plot turn is likely to be impactful, and I’m sure its reprecussions will reverberate through the upcoming Foxglove Summer.

Unfortunately for me, I first started suspecting that this might be where the series was heading two books back. So for me, the twist wasn’t as twisty as it is for some readers. Rather than having the surprise come out of nowhere, I felt helpless as I watched what I’d predicted unfold, and a little frustrated that one or two characters who should have been able to anticipate it didn’t see it coming.

The introduction of two new characters with magical abilities makes me anticipate good things in book five, so I suspect I will be reading it. Then again, when I finished book three, Whispers Under Ground, I was sure we were in for some big things in this, book four. And to be fair I think that readers who don’t figure things out ahead of time may get that from this book to a greater degree than I did. C.

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.

12 Comments

  1. Aoife
    Sep 02, 2014 @ 12:37:48

    Thanks for the review, Janine. I had been debating whether or not to read this, having very much enjoyed the first and third books in the series, but having been put off by controversy you linked. I think I have a fair idea of what the big plot twist is, since I think there were some clues planted about that in Whispers Under Ground, and I may wait to read Broken Homes until the next in the series is out.

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  2. Janine
    Sep 02, 2014 @ 12:53:21

    @Aoife: You’re welcome! The controversy was off-putting to me too and I debated whether to read the book for a long time before my friend and my husband started wearing me down. I linked to the incident so readers would have a sense of how I went into the book and also, be able to take it into account in deciding whether to purchase. It’s possible that the author’s behavior may have affected my ability to enjoy the book, although I don’t think that was the main issue. If you can guess what the big twist is, then I think you’re making the right decision to wait for book five before reading this one.

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  3. CurlyQ
    Sep 02, 2014 @ 14:17:47

    Coincidentally, around the time I read this novel, I was spending a lot of time in London in the Southbank area, so while it didn’t have as much older history of London it had a bit of recent history which was quite interesting. It’s amazing how the area south of the river has been gentrified and how much those former council flats are going for now.

    I was actually following the linked controversy at the time it happened and, as much as I enjoy an ‘author behaving badly’ story this didn’t really qualify. In the end, Aaronovich was castigated well out of proportion with his offence. I actually felt a bit sorry for him in the comment exchange on the original review and then I felt really sorry for him when that article came out. In the end, I thought Aaronovich was castigated well out of proportion with his offence.

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  4. CurlyQ
    Sep 02, 2014 @ 14:18:56

    @CurlyQ: oops, looks like I should proofread my comment to make sure I don’t type the same sentence twice!

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  5. Janine
    Sep 02, 2014 @ 14:25:14

    @CurlyQ: What can I say, I like older history better.

    I was only a bit annoyed by what happened at the Book Smugglers and it wasn’t until he called a reader an idiot at Strange Horizons that I was turned off. That’s an ad hominem attack and even if he’d been castigated too much before then (debatable IMO) he should have stepped away from the keyboard before he hit send on that comment.

    Still, I don’t think that’s the main issue but rather the sagging middle of this book and the twist at the end, which takes the series in a direction I was hoping it wouldn’t go.

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  6. Isobel Carr
    Sep 02, 2014 @ 15:26:19

    I have to admit to having fallen off the wagon on this series. I adored the first book. Struggled to finish the second, and the third is languishing on my Kindle, unstarted. I just can’t seem to work up any enthusiasm to crack it open.

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  7. Tina
    Sep 02, 2014 @ 18:32:59

    LOVED the first one. Was so-so on the second one. Listened to the third one in audio. LOVED it.

    I also have this one in audio b/c I enjoyed the narrator so much, but did struggle to get into it. So I abandoned it after a couple of chapters. I think my ennui has to do with The Faceless Man. I think it is too early in Peter’s career for him to have a powerful arch-nemesis and I dislike energizer bunny villains. But I still plan to circle back around to it.

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  8. leslie
    Sep 03, 2014 @ 07:55:45

    What a disappointment! I really hated Broken Homes.

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  9. pooks
    Sep 03, 2014 @ 09:38:24

    I am such a fan of Peter Grant that I just loved being back in his world. Aaronovitch has totally sucked me in and I don’t want to get out. But there are so many things about this world that are my catnip.

    As for his comments, I have lost track of the original conversation and everything that was said. In general, even though I have written fanfiction and have some fandoms I have loved, many authors are so far removed from it that I can’t hold it against them if they step in it and make assumptions or statements that offend us. If they keep going with it and don’t learn, yeah, I can call them stupid for insulting a huge part of their base. I can decide how much that bothers me as I move forward. But the initial missteps are part of the learning process as this new age of reading and interaction explodes.

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  10. Lada
    Sep 03, 2014 @ 11:09:42

    I follow this series on audiobooks and to be honest, I’m not sure I would enjoy them nearly as much if I tried reading them. I’m generally a reader that gets sucked into story details but for whatever reason, not so much with this series. I’m able to just enjoy the performance and entertainment and I’m hard pressed when trying to explain to someone the plot of any given book in the series. There’s simply too much craziness going on.

    That being said, Broken Homes was probably my least favorite of the series and I didn’t see the twist coming because I’m not hanging onto details from previous books. I agree completely that this book felt more disjointed with too many seemingly unrelated things going on and it became challenging while listening to keep up with the story.

    I knew about the Book Smugglers thing but didn’t follow the controversy after that. Sorry to see that Aaronovitch didn’t seem to learn any lessons from the first go around.

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  11. Darlene Marshall
    Sep 03, 2014 @ 11:32:00

    He got me with that twist at the end. I didn’t see it coming, but it’s hooked me to read the next book. I agree though about the pacing and hope that improves in future works.

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  12. Janine
    Sep 03, 2014 @ 13:18:15

    @Isobel Carr & @Tina: I liked the second one a lot. I liked the jazz stuff and the dunk in the river especially. And of course Peter’s wit. It wasn’t a perfect book but I enjoyed it a lot. I think the third one is better though.

    @leslie: I wouldn’t go as far as hated but obviously it’s a disappointing one for me too.

    @pooks: He did come across as clueless in the initial interaction and I hope he’s learned since the later incident.

    @Lada: Maybe because I was reading rather than listening, I was able to keep up with the details. But I wanted more to happen in the middle. It felt very much like a transitional book.

    @Darlene Marshall: I’m curious about the next one too, though I wish the author had made a different choice–not only because I saw it coming, but for other reasons too. I won’t go into it here because of spoilers, but if I review the next one, I hope I’ll remember to discuss my feelings about the twist then.

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