REVIEW: False Value by Ben Aaronovitch
PLEASE NOTE: If you haven’t read Lies Sleeping, the previous novel in the Rivers of London series, and wish to avoid spoilers for that book, skip this review. Big events took place in Lies Sleeping that are mentioned in this review of False Value.
Dear Ben Aaronovitch,
I’ve enjoyed all but one of your books in the Rivers of London series, so I was happy to obtain an ARC of False Value, book number eight.
With his girlfriend Beverley’s pregnancy and the death of Martin Chorley, once known as the Faceless Man, Peter is entering a new chapter of life. The opening of False Value finds Peter interviewing for a new job, too.
Tyrel Johnson, his prospective boss, is ex-police and has heard that Peter was let go. Peter is as vague as possible when he explains why, so as not to invoke the dreaded words, “special assessment unit,” (the police unit in charge of supernatural cases). Johnson offers Peter a security position at Serious Cybernetics Corporation, a high-tech company.
SCC is run by one Terrence Skinner, an Australian (by way of Silicon Valley) tech billionaire. The company employs a lot of nerds and has its quirks–floors with funny names, only in-house phones permitted on the premises, RPGs played while on break. Weirdest of all is the mystery surrounding a forbidden floor, Bambleweeny. No one knows what is housed there and an employee has been trying to break into it.
Johnson tasks Peter with figuring out who is behind the break-in attempts and why, a job made more difficult by Skinner’s refusal to disclose what work is done on Bambleweeny. But when Peter identifies the would-be thief, Stephen Higgins, he realizes that and he and Stephen crossed paths months before. Stephen is a suspect in a police case that involves the theft of a program written by Ada Lovelace for a nineteenth-century computing device known as the mary engine.
Months earlier, when Peter and his fellow police officers searched Stephen’s flat, Peter stepped on a demon trap, a magical landmine. He was able to disable it and sense a vestigium (magical signature) that is the mark of a powerful entity.
After Peter identifies Stephen, they meet at a pub to trade information. It wasn’t him who set the demon trap, Stephen tells Peter, but an unknown third party. Peter decides to join forces with Stephen and his companion, Mrs. Chin, with the intention of double-crossing them later. He allows Stephen to assume that he too is a thief who wants the contents of Bambleweeny.
But as it happens, the police have also tracked Stephen to the Serious Cybernetics Corporation. And Peter, increasingly friendly with his new co-workers and boss, knows that Johnson’s position allows him and his wife, Stacy, to provide for two foster children. If the police investigation implicates Skinner in a crime, Johnson could lose his job.
So Peter is at the nexus of four separate agendas—Stephen and Mrs. Chin’s, that of Johnson, his new boss, that of Nightingale, his old one, and that of the unknown magic user who set the demon trap. Can he successfully handle his conflicting loyalties? And can he discover what is stored in Bambleweeny and defuse any threat it may pose to the public?
Below are some of the reasons why I love this series:
1) Peter Grant
Peter is a genuine, honorable and loveable character. He is also creative and dedicated. It’s his hard work (I love that this series actually shows step-by-step legwork, as in police procedurals) and his perseverance that win the day. His compassion, his protectiveness of the public, and his sense of humor are additional factors in his lovability.
2) The rivers
The supernatural beings in the series run the gamut from intriguing to creepy to awe-inspiring. The genii loci of the Thames river and their children, the gods and goddesses of the river’s tributaries, are especially great. They are often portrayed as generous and charming yet powerful and unpredictable enough to pose a danger in the right circumstances. In False Value we see how Beverley Brook, a minor goddess and Peter’s girlfriend, can wield her power. She’s more ethical than many other magical beings but that power is still there.
3) Other secondary characters
Who could fail to love Nightingale (Peter’s long-lived, powerful, and elegant sometime boss), Molly and Foxglove (eerie, mute faeries who live in the nineteenth-century police building known as the Folly), the competent Detective Constable Sahra Guleed, the irascible Detective Chief Inspector Alexander Seawoll and the steady Detective Sergeant Miriam Stephanopoulos? Even the characters who don’t play a major role in every book can intrigue. For example, Stephen and Mrs. Chin are librarians—the NYPL has a magical arm.
The characters come from a variety of backgrounds and frequently, marginalized groups. Peter is biracial. Beverley, Johnson and Peter’s mum are black (Beverley is a native Londoner while Johnson is from Trinidad and Peter’s mum is from Sierra Leone). Miriam Stephanopoulos is in a same-sex marriage. Mrs. Chin is Chinese-American, Sahra Guleed is Muslim, and Victor, one of Peter’s co-workers at SCC, is trans.
5) Casual racism
Peter encounters prejudices. While racism is not the focus of the books, it’s not disregarded, either.
The dialogue and Peter’s narration are witty and entertaining. Whether he’s being snarky or just describing the quirks of investigative work, his wry sense of humor comes through.
My mum also wanted to know whether I was attending pre-natal classes with Beverley and making sure she ate properly. Eating properly by Mum’s definition meant Beverley consuming her own weight in rice every day so I lied and said she was. When I asked Beverley about any cravings, she told me not so far.
“I can pretend,” she said just after Christmas. “If it makes you feel better.”
“Those are the Bambleweeny floors,” he said. “And off limits.”
“What do they do up there?” I asked.
“Why do you want to know?”
“It’s easier to guard something when you know what it is,” I said.
Everest’s brow wrinkled as he thought about my answer. “If Tyson didn’t brief you,” he said, “then you don’t need to know.” Which showed a charming faith in the wisdom of hierarchies.
“In three months,” I said, “I’m going on parental leave come hell or high water. And I literally mean high water.”
While the thread of romance in the series is subtle, this book had a romantic scene that was just lovely. Here is an outtake:
I don’t have much that’s negative to say. The ending got a little frenetic. Some of the stuff about the history of the mary engine was hard to follow, and I still don’t entirely understand how the villain(s) was / were able to accomplish all that they did. It’s hard to say much about the story because of spoilers, but there was a twist I guessed at ahead of time, too.
I understand there were a lot of references to The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, but I was able to enjoy the book perfectly without having read that book.
I enjoyed new characters Johnson and Stacy; I hope they will appear in future books. The Peter / Beverley / pregnancy stuff was terrific, and there was a conversation between Guleed and Peter about their respective relationships that I liked a lot. I continue to enjoy Foxglove, too.
Whereas the last two books in the series had big casts, a frenetic pace and a lot going on, this one felt more back-to-basics, with a tighter focus on Peter and the people he’s close to. More of a close-up than a panorama, in other words. I appreciated that since the last book was so eventful. It was good to settle into Peter’s new life chapter.
It’s been great to observe Peter’s growth from book to book. He is now more adult than he was in the beginning of the series. More conscious of his responsibilities and more willing to touch (lightly) on his feelings. As I almost always do with your books, I enjoyed this one. B+.