REVIEW: Lies Sleeping by Ben Aaronovitch
Dear Mr. Aaronovitch,
The last book in your urban fantasy Rivers of London series saw some big developments, including the unmasking of police constable Peter Grant’s nemesis, the wizard known as the Faceless Man. Lies Sleeping, book seven in the series, finds the hunt for the Faceless Man and his cohort, Peter’s erstwhile partner, Lesley May, intensifying.
Peter, our loveable hero, and his second partner, Sahra Guleed, are no longer constables but “bona fide detectives with the PIP2 qualifications to prove it.” And they are part of Operation Jennifer, which involves a number of police officers and information analysts, all hot on their target’s figurative tail.
Nevertheless, the Faceless Man is elusive, and Peter and Guleed stake out the residence of one Richard Williams, a possible associate of his, to be sure Williams doesn’t get away while their mentor in all things magic, Nightingale, and their co-worker, David Carey, question him.
Unfortunately for the London police, the family’s nanny transforms into something with sharp teeth and attempts to kill Williams before Nightingale and Carey can conduct the interview. Nightingale and Carey foil her in part, but Williams is severely injured and when Peter and Guleed attempt to apprehend the nanny, she ripples like a snake and gets away.
Williams is taken to the hospital, but Peter manages to discover, among his papers, site reports belonging to the Museum of London Archeology (MOLA) and a brief part of a screenplay Williams wrote with two others, which begins with a scene set in the ruins of Roman London–enough to set Peter’s spidey sense abuzz.
Following up at MOLA reveals that soil has been stolen from several archeological sites, and when Guleed interviews the injured man’s wife, the latter relates that he made frequent trips to the Whitechapel Bell Foundry. This leads to the discovery of a giant bell, molded using the stolen soil, which, while not a demon trap as Peter at first suspects, can still mean nothing good for London.
Before Peter and Guleed can question Richard Williams as to the bell’s purpose, Williams is murdered. But the bell is inscribed in Greek with a quote from The Bacchae, a play by Euripides, about Dionysus, the god of wine. This Peter and Nightingale read as a bright green arrow pointing straight at Mr. Punch, the malicious and dangerous spirit of riot and rebellion, which readers of the series first encountered in Midnight Riot.
The Faceless Man, they discover, called the bell “A bell for ringing in the changes.” But what changes does he plan to bring about?
With no further leads, Peter and company decide to try to track down Zach, a goblin and Lesley’s occasional lover. If Zach can lead them to Lesley, Lesley might lead them to the Faceless Man.
This line of inquiry brings Peter to a pub in Shoreditch, the Goat and Crocodile. There Peter meets the pub’s owner, a young woman he hasn’t encountered before—Lulu, who, in her time off, doubles as the goddess of the river Walbrook. But when Peter mentions his acquaintance with the women he assumes are her relatives—Mama Thames and her daughters—Lulu turns cold.
Peter spends that night at Beverley’s house and, since his girlfriend happens to be a river goddess herself, he asks her about Lulu / Walbrook. Bev then swears Peter to absolute secrecy before confessing that she doesn’t think Lulu is her mother’s child.
Meanwhile, the evidence mounts that the Faceless Man is preparing a big, nasty surprise not only for the Metropolitan Police, but for London itself.
Before the book ends, Peter may need help not just from friends and colleagues–Nightingale, Guleed, and Beverley, FBI agent Kimberley Reynolds, and his bosses, Seawoll and Stephanopoulous–but from sometime-enemies like Zach, river goddess Lady Ty, even Lesley and Mr. Punch. But who among them can and cannot be trusted?
I have sung the praises of this series in many a review, and its strengths are so consistent that my posts about it are repetitive. Peter is one of the most appealing heroes I’ve come across, in his humanity, his humility, and his desire for both justice and compassion.
Quick-witted as his narration is—and his quips are often laugh-out-loud funny—he is not always the smartest person in the room, nor the most powerful, but he is the most dedicated, and it is his dogged work and his out-of-the-box thinking that, more often than not, save the day.
The side characters are competent, original and interesting in their own right. The cast is also diverse; there are many recurring POC characters. Peter is biracial, Beverley and her family black, Dr. Walid and Sahra Guleed Muslim (the latter also wears a hijab), Stephanopoulos queer, and I could go on.
The trademark snarky humor is in evidence here, too, for example when Peter enters his information into the police database:
It’s tedious stuff but it all goes into the great mill that is HOLMES 2, the better to grind the flour of truth and produce the wholesome bread of justice.
Or when planning an arrest in advance:
After all, you don’t want to be striding resolutely into someone’s office only to find out they’re spending a dirty weekend in Honolulu with their son’s macramé teacher—do you?
There are wonderful tidbits about London architecture and history, and surprising developments in the plot. My favorite aspect of the books may be the rivers, since genius loci, or rather, genii loci, in place of werewolves and vampires make for a fresh take on this genre. Their magic is applied with a light hand, which makes it all the more convincing.
Lies Sleeping is not without a few flaws. If David Carey was introduced in an earlier book, I have managed to forget him, so I was a bit confused about his inclusion on the “Falcon” team.
Understandably, Peter generally faces the villains alone, but by book seven, the reasons why Nightingale can’t be at his side have grown a touch clichéd. My husband, who read the book with me, quipped that he wishes Nightingale would just abandon the endangered innocent bystanders the Faceless Man throws in his path so that the threat of the Faceless Man can be eliminated, saving the innocent bystanders who will otherwise be imperiled in the future.
When it came to the book’s climactic confrontation between Peter and the Faceless Man, Nightingale had a better excuse for being away, but Guleed’s absence went unexplained. The book’s final showdown was a bit anti-climactic, too.
At the same time, there was much to delight here, including Peter’s burgeoning relationship with Beverley, some terrific moments involving the out-of-town rivers, Peter’s grappling with whether to intervene in what may be his teenage niece Abigail’s love life, the best Peter / Lady Ty scene of the whole series, as well as the introduction of a fascinating new supernatural character, a section when Peter lands in danger that seems insurmountable, and the last scene of the book, which I will not spoil.
While the series has been consistently strong with only one exception (book four), I have preferred the odd-numbered books to the even-numbered ones, and Lies Sleeping is no exception. Further, there are some big developments for the arc of the series and for Peter as a character. Readers familiar with the series will not want to skip this book. For readers who are unfamiliar with it, I recommend starting with book one. B+.
Brief editorial note: Ben Aaronovitch is working with Titan Comics on a series of separate Rivers of London stories in comic/graphic novel format. That may be where characters and events referred to in the normal novels get introduced.
I’m behind on the series, but am delighted you recommend this book. Now to get caught up. Thanks.
@Darlynne: I was careful not to disclose the Faceless Man’s identity, though it was revealed in The Hanging Tree, in case readers were not caught up. I will say this—if you don’t want spoilers, you should catch up soon, because the review of the next book will be impossible to write without disclosing some big spoilers for this book. How far behind are you?