That might seem reductive and lazy to say, but honestly, if you like the very popular and well known The Dresden Files, and you like British stuff, you will love this. That is not to say that Rivers of London, by Ben Aaronovitch, is in any way a rip-off or a copy. Rivers of London is an original, extremely British, urban fantasy about a cop solving supernatural crimes in London. It just shares so many strengths, and weaknesses, with The Dresden Files that it felt worth pointing out. But enough with the comparisons, let’s talk about Rivers of London on its own merits.
I was hesitant to jump into the Rivers of London series as its currently ten-ish (hard to say with all the side stories) books long and seems to show no signs of slowing down. As a reviewer, that represents a huge time sink, especially because reviewing sequels in a series gets progressively harder. However, I picked up a signed copy of the first book the last time I was in London (thanks Forbidden Planet) and it finally came up in my reading queue. This might seem like the annoying life story before an online recipe, but I promise I will come back to this paragraph and you will see its importance.
In the meantime, the plot of Rivers of London is fairly simple: our cop protagonist, constable Peter Grant, has just finished his training and is awaiting assignment into a London police specialty division. While investigating a strange murder in the center of the city he has an encounter with a ghost and finds out he has an affinity for magic. Thus, he is assigned to a somewhat secret paranormal magic crime division that only has one other member – his new magical teacher. The rest of the book essentially bounces between two focuses: slowly solving the murder mystery and exploring the world of magic in London. I honestly found the murder mystery to be a bit of a letdown. The plot didn’t really feel like a true murder mystery, where I had a chance to figure it out on my own, but instead was more of a series of unrelated magical events that lead to the characters explaining to the reader what was going on. It didn’t feel very satisfying or compelling and is definitely one of the weaker aspects of the book.
On the other hand, the worldbuilding is incredible. As I read through the book I found myself dreading every time the narrative shifted back to the murder and away from establishing the lore and magic of London. The book is incredibly English in its mannerisms and attitudes (most people’s reactions to learning ghosts are real is something along an emotionally suppressed “alright then”). We get to interact with legends and lore from London’s history, meet cool ghosts, visit iconic locations, and watch Peter start to become a magician. Peter spends a decent chunk of the book training and learning new skills in a Hogwarts meets night-school setting, and I love it. It’s a slow burn and you really feel the emotional payoff as Peter starts to dip his feet into the ocean of mages.
Speaking of Peter, he is an interesting protagonist. We spend the whole book inside his head, but there is a strong support cast. His personality is an interesting mix of mild incompetence, wanderlust, curiosity, and innovation. He is also a black lead if you are looking for a book with a non-white protagonist. There are about ten reoccurring side characters all with fun and varied personalities, but the support cast MVP award definitely goes to Peter’s superior and mage master: Detective Chief Inspector Thomas Nightingale. He is an older mage with a cultivated air of mystery and works as a perfect foil to Peter. Nightingale is old school, and you get the sense he has been doing this police work a LONG time, and Peter does a good job providing value to the duo by being more familiar with modern police techniques and technology. They make a fun mash-up of science and magic that makes Peter feel useful while he slowly learns magic.
However, the book does have some issues. As I mentioned before, the monster-of-the-week mystery in book one is a bit boring and unintuitive. Hopefully, this is a problem that is simply confined to the first book and the next crimes will be more captivating. Additionally, there didn’t feel like there was much set up for an overarching narrative across the books so I hope there is more of that in book two. Rivers of London is also definitely… written for men. I don’t know if I would call it sexist, as there are women with agency and complex roles, but it certainly objectifies them to an exhausting amount. Seriously, if I have to read about another character casually “pressing their breasts” against another part of Peters’s body I will scream.
Here is where I circle back to that earlier paragraph. When I finished Rivers of London I had a decision to make: was the book interesting and fun enough to set aside the time to read its pile of sequels when I have limited time? Well if you have read the title you will know my answer is yes. There were some problems with the book, but the foundations and foreshadowing that Ben lays down in book one are extremely promising and the world alone was enough to get me to reserve book two at the library. So congrats Ben Aaronovitch, you successfully got me to commit to a tantalizing and huge series in a packed release season. I hope you are happy with yourself.
Rating: Rivers of London – 6.5/10