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[personal profile] strange_complex
Back in April I got a request via a friend who works in the British Library to translate a few words and sentences into Latin for Ben Aaronovitch's latest Rivers of London book (LJ / DW). I knew squat all about the series then, but agreed to the assignment and, with help from a couple of colleagues, supplied the requisite text. A few weeks later, a signed copy of the first novel in the series arrived with thanks from Ben's agent, and now I have read it.

2018-05-10 13.41.01.jpg

It's very good, as I know many friends who have been reading them for years are already well aware. The basic premise of the universe is that magic is real, and in Britain was codified and systematised by Isaac Newton in the 1770s. In the present day, a magical institution resides in a building called The Folly on Russell Square, and although it has no official standing or even openly acknowledged existence, in practice the Metropolitan Police work with its enigmatic Master, Thomas Nightingale, on cases involving supernatural beings. We, the readers, are introduced to all of this through the eyes of Peter Grant, the book's main character, a trainee police officer who meets a ghost one night and shortly thereafter finds himself signed up as Nightingale's apprentice. He spends the rest of the novel painstakingly learning basic magic while trying to solve a bizarre string of paranormal murders and intercede between the two major gods (each with a coterie of secondary water-spirits) whom he learns have charge of the Thames - Old Father Thames for the upper, rural stretches and Mama Thames for the lower, urban-coastal ones.

I could probably have taken or left the actual plot, which turned out to be about a sort of revenant possessing people and making them commit violent acts. For all that this was packaged up as a murderous retelling of the story of Punch and Judy, it could have been any old Big Bad really, and it was probably a mistake to take on this, the feud between the river gods and the initial world-building of an opening novel in one go. If the feud between the river gods had somehow underpinned the revenant plot, causing the problem through the disharmony between them, it might have worked better, but I don't think that was the case - although I may have missed something to that effect, as it all got quite complicated and surreal towards the end.

The world-building was good, though, belonging squarely to my favourite genre of fantasy - that is, where magic and the supernatural are real, but still directly connected to the world we actually live in. And of course Ben Aaronovitch being who he is - i.e. a British cult / SF writer whose CV includes Doctor Who - there were plenty of references neatly calculated to make a reader like me go 'squee!'. I believe my favourite was the following, coming as Peter Grant first encounters The Folly:
Russell Square lies a kilometre north of Covent Garden on the other side of the British Museum. According to Nightingale, it was at the heart of a literary and philosophical movement in the early years of the last century, but I remember it because of an old horror movie about cannibals living in the Underground system.
Yes, yes, Bloomsbury Group etc., but more importantly, Death Line! He's talking about Death Line, which is one of my absolute favourite horror films in the history of ever (LJ / DW). There are references to midichlorians and John Polidori, too, but that was the one I enjoyed most.

Peter himself is mixed race, which created some useful space to show up some of the on-going structural flaws with the police. There's one direct reference to the Macpherson report, reminding us that the Met has only fairly recently become an environment Peter can comfortably work in, and in the present day of the novel (its 2011 publication date) he still needs to navigate various micro-aggressions. In much the same way that the characters in Being Human were all very real as well as supernatural Others (the vampire was Irish, the werewolf Jewish and the ghost mixed race), it also reflects his liminal position with one foot each in the ordinary human world and the magical underworld, as well as putting him in the perfect position to mediate credibly between Old Father Thames (who is white) and Mama Thames (who is black).

As a female reader, though, it did irritate me that Peter seemed barely able to look at half of the female characters in the book without appraising them sexually. I mean, maybe that's just an inevitable part of a young male character's internal viewpoint, and it doesn't necessarily mean he can't respect their intelligence or professionalism as well, but it was just so relentless and indiscriminate that it got kind of tedious. I don't really want to have to sit on a character's shoulder watching them objectify every woman they come across - and especially not when that included Mama Thames, a literal goddess. Again, I get that you might want to convey the experience of a goddess' immense power partly in terms of sexual allure, but what we get is Peter narrating how much he wants to put his face between her breasts and gets so hard he finds it difficult to sit down by the time she offers him a chair. Even within the book, she and her coterie laugh at him for the inappropriateness of this, but I'd have preferred not to go there in the first place.

In the end, my own favourite character was Molly, a being of indeterminate nature (when Peter asks Nightingale what she is, he just replies "Indispensable") who lives in the Folly and appears to be its entire domestic staff. She never speaks, Peter catches her at one point eating dripping chunks of raw meat in the middle of the night, and she has a brilliant scene at the end where she comes over for all the world like Sadako out of Ringu and bites him in the neck as a way of sending him backwards through time so that he can defeat the troublesome revenant. But she is a model of efficiency around the Folly, and clearly fiercely loyal to Nightingale and his endeavours.

I will probably read some more of these books in due course, and rather wish I'd done so before I attempted to translate the Latin I was given in the first place. I certainly understand much better now some of the things which puzzled me as I struggled with the initial text, such as why Father Thames seemed also to be called Tiberius Claudius Verica. I'd like to know more about his back-story, as well as Molly's. That said, I've got two entire bookshelves' worth of unread books in my house at the moment, none of which are Rivers of London books, and at my current average rate of no more than ten leisure books per year, it's going to take me a while to get through all those. :-( So it may be some time before I'm back in this particular world.

Date: Wednesday, 19 September 2018 21:36 (UTC)
venta: (Default)
From: [personal profile] venta
Hmm. I've read all (I think, to date) the Rivers of London novels (I read the first one as part of a plan to read books recommended by LJers - in fact, it was the first one of those I did, I wrote about it here.) Although I didn't write it there, I remember commenting at the time that the books are all about the journey not the destination: I enjoy them as they trot along, but often the plot resolution isn't all that.

It's a while since I read one, and I'm surprised that I didn't notice (or at least, either didn't mind or didn't remember) Peter being quite so consistent in viewing women sexually. It certainly does happen, but I hadn't registered it as being quite so relentless.

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