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In 2003 or so, my little brother and I called the police because we would have felt bad if the people climbing from the roof of a car over the balcony opposite turned out to be burglars rather than the locked-out tenants they actually were. Two of the fuzz, one older, one younger, duly rolled up, earnest and sombre and desperately hopeful actual criminals were about.  My brother rather liked them. “They’ve got that policeman smell,” he said, after they had gone.

“What’s the policeman smell?” I asked.

“They smell of the law,” said my brother approvingly.

That “policeman smell” emanates off the pages of Rivers of London. The language of modern policing suffuses the narrative of young PC Peter Grant: “Good,” I said. “Now I’m incentivised.”  And what’s best about Rivers of London is the sense of solidity, from the drab and disconsolate atmosphere of Charing Cross nick, through the massive, dirty, gorgeous complexity of London’s geography, history and folklore... to the discipline of learning how to make a magical werelight in a laboratory  without your brain shrivelling up or any nearby electronics blowing up.  


After interviewing a ghost one cold night in Covent Garden,  and while a horrible spectre from London’s past wreaks bloody havoc across the city, Peter Grant finds his career path unexpectedly leading to the position of apprentice wizard. There’s an obvious comparison between Rivers of London and Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere –  both works turning on the discovery of a dark and magical London rubbing alongside the real one; if anything, I preferred Rivers. Peter Grant is a much more active and likeable protagonist than the whiny Richard, and here, there’s a lot more traffic between the two worlds, both of which, I felt, therefore came across as more real.

Much of the drama and comedy comes from the uneasy relationship between the supernatural and sourfaced police officialdom.  Peter’s initiator into magic isn’t some robe-clad sage stepping out of the shadows , but dapper Detective Chief Inspector Thomas Nightingale , the Met’s  only wizard, (the upper echelons of the police know about magic, but don’t much like it). And when Peter asks to become Nightingale’s apprentice, they have to go over to New Scotland Yard and  talk to the Commissioner about it – because “he’s the only person authorised to make the final decision.”

Magic, we learn, was in decline for many years and, in the view of the Home Office, “posed only a marginal threat to the Queen’s Peace.”  But now...

                “The magic’s coming back?” asked the Commissioner.

                “Since the mid-sixties,” said Nightingale.

                “The sixties,” said the Commissioner, “Why am I not surprised?”

So Peter’s ten-year education in magic (and a host of other related disciplines) begins. I think some other reviewers found the magic lesson scenes slow –  but these were possibly my favourite parts.  Magic is so persuasively  difficult. It’s not a matter of just waving your hands and saying strange words, still less of “just going for it” or believing in yourself. It’s more like the old joke: “How do I get to Carnegie Hall?” “Practice, practice, practice.” Rivers of London   provides perhaps the best explanation of why spells are in Latin – or how any magical language might work – that I think I’ve ever encountered. It’s an issue that’s always bothered me in fantasy, actually – if the “Old Speech” (whatever that may be) was inherently magical, how did people manage everyday conversation in the days before it was “Old”? The answer in Rivers is simply that Latin was seventeenth century language of scholarship and thus the tongue n which the  discipline was codified – by Sir Isaac Newton. You could do magic without Latin, or without any words at all, but you’d be making unnecessary difficulties for yourself, wouldn’t be able to read any magical textbooks, and it’s simply not done.  It’s not clear whether magic is an inborn capacity that you either have or you don’t, or something more like playing the violin – a matter of talent, yes, but theoretically possible for anyone with the proper training. In a way it isn’t important.  As Peter himself wonders at the beginning: “Could it have been anyone or was it destiny? When I’m considering this I find it helpful to quote the wisdom of my father, who once told me ‘Who the fuck knows why anything happens?’”

It’s  this very difficulty and slowness,  this truthfulness to the toil involved in learning any craft, that actually enhances –restores, even - the wonder of the idea of being able to do magic.  When Peter is able make a little ball of light appear in his hand, it’s amazing and satisfying, and in turn, it’s entirely unamazing that by the end of the book he can only do a handful of spells, and only one of them reliably.

It’s not a book without its flaws. While I enjoyed Peter’s basic groundedness, I would have appreciated a bit more freaking out in response to the  discovery ghosts and magic exist and are bloody dangerous. Sometimes it feels as if there are just too many magical creatures, clogging up rather than advancing the plot -- an episode about exterminating a nest of vampires adds little except confirmation that vampires are obligatory these days. And I was confused when towards the end of the novel, people suddenly started calling Peter “cunning” and “devious” left and right. This wasn’t the way the character had read to me at all. In fact, what I liked about Peter was that he was quite the opposite, that he was intelligent but straightforward – a plain, thorough, honest copper type— but one with just enough of the daydreamer in him, just enough of a tendency to wander off and get lost in the little oddities of life, to make him unfit for front-line policing and a perfect fit for magic. And really while “police with magic” is a great hook, for the chosen officer to be a fundamentally steady, by-the-book sort of bobby rather than a “devious” maverick  feels even fresher.

Nevertheless, Rivers of London comfortably fills out its engaging premise. It doesn’t, perhaps, go farther than that and expand upon it. At least not yet. But Rivers of London is the first of a series,  so there’s time for the characters and ideas to grow.  There are several questions about Grant and Nightingale (and their various magical acquaintances) left unanswered, and it’ll be interesting to see where they go in the sequel, Moon over Soho.




( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 3rd, 2011 10:44 pm (UTC)
I concur with pretty much all of that - I liked the fact that there is no fashionable greyness about Grant. He is a solidly decent copper anxious that the sort of old-fashioned coppers who talk about each other as thief-takers approve of him.

Actually, the reason people talk about him as 'cunning etc' is simply that he has a straightforwardness about him that makes certain things easy for him that more devious people would fine hard...
Jan. 3rd, 2011 11:01 pm (UTC)
You mean he's so undevious that to devious people, everything he does is so surprising that he appears devious?! Heh. Perhaps so. As the sudden rash of people calling him that coincided roughly with him coming up with plans and ideas, it wasn't as clear to me that this was supposed to be a strictly villain's-eye judgement, and I was a bit thrown, in a "hang on, was that what I was supposed to be seeing all along?!! sort of way.

In any case, I agree, he's refreshingly un-dark and despite his unhappy past (about which I'd be perfectly pleased to learn more), unhaunted. He just seems to want to do an interesting job and do it properly, really. It's an underrated motivation for heroism!
Jan. 3rd, 2011 11:13 pm (UTC)
He is just simply a nice guy. Though there were times when I had a problem with his and Nightingale's slowness in catching on to the what and the why and the who of the nefarious doings. I got a pretty good idea within five pages, but I am an utter smartarse.
Jan. 23rd, 2011 02:33 am (UTC)
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( 4 comments — Leave a comment )