The Short Version: Constable Peter Grant is facing down the unfortunate prospect of a desk job in the Met when he happens to interview a ghost regarding a murder in Covent Garden. This brings him to the attention of one Inspector Nightingale and thus he becomes an apprentice wizard cop – and his first case is a doozy.
The Review: There is quite a lot happening here. It’s a bit like cramming all of the mythos of the first… seven or eight Dresden Files novels into one. Maybe not quite that much. But still, there’s a lot going on and so my praise will be tempered.
But there is also quite a lot to praise here. There’s a reason I find myself drawn to this genre of novel (the urban fantasy wizard detective sub-sub-sub-genre) and that is that, when done well, there are few things as genuinely pleasing. Aaronovitch doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel – but he also stakes out his own turf, says “these are the rules in my magical universe”, and then sets off on an adventure. If you’re not on board, then don’t bother. But it hit, for me, just about all its marks and so, yeah, I’m on board.
Being the first in a series, there’s obviously a lot of setup that needs to happen. We meet our quirky constable just before his graduation into the force and he’s, you know, a pretty normal guy. He’s got a crush on another constable, he’s a bit head-in-the-clouds, he’s got a terrific British sense of humor (more on that in a moment). Then, BAM, something happens to him that’s otherworldly and we’re off to the races. The book does not deviate from that tried and true first-novel formula and it doesn’t need to. The pleasure is in seeing how a new author tackles that formula and Aaronovitch proves his mettle in the tackling: we get some interesting mythology regarding the existence of gods/goddesses (or at least Orisa/spirit deity types) of the rivers of London, we meet ghosts and vampires and we see magic being done… and I, for one, was sold on the way that Aaronovitch allowed the novel to serve both the developmental and singular-story purposes without causing too much fuss. You could say, perhaps, that it gets a bit long in the tooth and would’ve been a leaner and more exciting novel had he excised some of the learning bits, had he trimmed down the rivers subplot and focused on the murderous-rage-spirit. You could say that and from an objective standpoint you might not be wrong – the book does feel a bit long for its relatively short length (under 400 pgs). But that objective standpoint is missing, well, the point of it all. It’s missing the fact that this book is more about world-building than it is about the specific plot – and while that is very often a recipe for disaster, Aaronovitch pulls it off with remarkable skill. The scene where Nightingale and Grant go after some vampires does very little to add to the actual plot but it tells us loads about the world we’re expected to believe in – and so I was thankful for it. If anything, it is a lesson on how to world-build properly: make it interesting, keep it short, and tell us something every single time you divert us from the ostensible Main Plot. By the end of this novel, I felt ready to leap into the rest of the series, as though this had been my primer and I could now be set forth on the path with enough knowledge to make sure I could swan about and have fun.
But that description also makes the novel potentially sound a little dry and I don’t want to give that impression. Not at all. Indeed, Aaronovitch writes in the quintessential British fantasy style – something that you might call Pratchettian or Gaiman-y. Indeed, the codex for writing in that style is undoubtedly Good Omens and so those two authors would thus be the high priests of the format. Aaronovitch is definitely a disciple and he pays homage well – by speaking in his own voice, which just happens to be funny and droll and smart. I hate nothing more than people who consciously try to mimic another author and then end up sounding flat and stilted. This is neither of those things but rather a distinctively new voice that is simply “inspired by” everyone else. (PS: how long do you think it’ll take for someone to yell at me about not calling Hitchhiker’s Guide the ur-text for this kind of British fantastical humor?)
Rating: 4 out of 5. A solid, well-crafted, funny debut. If I didn’t really care about the Mr. Punch plot so much as I cared about… everything else in the novel, well, that’s my major complaint and (objectively) it is one that docks the novel a full point. No doubt about that, that’s just the way the cookie crumbles. But subjectively, that’s not seeing the forest for the trees and so I can give the book a full-throated cheer on the rest of its merits – as it is a wonderfully English urban fantasy crime mystery type novel. Did I mention, by the way, that Aaronovitch’s eye for detail on the city of London itself is fantastic? I always miss the city at the start of the new year and this made the missing a little less. So there’s that, too.