The Short Version: It starts like any ordinary day on the job for Peter Grant, London cop and trainee wizard: a suspicious murder, a Tube accident, and a newly discovered grimoire. But when all signs point to a strange housing block to the South of the river, he must risk life and limb (again) just in case the Faceless Man has plans for him and for London…
The Review: Ah, my annual next installment of Ben Aaronovitch’s terrific Peter Grant / Rivers of London series – a go-to Christmas present from my sister and a go-to lazy day’s read. While I found the last installment a little weaker than the first two, I still know to expect reliable pleasure at the top of my year – and Broken Homes is an exciting installment indeed, even if it suffers from some major pacing issues.
Having spent some considerable time with the characters now – Peter, Lesley, Nightingale, the Rivers, even some of the supporting cast – it’s much easier to jump back in. We know these people, four books in, and so it’s a matter of moments before we’re reacclimatized to Peter’s delightfully witty narration and the particulars of a magical London. His training is progressing, as is Lesley’s, and the Folly’s work at tracking down magical practitioners across the country is going about as well as to be expected. And perhaps it was the ho-hum start to the novel – lots of day-to-day, on-the-ground policing – but I got a better sense of what the ‘ordinary’ life must be like now, after Peter has been a part of the Folly for a while. The cases aren’t all going to be exciting, they aren’t all going to be a matter of life and death, and it’s nice to see a little more of the average day as opposed to the most exciting ones.
But the book wouldn’t survive if it was just the ordinary day-to-day – and, of course, even the disparate plots are connected. The connections are a little tenuous, it should be said, but where they’re leading is easily the best part of the book: Skygarden. Aaronovitch is so convincing in his creation of Erik Stromberg (brutalist architect in the Corbusier style) that I thought he was real – and that his Skygarden Estate was too. Skygarden is, as Aaronovitch admits at the end in an author’s note, an adaptation of the recently-demolished Heygate Estate and it’s fun to see how much of London’s architecture he manages to reference throughout the novel. As a kid, I briefly considered architecture as a career and I still certainly love a well-designed building – and London is surely full of them – so it was a particular delight for me.
But I couldn’t help thinking, until Peter and Lesley move into Skygarden as a pseudo-undercover mission, that the book was marking time. We had some facetime with the Rivers, getting a whole sequence at a festival held in honor of Mama and Old Man Thames, but their presences were even more ancillary than they felt in the last novel. And the way that the disparate cases lead us to Skygarden and are then tossed aside (the initial case, the strange car accident, is completely forgotten about until the very end of the novel and I had to stop and ask myself what the hell it had to do with anything – I don’t currently have an answer, I don’t think) left me with the feeling that Aaronovitch was a little listless here.
Once things settle down into one spot (roughly), however, the book sharpens up tremendously. The housing development is vividly rendered in all its oddity and I enjoyed the hell out of exploring it alongside Peter. I had thoughts of J.G. Ballard at times and almost wish that Aaronovitch had spent more time on the day-to-day of the tower as opposed to in the earlier half of the book. It all, too, leads up to one hell of a denouement that snaps the book shut with a “wait, WHAT? You’re stopping THERE?!” kind of outburst. Magical architecture fits in perfectly with the idea of Newtonian influenced magic and Aaronovitch continues to populate his world not only with scientifically plausible takes on magic but characters who make the books damned fun to read. Now if only the plots would tighten up a little bit…
Rating: 3.5 out of 5. The back half of the book is great, but the first 200 or so pages are a little listless (even if they don’t quite feel that way while you’re reading them – Aaronovitch is a great writer and Peter Grant is the sort of narrator who could tell you about anything, any day). I love the London of these books and they settle right into that sweet spot of a reliable, if not spectacular, urban fantasy read. I keep hoping that they’ll blow my socks off one day (instead of just making me guffaw from time to time) but even if they don’t, I look forward to kicking off my year with them for many years to come.