It isn’t that often I come across London-based Brit fantasy – as it happens, I was reading this as poor old London was still reeling from the depredations of a bunch of thieving mongrels. I’d pounced on this offering with some anticipation, particularly when I read Ben Aaronovitch’s c.v. The man is an experienced screen writer, with a number of tie-in novels under his belt – not that you’d need the biog on the back cover to tell you that. Just open up the book and read the first two paragraphs and you know you’re in the hands of someone who knows what he is doing…
My name is Peter Grant. Until January I was just another probationary constable in that mighty army for justice known to all right-thinking people as the Metropolitan Police Service, and to everyone else as the Filth. My only concerns in life were how to avoid a transfer to the Case Progression Unit – We do paperwork so real coppers don’t have to – and finding a way to climb into the panties of the outrageously perky WPC Lesley May. Then one night, in pursuance of a murder inquiry, I tried to take a witness statement from a man who was dead, but disturbingly voluble and that brought me to the attention of Chief Inspector Nightingale, the last wizard in England. And that, as they say, is where the story begins.
Now I’m a Detective Constable and a trainee wizard, the first apprentice in fifty years, and my world has become somewhat more complicated. I’m dealing with nests of vampires in Purley, negotiating a truce between the warring god and goddess of the Thames, and digging up graves in Covent Garden – and that’s just routine. There’s something festering at the heart of the city I love, a malicious, vengeful spirit that takes ordinary Londoners and twists them into grotesque mannequins to act out its drama of violence and despair.
The spirit of riot and rebellion has awakened in the city, and it’s falling to me to bring order out of chaos – or die trying. Which, I don’t mind telling you, would involve a hell of a lot of paperwork.
There you have it – a quirky, enjoyable adventure with lots of pace and humour, which nicely leavens the gorier moments. Peter is a coolly unflappable mixed-raced young Londoner with a very low boredom threshold, who is good at thinking on his feet. His laconic narrative, along with the long suffering observations about the labyrinth of police paperwork and procedures adds an extra twist of enjoyment to this tightly plotted piece of supernatural high jinks. As this is the first book in a series, I think Mr Aaronovitch has been very savvy in starting off in chirpy mode as in my experience, these urban fantasy serials tend to get progressively darker in tone. Just think of the difference in feel between Storm Front and Ghost Story in Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files, for instance. Peter’s relationship with his enigmatic superior Detective Inspector Nightingale has clearly got legs. For starters, they live in a spooky neo-Gothic fortress, complete with a creepy housekeeper, (think Mrs Hudson with sharp teeth…) and a running gag about the odd combinations that turn up in the packed lunches.
One of the major characters in this book is mentioned in the title – London. Not only does Aaronovitch use some of the major tourist sites as backdrops to some of his set pieces, he also casually drops in actual café names and walks his readers through real neighbourhoods. In addition, he has woven the city’s history into this very contemporary tale – a really neat trick, as London’s past is part of its everyday richness. The patina of history lies as thickly as the traffic fumes along many of our capital’s streets – and Aaronovitch deftly mines this historical treasure trove to underpin his tale of mayhem and chaos. All in all, this is an enjoyable and accomplished novel, crackling with energy and humour and I forward to reading the next book.