I’ve read a number of different urban fantasy series. Jim Butcher’s Dresden stuff, Mike Carey’s Felix Castor books and Simon Green’s Nightside stories among them. Along with Aaronovitch‘s Rivers of London, they all have some stuff in common; a male protagonist with some supernatural ability who is investigating crimes or tracking down people or spirits. In the case of Dresden and John Taylor (Nightside), they’re private investigators, Felix Castor is a freelance exorcist, and in Ben’s books, we have Peter Grant, a police officer and practitioner (wizard). In all four series, there’s some crime or incident to resolve against the backdrop of a deeper and darker mystery which deepens further as more books are released. It’s a common format and it risks getting a little bit tiring.
However, despite the similarities the books all have very different flavours. Jim Butcher writes loud roller-coasters with explosive conclusions and long lasting impacts. Mike Carey’s books are a bleak look at human nature and how we live, or don’t live, with our actions. Simon Green writes weird fantastical stories in weird places with weird outcomes and big characters.
Ben Aaronovitch it would seem, writes very British urban fantasy. It’s all very polite and erudite and intensely focussed on not making a fuss.
The Hanging Tree is the sixth instalment in the Rivers of London series (not counting the graphic novels), and it’s a very fine read indeed. Don’t take my comment about it being polite as a negative, it’s just a very different feel to the rest of the urban fantasy market. The police element of the story is as strong as ever here and I love it. One of my major objections to a lot of police serial stuff is the lack of banal activity, actual policing and the proper consequences of actions. In The Hanging Tree, we get a clear view of how the police handle real crimes and situations, and although they’re clearly exaggerated in order to handle Falcon Incidents (i.e. weird magical shit) it feels real, grounded and truly interesting. Peter and his colleagues fill in reports and do interviews, they follow suspects and only actually arrest them if they have some decent evidence. There’s very little shoot first and deal with the fallout, and a lot of risk reviews and tactical planning. It’s not mired in detail, and so it’s not boring, but it is present and it makes the world feel so much more real.
Ben’s descriptions of London, architecture and history fascinate me throughout the books, and make the location a character in its own right. The source of the name of the series (pun intended), the rivers of London, are enticing and interesting and provide a real foil for the rest of the characters and stories. The other characters are well developed where necessary, as well as interesting and engaging. They’re also, it seems to me, representative of the feminist, multi-cultural, multi-sexual nature of London. I’m not the right person to say how well that’s handled, but it’s the first time I’ve read an urban fantasy book where the male protagonist isn’t white and where (in this case) the strong female sidekick is a modern Muslim.
Dialog is witty and sharp, with some laugh out loud moments and some great character interactions. The plot is pretty light again, however, and really plays second fiddle to the characters and the broader story arc. As a result, the plot in The Hanging Tree very quickly turns towards the deeper mystery in the series, and doesn’t really carry any interest on its own. Personally, I didn’t mind because I enjoyed the progression of the main story, but some people might find it a little light, and it’s very much not stand-alone. You’re going to have to read the previous books to understand this one.
You could argue that The Hanging Tree is too genteel for urban fantasy. There’s certainly a gruesome death or two, there’s a magical battle, and a flying car, but it’s so very calm. I think that’s a result of Peter Grant’s narration, and it’s clearly an intentional choice by Ben. However, if you’re looking for giant explosions and epic magical battles, you’ll need to look elsewhere, because The Hanging Tree is more personal, smaller, and written for TV rather than Hollywood. I don’t think it suffers for it, but if you’re not expecting it, you’re going to be left feeling slightly flat.
A stand out element for me personally, is that Peter Grant isn’t the most powerful good guy in the story. He’s not even the best cop. He’s just a guy, trying his best, surrounded by other good coppers and some very powerful players. Sure he can hold his own in the fights, but he’s not Harry Dresden, growing increasingly powerful and increasingly hard to beat. Ben keeps him grounded, surrounded by reality, with enough magical power to deliver surprises, but not so much that the enemies have to become world threatening.
I’ve often described the pace and mood of a book with a simple line graph. Time along the bottom, excitement or pace on the y-axis. Many books have lines which look like roller-coaster rides, or castle crenellations, or steep hills rising to a crescendo. The Hanging Tree line is like a gentle, rolling hillside starting and ending in pretty much the same place. It’s a pleasant walk in the summer with a little bit of exertion towards the end, but nothing you can’t handle before settling down for a nice pint and a pie.
Ben ensures you care about the characters, you’re interested in the story progression and you want to keep turning the pages. It’s fascinating, engaging and interesting, but it’s not the kind of book that’ll blow your socks off.
You should buy it and read it though, because it’s the best version of magic in the real world I’ve ever read. Also, Muslim Ninja.