The Hanging Tree

The Hanging Tree is like a gentle, rolling hillside. 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.

 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.

Rating: ★★★★☆ 

Book Information
  • Author: Ben Aaronovitch
  • Series: Rivers of London (6)
  • Format: Hardback
  • Publisher: Gollancz
  • Genre: Urban Fantasy
  • Buy on Kindle (UK)Buy from Amazon (UK)

Foxglove Summer

 I don’t read that much these days, because it’s difficult to find stuff that really grabs my attention.  There are, however, a few exceptions, and the DC Peter Grant books (The Rivers of London series to some) are in that group.  I’ve been looking forward to the paperback release of the 5th book (Foxglove Summer) since it was announced (on account of me being too cheap to buy the hardback), and have been reading it in my lunch break at work since it arrived.

Ben’s style is very easy going, and that makes reading the books very easy as well.  The tone is informal and inviting and I often think, regardless of the content, I could spend hours just reading his prose and enjoy it in the same way you might enjoy a warm bath.

As is common in the kind of urban fantasy I read, Foxglove Summer has a crime to solve, and in the background there’s a long running arc, some impending doom or event that is being foreshadowed.  Painted over those two features are the lives of the characters that inhabit the story.  Unusually, Ben pretty much pushes all of the key characters into the sidelines in this outing, with DC Peter Grant being sent off out of London.  Other than Beverly Brook, the other regulars (Nightingale, Molly, Leslie, et. al) are all pretty much handled at arms length.  Peter is on his own, and while that presents some challenges, it also left me feeling a little bit bereft.

Two girls have gone missing, and what starts out being a routine check on practitioners for Peter, turns into a full-on Falcon event (the Police terminology in the book for ‘weird shit’).

The pace was okay, although as with some of the previous books, I felt again that the ending was quite damp.  This may be because I had to stop only a chapter from the end and then pick it up again, but it all feels quite gentle.  Maybe this is intentional, police work doesn’t finish with the final chase, but rather with all the paperwork afterwards, but it still leaves me feeling deflated.  In combination with the lack of supporting characters, this means I didn’t enjoy this book as much as the fourth in the series which I feel was much stronger.

However, it’s not all bad.  The police procedural elements are as fascinating as ever, the new characters were great, the setting was interesting and the magical elements were worth the effort.  Foxglove Summer is another quite low key story in the magic department after Broken Homes’ must stronger magical element, but as usual it’s blended with the other elements perfectly.

The humour is great, most of it being delivered through DC Grant’s PoV, which is as engaging and witty as ever.  I really could spend hours just reading about DC Grant going about regular police work.

The plot has twists, and the long running story arc is interesting (but you need to have read the others to get it).

Foxglove Summer is an interesting, entertaining read, albeit diminished by the reduced cast.  What the book lacks in tension, it makes up for with humour, wit and intelligence.

Rating: ★★★½☆ 

Book Information
  • Author: Ben Aaronovitch
  • Series: Rivers of London (5)
  • Format: Paperback
  • Publisher: Gollancz
  • Genre: Urban Fantasy
  • Buy on Kindle (UK)Buy from Amazon (UK)

Broken Homes

Broken Homes is back on par with the first book in the series. It was enjoyable, easy to read, gripping and exciting. It’s left me looking forward to the fifth book, and there’s not much wrong with that.

 Broken Homes is the fourth book in Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London series.  I’m not sure if he’s actually using that series name, but Amazon and various other sites are, so I guess I will.  It could equally be called the fourth DC Grant book, which is probably more accurate.  Although the Rivers certainly make appearances in each of the books, their influence wanes and waxes, where Peter Grant is the central character.

The series is essentially a supernatural police procedural, with DC Grant forming a third of the police unit within the Met that investigates ‘weird stuff’, along with Nightingale (his boss) and Lesley, his ‘it’s complicated’ friend and colleague.  The Folly, which is their base of operations is home to them, a dog, and Molly, a slightly sinister housekeeper. It’s best not to argue with Molly in case she eats you.

The rest of the cast is made up of normal police officers (normal in the sense that they aren’t magical, their personalities are often far from average), a range of magical and non-magical bad guys, various supernatural entities who may or may not be goblins, river spirits, gods and demons and a sinister arch-nemesis, the Faceless Man.

It’s common in Urban Fantasy for there to be something to investigate, a long running arc which may or may not be linked, and one or two other weird things going on which all magically come together at the end, and Ben’s approach is no different.  The story starts with a mixture of crimes, not all of them obviously related, and an ongoing investigation in the identity of the Faceless Man.  As the tale progresses, links appear to start to form and as Peter digs deeper and deeper, both the danger and the connections increase.

Eventually, things explode at the end, with dramatic and tragic consequences.

I was surprised how little magic there was in the third book of the series, given the focus in the first two was more aimed at the supernatural side of the world.  Book four makes a return to that focus, with plenty of police work, but equally significant amounts of mystical and magical actions.  There’s an excellent section with the most obvious and overt use of magical power in the series so far, where Nightingale finally gets to let rip, and this alone would be reason to read the book.

The pace is well judged, and the story builds tension throughout, I was constantly expecting things to go south but when they finally did, I was surprised at the direction it took.  On reflection, I shouldn’t have been – which is always a good sign.  The hints were there, and in the back of my mind I’d formed the connections, but it wasn’t until I read the words that it all clicked in to place.

Ben’s characters are so very real; they leap from the page.  The dialogue is simply sublime, and he doesn’t pull any punches to make his characters softer or more likeable.  His use of a strongly mixed race and mixed gender cast is second to none in the urban fantasy arena; although he uses those racial and gender differences in the story, they are well blended, sensible and useful, rather than merely being there to tick boxes.

It’s not all perfect however.  Sometimes the book feels like a series of events strung together, which of course most books are, and yet with Ben’s I can sometimes see the joins.  It’s not a serious issue, the dialogue and the plot eventually win out, and I can’t put my finger on exactly why it feels like this, but it’s not as smooth as say Dresden or the Felix Castor series, both of which are similar in style to Rivers of London.  There was a lengthy section in the book about the Rivers of London celebrating the arrival of spring, which was sort of interesting but I’m not sure it drove the story forward at all, and I could have lived without it.

Those two minor points aside, Broken Homes is back on par with the first book in the series.  It was enjoyable, easy to read, gripping and exciting.  It’s left me looking forward to the fifth book, and there’s not much wrong with that.

Rating: ★★★★☆ 

Book Information
  • Author: Ben Aaronovitch
  • Series: Rivers of London (4)
  • Format: Paperback
  • Publisher: Gollancz
  • Genre: Urban Fantasy
  • Buy on Kindle (UK)Buy from Amazon (UK)

Whispers Under Ground

 Whispers Under Ground is the third book in the Rivers of London (or DC Peter Grant) series.  The book sees familiar characters DC Peter Grant, Nightingale (his boss), Stephanopoulos (his other boss), Seawoll (his other, other boss), and Lesley, who’s face he ruined, work together to solve another mysterious crime in London.  This time, there’s been a murder on in the London underground and if DC Peter Grant isn’t careful, he might have to do some real police work.

Ben’s prose is punchy, witty and very easy to read.  His insight into both the mind of DC Grant and the workings of various London authorities is entertaining and laugh out loud in places.  DC Grant is great, and he feels amazingly real.  There isn’t any cliché here or a feeling of made up emotions.  Peter is honest, embarrassing, offensive, offended and emotionally stunted in all the right places.  His interactions with those around him are a master class in observational writing, and frankly, I could read pages and pages about Peter doing little other than going shopping.

Thankfully, Aaronovitch gives Peter just a little bit more than that to do.  As is traditional with urban fantasy there’s a ‘background arc’ and the actual police case to be getting on with.  Both are engaging, to some degree, although neither was rivetingly interesting.  The murder case is about some people we don’t really know, or get to know much, and the background arc is a little thin on the content.

However, the introduction of a couple of new characters (an FBI agent, and someone from the British Transport Police) give Peter and Leslie some excellent material to work with, and generate a load of excellent banter.

The whole book felt rather gentle, there’s no great surprises, and although there are a few moments of genuine peril, overall it was a much more relaxed investigation than either book one or book two.  The magical content is pretty low as well, with the primary focus being on the police procedural aspect and actually pounding the pavement as it were.  I didn’t miss the supernatural elements, and there’s still enough to make it fantasy rather than a crime drama, but I do wonder about the overall direction.

The end is rather simple, and delivered pretty much out of the blue.  There’s plenty of supporting material, but if you could figure out the detail in advance, then it was too clever for me.  It’s not an issue, because without the legwork it wouldn’t have been there, but it’s certainly not the climax to a long and thrilling chase, for example.

In the end, Whispers Under Ground is a book about DC Grant, and along the way he solves a murder with the help of some other interesting people.  It’s engaging, witty, and absolutely well worth reading, but it’s not going to bowl you over with suspense.

Rating: ★★★½☆ 

Book Information
  • Author: Ben Aaronovitch
  • Series: Rivers of London (3)
  • Format: Paperback
  • Publisher: Gollancz
  • Genre: Urban Fantasy
  • Buy on Kindle (UK)Buy from Amazon (UK)

Magic in the Court

Tracey and I were excited to be invited to the Magic in the Court event on Monday 10th September, held in honour of Deborah Harkness and the release of her second book – Shadow of Night.  Also along were a few other magical authors – Benedict Jacka *squee*, Ben Aaronovitch, Suzanne McLeod and James Treadwell.

The party was held at a location that had a magic all of it’s own – Goldsboro Books.  I’d never been there before but it’s amazing!  If you are looking for a signed first edition of your favourite author, check them out first!  I couldn’t stop looking 🙂

There was a real mix of people attending, fellow bloggers, reporters, publicists and of course the authors! I didn’t get a chance to talk to everyone but it was great to see a few familiar faces and to meet people I had only talked to through twitter.

What is an event write-up without some pics?!

Grete and Tracey meet Benedict JackaSlightly blurry Grete and Deborah HarknessA magical foursome!The magic five and their books!

I managed not to fangirl too much but it was a great pleasure meeting Deborah Harkness.  She is a very gracious lady and is fascinating to listen to.  I was lucky enough to see her again on Wednesday night when she did a talk and book signing at the Waterstones here in Nottingham.  She spoke about her professional work and how she came to write the first book in the series; A Discovery of Witches.  Both books are a wonderful read and I highly recommend them if you are even a little bit interested in history, magic or the Elizabethan era.

Huge thanks to Caitlin Raynor from Headline for inviting us and to Deborah herself who wasn’t fazed by my babbling in the least 😉

Moon over Soho

Overall Moon over Soho was worth the effort, there’s some character progression, further twists to the overall story arc, and enough laughs, smiles and chuckles to get through the pain.

I really enjoyed Rivers of London, the first book in this series, and I had pretty high hopes for Moon over Soho, the second outing of DC Grant.  DC Peter Grant does for London Coppers what Dresden did for Chicago Private Investigators.  In Rivers of London Grant discovers that he’s got hidden talents of the magical variety, luckily for him, there’s a special division of the London Metropolitan Police that covers that kind of thing.  However, it turns out it’s a one man band, so when DC Peter Grant joins he doubles the size of the entire department.

Moon over Soho picks up a short while after the first book and deals with the repercussions of the case DC Grant solved.  However, our protagonist doesn’t have to wait long before he’s involved in a new investigation, and the continued development of a case that started in the previous book.  I do like the way Ben Aaronovitch ties the books together, these are clearly part of a broader story.  However, despite that, and despite the case being quite interesting – I really struggled through the first two thirds of Moon over Soho (well, perhaps 3/5ths).

The case revolves around mysteriously dying Jazz musicians, and as well as having quite a sluggish pace, DC Grant fails early on to spot the massive white elephant in the room.  It’s sometimes okay for authors to pretend their protagonists are dumb, and sometimes it’s enjoyable for readers to shout ‘he’s behind you’, but DC Grant isn’t stupid.  It felt entirely out of character that he didn’t spot the critically important elements in the investigation, where-as the writing made it entirely obvious to the reader.  I’m skirting the subject, because I don’t want to spoil the book too much if you do read it, but essentially within a few moments of meeting a key witness in the case, it was obvious to me what was going on.

Not the fine detail, that gets worked out at the end (more on that in a bit), but certainly the broad brush-strokes of what was happening.  I took no pleasure in finding out I was right, and I didn’t enjoy watching Peter stumble around building up a picture of something that should have been crying out at him very early on.  Either Ben didn’t realise readers would pick up on it so easily, or he had hoped to introduce some element of feeling worried for Peter.  Sadly, I just spent most of the first part of the book being angry.  It felt like Aaronovitch was using Peter’s stupidity or blindness as a plot device.

However, I stuck with it, the rest of the case is still engaging, the dialogue and writing is still witty, and in general, there was enough to keep me interested and carry me through to the final third of the book.  Which is a pretty good thing, because that’s where Ben hit his stride and the story really gets going.  As with the first book there are really 2 or 3 cases going on here at once, and Peter slides between them as required.  When the pace begins to accelerate in the later section, we see some characters in a new light, get to experience some truly powerful magical demonstrations and watch DC Grant cause untold mayhem (again).

I like the introduction of real Police behaviour in this book (and the last), and it’s good to see that being blended with the magic, rather than just ignored because it’s inconvenient.  Overall Moon over Soho was worth the effort, there’s some character progression, further twists to the overall story arc, and enough laughs, smiles and chuckles to get through the pain.

The book ends as it starts, with Lesley, and a startling revelation.  Hopefully the third book will be more consistent, and show more respect for the ability of the main character.

Rating: ★★★☆☆ 

Book Information
  • Author: Ben Aaronovitch
  • Series: Rivers of London (2)
  • Genre: Urban Fantasy
  • Buy on Kindle (UK)Buy from Amazon (UK)

Rivers of London

Over the last few days I picked up and put down two or three books from Grete’s insane to-read pile, reading the first 10 or 15 pages, trying to find something to peak my interest. I tried a little bit of sci-fi, a little bit of fantasy and even some survival horror. However, it took only six pages of Rivers of London to know that I was hooked and that this was the lucky winner in the ‘what will Tony read next’ competition.

Ben’s writing is engaging, clear and easy to read.  His characters are rich from the outset and get more complex as the story goes on, and his take on London Urban Fantasy (should be a sub-genre in its own right) is both unique and compelling.

The book is populated by solid, realistic British coppers, and if Ben hasn’t worked for the police it would seem he certainly has someone on the inside (or, he’s good at research, but that didn’t sound as exciting).  The police procedure elements of the story were interesting and provide a good backdrop to the drama.  They ground the tale in a believable reality, despite the very rapid introduction of ghosts, wizards and other mythical beings.

Our main protagonist, Constable Peter Grant, discovers very early on that he can see ghosts and sense magic, which is just about all that saves him from a life stuck pushing paper around in the worst part of the police force.  He, his friend and fellow copper Lesley May and England’s Last Wizard, Inspector Nightingale, embark on a dangerous murder investigation where the felon is clearly not playing by the same rules.

Although the introduction of magic and ghosts happens quickly, Ben doesn’t dwell on people accepting or disbelieving it all.  Instead, we get a stoic acceptance that this kind of thing goes on, and if it goes on, it has to be handled, and if it’s going to be handled, then the Constabulary should be the people to handle it.

The pace is solid, and builds nicely towards the end.  There are really two stories going on here, the crime that Peter and Nightingale investigate, but also, the topic the book title alludes to.  The involvement of modern day living representations of the rivers of London is unique and one of the things that sets this book apart from what could have been a pastiche of Felix Castor or Harry Dresden.

Throughout the tale we are given hints of a dark past for magic and an agreement, and hence room to grow the back story.  We also get clear hints that Inspector Nightingale is more than he appears to be.  We barely scratch the surface of the mystery of the Folly and its even more mysterious maid, Molly.

Added to all of this, Ben Aaronovitch clearly doesn’t shirk away from putting his major characters at risk, and I’ll say no more than that so as not to spoil anything.

I described this book on twitter as “like blancmange with a severed finger in it – light and fluffy but filled with gore“.  The scenes are vivid, the magic is believable, the characters are engaging, rich and well thought out, and there are some really clever scenes.  Rivers of London is a superb example of what urban fantasy is all about.  You will not be disappointed.

Rating: ★★★★¼ 

Book Information
  • Author: Ben Aaronovitch
  • Series: Rivers of London (1)
  • Genre: Urban Fantasy
  • Buy on Kindle (UK)Buy from Amazon (UK)