'Rivers of London': Making Magic Real
Let's have a discussion about Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch. The book, in a nutshell, can be summarised by three things - police, London and magic. As for it's writing style, it's a first person narrative from the perspective of protagonist PC Peter Grant. Both tone of voice and writing style are rather colloquial, and often interspersed with bits of dark humour. If I'm being completely honest, other than the magic part, it's not a book I'd immediately pick up.
So why did I read it?
Simple answer: my boyfriend. He claims this novel as one of his favourites, and he was sure that I'd love it too so I gave it a go.
Initially, it took me a few attempts to get into, but once I got about three chapters in I was hooked. Fast forward to now and time of writing this post, and I have already read the following two books in the series and am about to crack open the fourth (followed by the rest in the series!).
Now if you're new to this blog, then hi and welcome and thanks for reading first of all. However, if you've come here looking for a spoiler-free review then you're in the wrong place. I don't really care much for book reviews. I don't read them myself because I think it's actually unfair to rate an author's piece of hard work. There are so many factors to liking another's work and say, for example, I rated something low purely because I personally don't like that genre? Seems a bit unfair (and pointless to you who may have entirely different preferences), and I personally believe that there's good to be found in ALL pieces of writing. Or at least, interesting points of discussion.
So that's what we do here - we discuss, and yes, that does mean spoilers.
Now that I have fairly warned you, let's get into the actual book.
The plot focuses on PC Peter Grant, a constable in London who is at the very beginning of his copper career. There's been a murder, and he's been assigned to interview potential witnesses - one of which turns out to be a ghost.
This fateful encounter leads Peter well into the world of the supernatural, where he meets his soon-to-be Governor Thomas Nightingale who, rather importantly, is a wizard. Nightingale heads up the Folly, a branch that is purposefully ignored by the Metropolitan Police unless there is suspicion of magic goings-on surrounding certain crimes. Recently, these suspected 'supernatural' crimes have been increasing in frequency, and Peter comes on the scene when there's a rampant spirit on the loose bent on destruction and causing chaos.
Really, this book is just setting you up for the world so, though the story is good, I much prefer the later novels. In Rivers of London, you're really just learning about how the supernatural exists in London, right under ordinary people's noses, whilst also watching as Peter comes to grips with his magical ability. I mean I've had jobs where I'd say I hit the ground running and had to learn the ropes rather quickly - Peter's situation is a whole other thing.
Now, first thing I want to discuss is the characterisation of Peter - a failed chemist who instead went into the police. If ever the expression 'all things happen for a reason' or really any other cliche that tells you it's okay to fail sometimes could be used, it's in this instance with Peter, as this one vital piece of his character is what enables him to not only be a great wizard, but to be the wizard that Nightingale specifically needs working at the Folly.
Constantly comparing himself to his fellow police academy graduate Lesley (who he also has a thing for), organised, hard-working, and detail-orientated Lesley, Peter isn't expected by the higher ups to progress much further in the ranks. He's too busy asking questions, trying to figure out how things work, how things link - he looks at the bigger picture rather than the small, minute details. Combine him with Nightingale, whose literally over 100 years old, and you have the young, modern apprentice coming in and really experimenting with the magical realm rather than just accepting the already known 'facts' as Nightingale does. Peter's tendency to experiment with magic is what signposts him as a potentially great wizard - and though I've only read the first three books so far - I can see that that is going to become a very important fact as the books go on. Up until Peter, Nightingale had been policing things alone, and was convinced that all major practitioners had been wiped out in the war. Really, he's a product of his time - he hasn't noticed that right under his nose, there's been a large growth in the magical community and many magical practitioners have been teaching their ways, irresponsibly and evil in intent
So really, Nightingale needs Peter a lot more than initially thought. Peter actually has to master the art, and quickly, to help Nightingale defeat the apparent network of dark wizards working behind the scenes of London. Pretty cool twist on the classic police tale of undercover organisations slowly growing in strength right under the nose. Add in magic and - chaos is sure to follow.
What I really like about Aaronovitch's writing is how real he makes it feel. I mean, yes, there are some ABSURD and very creative goings-on in this book, but he also tries to account for magic's existence. I LOVE when writers do that - I actually explore that idea in my own book. And that's exactly what this blog post is going to dive right into!
Not only does he have Peter explain the feeling of magic, the potential repercussions magic has on the brain if performed too long, etc - it's not like Harry Potter or LOTR or any other fantasy that just has magic and that's it - there are consequences and limits to magic. I guess it depends on what mood you are in that day - some days you want the limitless magic, other days it's quite fun to actually imagine what real life magic would be like. Adding realism to magic can be a lot more fun.
I mean some things still stay the same no matter what - for example, incantations are just still just old Latin. That's pretty much a widely accepted norm in the fantasy genre, but other than that Aaronvitch's take is pretty unique.
Also the fact that Peter is a Londoner, through and through, as is everyone he meets, makes it seem all the more real. If you're British, you can on some way always relate to the story and the little intermittent moments of either dark humour or social commentary. Real life setting, amplified by magic - another sure component in making it seem like magic can exist.
Plus Aaronovitch cites Isaac Newton - scientist and gravity-discovering Isaac Newton - as the founder of the main principles of magic.
"'So not content with kicking off the scientific revolution, our boy Isaac invented magic?' I asked. 'Not invented,' said Nightingale. 'But he did codify its basic principles, made it somewhat less hit and miss.' 'Magic and science', I said. 'What did he do for an encore?'"
- Rivers of London, p. 81
Not only does this extract highlight the type of writing and dialogue you can expect in Rivers of London, but it also shows you the way in which Aaronovitch makes you believe in magic. It's magic and science! Quite often, when explaining magic or figuring out a new component to it, Peter or Nightingale talk in run-on sentences full of, well, jargon. And we all know, that if someone talks long enough with confidence, you're going to believe what they're telling you. So that's yet another method in the book that convinces you round to the idea that magic can actually exist in this world. Linking it to Isaac Newton - well why not? He was learned and a genius and it is entirely plausible that he could have had an interest in the supernatural.
Now there's another really interesting idea in Aaronovitch's book that can easily be translated over into real life - and that's the idea of vestigium, or vestigia. In Rivers of London, it is the idea that things touched by magic retain it. What I love about that idea is the romantic element of it - how you can take that out into the real world. Can you, the reader who is sitting there reading this post (thanks by the way) honestly say you've never travelled to a certain place and not just felt the magic of it? That's the sort of stuff I believe in. A quote from Yeats that I love in particular is - "The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper." So, although in the book vestigia is used for when someone's head's been blown off and they're pretty sure magic was involved but can't be sure so Peter's sent in to see if he can sense whether the body has retained it - I choose to use it in a cute, every day life way and romanticize it i.e. when I go to a place and feel its history, it's that place's vestigia.
Now the opening couple chapters to me - when we watch a man's head get knocked off with a cane on CCTV - really resonated back to Jekyll & Hyde for me. The book often links itself with Harry Potter (in that it says they aren't wizards like Harry Potter) and other magic/fantasy books, but it doesn't often align itself with books of Gothic or Victorian. For myself, Rivers of London, at the beginning anyway, feels like a modern Gothic (delves back into contemporary fantasy quite quickly after though). And even the setting of a city, and London - the classic setting of the Victorian genre.
And that's where the title of the book comes from. Let's be serious - we all get a kick out of finally figuring out the inspiration behind a title. In Aaronovitch's world, each river has a goddess or other deity. That's obviously not a new idea - take a look at the Greeks etc. But it's quite funny having them as Londoners, and modern day Londoners at that, just going about day to day business and mingling in normal society. They're from all classes, backgrounds, etc. and they all have their own unique voices - it's a really intriguing idea and works really well with the story. They are the real ones in charge of London - Grant and Nightingale are just catching up. Grant goes to the Rivers for advice or knowledge, and they meander (could NOT help myself) throughout the book series. And if you think about it - how magic is it that a city can go through so many changes yet hold so much of its original character? And who would best know the history of the city than the gods and goddesses of the rivers that run through it? MAN I love discussing this book.
Again, Aaronovitch's writing really makes you believe in magic. And when you think about it, it's not hard to convince yourself that it may be true. How often have you visited a city and just soaked in its vibes? For me, Chicago at night with all the skyscrapers and cars going off in every which direction is my vibe. There's something magic about a city at night (surely I'm not the only one who feels this way and people know what I'm talking about?!).
My final thought (or gush) on Rivers of London is Aaronovitch's taking of real life, tangible things and turning them magic. So, in Rivers of London, that specific thing is Punch and Judy shows. Old puppet shows that follow a storyline, basically. I LOVE the fact that Aaronovitch takes this random puppet show and turns it into something magical i.e. the spirit of chaos and destruction, a deceased actor who never got his moment, acting out his tirade to a storyline of one of the shows. When Peter figures it out, he's then able to guess the demon's next moves. Honestly, what a brilliant and unique idea! I love love love storylines like that - it's like letting you in on the secret and you can try figure it out along with the protagonist. Every book I've read in the series so far after follows this same premise in that he takes either some era in life or some specific detail of a certain generation and relates it to magic. I'll be discussing this in later blog posts, though.
I'm sure you'll have noticed by now - if you've gotten this far through - that I haven't really highlighted any 'themes' in the book like I normally do. Rivers of London doesn't feel like that type of book to me. I more just wanted to discuss why it works. why it's interesting, and why it's a bit different. I just wanted to explore the magic of it.
And that's all down to one thing: making magic feel real. I try and do this in my own book, and I regularly seek it in other author's works. That's why this book has done as well as it has, for me at least, and why it's so encapsulating. Because let's be serious - we all want to believe in magic, especially in this day and age. Obviously, the premise of a magic police officer in London has its own draw in that it makes for a pretty cool story idea, but there's just something more about this book that makes it such a comforting and compelling read (even though half the time it's about grisly murders and chaotic spirit demons murderers).
Aaronovitch's words hold their very own, special kind of vestigia. It's enthralling and brought me so much comfort during lockdown, whilst reminding me to always look for the magic that the world most definitely retains.
If anyone has read Rivers of London I would LOVE to know your thoughts. Plus, let me know what an author has to do to make you believe in magic!