WARNING: THIS POST CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR THE SERIES.
I read (and loved) Rivers of London/Midnight Riot (Gollancz (UK)/Del Rey (US), 2011, 400 pages) the first book in Ben Aaronovitch’s UF series in early 2011 and have been meaning to carry on with the series ever since. With the release of book 4 Broken Homes just around the corner I decided it was time to catch up. After reading Moon Over Soho (didn’t like) and Whispers Under Ground (enjoyed), I realised that I had more thoughts about the series overall rather than each book. Hence this post.
The Peter Grant series is a curious animal for me. In a very elementary way it is just like any UF I have ever read featuring an eager protagonist learning the ropes of a new reality (in this case, a young constable who is learning that there is an underground supernatural world and that he is a magician who needs to control his power). It features an overarching plot with a Big Bad (the discovery of a “Dark Magician” who is causing havoc in London) and a Monster-of-the-Week per book.
There are things that make the series distinctive: one of the reasons why I loved the first book so much was its incredible mixture of history and theatre as well as its great sense of location. In Urban Fantasy, the “Urban” part is obviously really important and often the city is as major a character as the protagonist. Peter Grant’s London is amazing and each book shows a different side of the city. And because our narrator himself has a passion for architecture and history, that knowledge seeps into the narrative and is often very engaging and interesting. Another wining aspect of these books is Peter’s funny and (occasionally) charming geeky voice and how he often dwells on the rules of being a copper as well as how he tries to understand the magic he does from a scientific approach.
I also love that Peter is a PoC and that the books address systemic and direct racism. I love that his London is just like the London I know: full of people from all walks of life.
That said, I was extremely disappointed with Moon Over Soho (Gollancz (UK)/Del Rey (US), 2011, 288 pages) . It is a book full of illogical developments (there is someone targeting Jazz players and Peter tells his father to go and join a Jazz band and start doing gigs!) and questionable character development (especially with regards to Leslie and how Peter just dismisses her questions about magic). Plus, one of the downsides of so much interesting data and history being talked about by the narrator is that often they become cumbersome and info-dumpy. Many times those history lessons and asides happen right bang in the middle of an action scene. So for example, in Moon Over Soho, our hero is running after a suspect and then this completely irrelevant piece of information cuts abruptly into the narrative:
The Trocadero was a five-story bastard child of a building built in the Baroque style in 1896 and sorely used over the centuries as everything from a music hall to a restaurant and a waxworks. In the mid-1980s the interior was completely gutted and replaced with the sets of Logan’s Run – or that might be just the way I remember it. It’s got a cinema and a multilevel amusement arcade that I remember well because my mum used to clean it.
This happens far too often in all three books. I noted that when I reviewed the first book but because the first book has a specific plot that I personally cared for this was less pronounced than say, in Moon Over Soho, which had a lot of Jazz history and it just didn’t personally appeal to me at all. So the question of clumsy info-dumping became much more noticeable in book 2. Not only that, but another negative factor that became more prominent for me in book 2 was the overall treatment of female characters. And this is twofold: there is the way that PETER thinks about women and the way that the NARRATIVE treats them. Admittedly I am conflicted about it because although I don’t think these are extremely offensive, they are also not as good as they could be.
There is one prime example of what I am trying to say in Moon Over Soho. There is one scene when Peter as a police officer is about to tell Simone, a woman he just met that her boyfriend is dead. She opens the door:
She was unfashionably curved, plump and sexy in a baggy sky blue Shetland sweater. She had a pale pretty face and a mess of brown hair that would have fallen down her back if it hadn’t been tied up in a crude bundle at the back of her head. Her eyes were chocolate brown and her mouth was big, full-lipped, and turned down at the corners.
This makes me really uncomfortable for its male gaze and for the fact that as a police officer, he is checking a woman out as he is about to inform her of a murder and for someone who is so worried about correct procedure I thought there was little self-awareness.
On the other hand, one could say that there is a reason why he is so attracted to her like this and that is due to her background and history. Is this because he is a flawed character or is this internalised sexism in the narative? Because it DOES just fits with the way that the narrative treats female characters, especially the ones that have a private, personal relationship with Peter. Most of these female characters end up dead, hurt or deprived of their freedom and I have the feeling those are there in the interest of man-pain. DO NOT WANT.
And this is where I go back to being conflicted, the books do feature interesting, well-written female characters who are independent from Peter’s storylines (those include the Rivers and Stephanopoulis, one of Peter’s superior officers). And things improve considerably in Whispers Under Ground (Gollancz (UK)/Del Rey (US), 2012, 412 pages) as Leslie comes back full-time into the narrative. The book is a thousand times better than Moon Over Soho because of Leslie’s return (and as a magician’s apprentice too). I love the (late) introduction of Abigail, another female character who will also be a magician’s apprentice as it has so much potential.
All that said, Peter himself is an interesting conundrum as a character. I find him extremely superficial in terms of his emotional make-up. It is very rare me to see Peter react to anything and because of that there is an unfortunate sense of disconnect between these books and I. In book 3, it is soon after his girlfriend has died and there is not a single reference to that tragedy. Leslie tries to snog him and it’s like it never happened (ETA:the question here is that he does seem to have feelings for her or at least be attracted to her so it feels strange that he never goes back to that). I am torn between interpreting this as a mixture of typical British stoicism and the characters own youth (he is still learning after all) written on purpose like that or just inadequate character writing. In any case, I always feel I just want more reaction of any kind from Peter and I never get it.
Having made an effort to catch up in order to read the new instalment I realise that even though I am quite fond of the series – Leslie! History! Geeky References! PoC characters! – I am not sure I care for it enough to carry on reading.