“The Hanging Tree” by Ben Aaronovitch (2016)

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“I dreamt that I heard Mr Punch laughing gleefully by my ear, but when I woke I realised it was my phone.”

I always think it’s a struggle to review whole series on here. For a start, it locks out anyone who hasn’t read the previous books, because spoilers will automatically feature, and oftentimes there’s a lot of repetition about style, language, plot and character. Nonetheless, on I go, hoping I can keep on finding something new to say. If you want to read on, you can catch up with my thoughts on the previous five books (Rivers of London, Moon Over Soho, Whispers Underground, Broken Homes and Foxglove Summer), or just dive in here and pretend you know what I’m talking about. Then at least one of us might have some idea.

After the exchanging of hostages in rural Hertfordshire, Peter Grant is back in London now and Lady Tyburn is calling him in for a favour. Her daughter’s best friend has got herself tangled up in the death of a teenage girl – there’s a possibility she provided the fatal drugs – and Lady Ty needs to ensure her family aren’t caught up in it all. Grant is flung into the world of London’s super-rich, where every basement has a swimming pool and money is king.

But things keep bringing him back to his old nemesis, the Faceless Man. Everything is linked, and when he tries to get some information out of Reynard Fossman, an anthropomorphised fox from an ancient fairy tale, he also ends up meeting turncoat Lesley May, and blowing up half of Harrods. Add to this the fact that Isaac Newton’s Third Principia, said to contain the secrets of alchemy, has appeared on eBay and things are about to get extremely messy, extremely quickly. Grant has to arrest the right people, maintain the secrecy of magic and try not to get killed, all of which is far easier said than done.

The most pertinent thing to mention about the Rivers of London series is simply how witty they are. The language and use of metaphor would make Douglas Adams proud, and they just slide off the page with great ease. Aaronovitch is also prone to filling his books with endless references and jokes to pop culture. The ones relating to Harry Potter are very obvious, as are the ones to Doctor Who, but it’s quite clear that I’m not picking up on everything. Indeed, I tweeted Aaronovitch to ask if anyone else had discovered the Weird Al reference in the book, and he replied, “Which one?” Dammit; he’s a canny devil.

However, we’re now six books into the series and I am bemused. The plot ricochets around erratically, occasionally dropping in references to previous installments of the series that have since slipped from my mind, and seeming to change direction halfway through and bringing back something else entirely. My friend who was a book ahead of me with this series advised me that I keep a notebook handy for this one, and she wasn’t wrong. There are so many characters to deal with here that it soon becomes a struggle to keep up with who is who’s daughter, lover, enemy or arresting officer. There’s little consistency on who to focus on as well, as characters slip out of the limelight only to reappear later with seemingly new motives. The central characters though, including Peter Grant, Sahra Guleed and Lady Ty, are marvellous creations and I enjoy them and their banter immensely.

Despite all the magic, Aaronovitch paints a London that feels inexplicably real, and there’s no losing sight of the fact that he’s developing a really fascinating world here. But it at times feels a hodge-podge of several different plots battling out for front and centre, and many things have to be taken for granted, such as Grant’s developing magical abilities, almost none of which we see him learning first hand. I accept that it would be boring to fill the book with pages of failed spells, but a little more information regarding what exactly Grant is being taught would be great.

It’s all change now though, as I’m just embarking on the most classic of classic novels.

“City Of Stairs” by Robert Jackson Bennett (2014)

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“‘I believe the question, then,’ says Vasily Yaroslav, ‘is one of intent.'”

Some books feel like spending time in the embrace of an old friend. Others feel as refreshing as diving into a swimming pool on a hot summer day. But there are always the ones that put you in mind of cloying, claggy swamps, where every step you take is prefaced by ten minutes of wiggling your leg out of the quagmire with that shlurp sound, only to find you’ve lost your shoe. Again. I emerge from City Of Stairs after over a week, muddy, sweaty and looking for somewhere with a power shower.

The first in a series, this novel takes place in the ancient city of Bulikov, central location on the vast Continent. The Continent was once ruled by six Divinities (i.e. gods), each of which had their own followers, belief system and powers. That is, until the nation of Saypur attacked as part of its plan to dominate the globe, and killed all the Divinities. In doing such, all the miracles and magic that they had performed immediately failed, and the Continent, Bulikov in particular, was ripped asunder. Climate changed in an instant, buildings collapsed into one another, and staircases and doors suddenly led nowhere.

After the suspicious death of Dr Efrem Pangyui, a diplomat researching the history of the Continent – a history that, under Saypuri rule, is never to be mentioned or acknowledged – a descendant of the man who killed the gods, Shara Komayd, makes her way into Bulikov under false pretenses to find out exactly what happened. Accompanied by her terrifyingly large bodyguard Sigrud, she soon takes command of the diplomatic mission and soon learns that something is going on beneath the surface. There are talks of an uprising, and if anyone finds out her true identity, there is sure to be hell to pay. And more urgently, it seems that someone has gained access to the Warehouse, where all miraculous items from before the Blink (the disappearance of the Divinities) are being stored. She has a week to get to the bottom of things, before her commanding officer – and aunt – pulls her back to Saypur.

A review on the back of the book notes similarities to three other authors, and I have to say that I can complete see where they’re coming from. SciFiNow notes that the talk of ancient gods seems reminiscent of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin also seems relevant, both stories being full of scheming politicians and worlds that feel familiar but off-kilter. The one I was most strongly reminded of, though, was China Miéville’s The City & The City, featuring as it does a city that is uniquely damaged. I think the apparent instant similarity to his work that I felt when I plucked the book from the bookshop shelf last summer was what attracted me most to it. As it is, I prefer Miéville.

The novel’s primary redeeming feature is that while it’s set in a fictional world, it hasn’t gone for the old fantasy cliches that seem to require all fictional races are based on the Europeans. Saypur seems Arabic or Indian in its nature, while other cultures, Sigrud’s Dreyling identity, for example, feels Russian, or maybe even Icelandic. All the characters names have a foreign feel to an uncultured Englishman such as myself. The way the gods work is also fascinating. Because the Continent had conflicting beliefs on how it was formed, each creation myth was the truth in the area that that specific god ruled over. This is why everything fell apart so quickly when the gods died – there was no unified truth of reality. Frankly, it’s quite a clever piece of writing.

Unfortunately, it’s let down by the characters. I wasn’t particularly moved by any of them, nor especially interested. It’s refreshing that many of the central characters are women, and women of colour at that, but a lot of them seem to run to cliches in ways the world building doesn’t. The right characters make it through to the end, sure, and there doesn’t seem to be much that it has cost them to do so. The book ends on a note of hope, which I suppose is what you want in a book, but it didn’t inspire me to read on.

I’m not going to say it’s a bad book, because I don’t think it is. The mythology is interesting, the world is thorough and different, and there are some very interesting and creepy beasts to do battle with, but there’s definitely something missing. I never felt like any of the jeopardy they were going through was really all that bad, despite some of it really being quite horrific. I also never quite brought myself to care properly about any of the characters. It’s a world I could paddle in for a long time, but I never wanted to take the plunge.

“Nothing But Blue Skies” by Tom Holt (2001)

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“Four men in dark grey suits and black sunglasses climbed out of a black, fat-wheeled Transit and slammed the doors.”

Last week the weather did something strange on my home island. It got hot. Really hot. Tarmac-meltingly, skin-peelingly, eating-a-Twister-every-hour hot. The British are not equipped for this sort of weather, so it was almost a welcome relief when, four days later, we had a loud thunderstorm and the rain, drizzle and grey clouds returned en masse. Naturally, we’ve done nothing but complain since. (The British are a fickle bunch, especially when it comes to the weather.) I’m therefore a little late with a book of this title, but somehow that makes it even more fitting, as this book is here to explain why British summers are non-existent (or, alternatively, held on a Thursday).

The truth behind the perpetual rain of the British Isles is pissed-off Chinese water dragons, and why would it be anything else? One of these dragons, Karen, is currently working as an estate agent in London after falling in love with a human called Paul and taking a human form herself to be closer to him. Her efforts to make him notice her, however, are ruined when it turns out her father, the Adjutant General to the Dragon King of the North-West is missing, leading to an unprecedented spell of dry weather (seventy-four hours and counting).

But there’s much more going on than that. The Adjutant General has been kidnapped by a furious weatherman who knows its the dragons causing all the rain and is convinced that they’re doing it to spite him and make his predictions go wrong. He tries to convince another weatherman, the alcoholic Gordon Smelt, and the two are soon up to their necks in it. Elsewhere, a secret section of the British government is planning to use the dragons to increase British rainfall, under the impression that the only reason Britain had such a great empire was that they simply needed to colonise somewhere hot and dry. With even more rain bucketing down in the homeland, it would inspire the people to raise up and invade Australia. And that’s all before we get onto the suspicious-looking men in dark suits who are collecting up two of every creature, just in preparation for a worst case scenario…

I’ve only read Tom Holt once before, and at the time I remember thinking that he must be a bit mad to come up with some of the ideas he did. Frustratingly, while he probably is mad, the ideas are so solidly good that you can’t help grumbling that you didn’t think of them first as they all seem so obvious and easy. The gag-to-page ratio is matched only by Douglas Adams and surpasses even Jasper Fforde, meaning you are bombarded with really, truly hilarious lines, wacky similes, utterly preposterous metaphors and passages that are downright rude in the amount of comic timing they have. And yet still beneath it all is an incredibly smart story that plays with several old tropes, but also introduces a whole bunch of new twists and really seems to be enjoying itself.

I have a habit of sticking an impromptu bookmark in a page where I find a quote I like, but if I’d stopped to do it here, the book would be more train ticket than novel. A few of the lines that did stick with me however, include…

“This is a funny old country. You need to have all kinds of licences and stuff before they let you own dynamite, and yet there’s women walking around with long red hair, green eyes and freckles, and nobody seems to give a damn. But when you think of all the damage one green-eyed freckled redhead can do in just one afternoon–”

“Imagine Manchester. Sorry, had you just eaten? Let’s try a gentler approach.”

“Paul’s face suddenly solidified […] leaving him with that death-by-embarrassment stuffed stare that’s unique to the English during romantic interludes.”

“If you hadn’t noticed, I’m the pub loony around here. This is my turf, and if there’s any gibbering to be done, I’m the one who does it. You want to gibber, find another bar.”

They probably don’t rank high in good quality jokes out of context, but they work so wonderfully well within the story. Holt is economical with certain details – we get good descriptions of what several of the dragons look like, but humans are rarely if ever given a physical description, presumably to acknowledge how we are seen to immortal beings – but he enjoys realistic dialogue that doesn’t go anywhere, and conversations that no one understands.

It’s a world that feels real enough, because all the humans are incompetent, even (or especially) the ones running the world behind the curtain. There are so many ideas in here that the book almost spills over with joy. I think it’s quite safe to say that it won’t be five years before I make my return to Tom Holt’s jottings. The man is a certified lunatic, and I can’t think of many lunatics I’d rather spend time swimming around in the brain of.

“Broken Homes” by Ben Aaronovitch (2013)

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“At twenty-three minutes pat eleven Robert Weil drove his 53 registered Volvo V70 across the bridge that links Pease Pottage, the improbably named English village, with Pease Pottage, the motorway service station.”

I’m back in the midst of a series again, so if you’re fussy about things like an ongoing narrative or spoilers, I’d advise you first work through Rivers of London, Moon Over Soho and Whispers Underground before disembarking here. In the fourth installment of this series, we’re back with Peter Grant, London policeman and amateur wizard, and his unusual caseload.

The novel opens in Sussex, near Crawley, when a car crash brings to light a man who may be a murderer. When there’s a suggestion of something unusual going on, Nightingale, Peter and Lesley descend to look for hints of magic. However, soon London calls them home when a town planner is reported to have jumped in front of a tube train, and there’s the news that an old German spell book has turned up in the wrong hands.

Events bring to light a strange housing estate near Elephant & Castle, designed by a bonkers German architect, and focused primarily on the Skygarden, a tower block with bizarre dimensions and larger-than-necessary balconies. Sensing that this is where the answers are, Peter and Lesley move in and begin to explore. But things quickly go sour when the estate’s resident dryad is killed, and the gods of the river begin to seek revenge. With a Russian witch on the run, and suggestions that the Faceless Man isn’t too far away, Peter and Lesley must work out what’s so important about the Skygarden before it’s too late.

Four books in and the world is pretty established by now. London is full of magic, ghosts, gods, fairies and a whole manner of other supernatural beings. Peter is becoming increasingly skilled at wielding his magic, but a lot of it takes place off the page, so we don’t get to see everything that he’s developing. Perhaps this is for the best, as the study of magic seems to mostly involve reading a lot of dusty old textbooks and since most of Peter’s spells still end in something catching fire, I guess there’s only so many times you can see that. We finally learn a little more about Nightingale who lets slip some information about his family for the first time, and Zach, the half-fairy from Whispers Underground is back, and far more sympathetic this time around. He’s a complicated character, simultaneously a help and a hindrance.

A friend who had read this one before me warned me that there is a moment towards the end that made her gasp openly, meaning I read the whole thing with a sense of trepidation, wondering what surprise was about to be sprung on me. Her wording was so vague though, that I couldn’t think where it had come from. I’ll leave you with the same wording, too, because you won’t see it coming until it’s too late.

The reintroduction of Beverly Brook, one of the river goddesses and former fling of Peter Grant, jarred with me a little. I remember her being important in the first book, but it’s been so long since I read that one, and we’ve seen nothing of her for the last two books, that her impact is dulled for me. Nonetheless, the river gods remain quite entertaining characters, if confusing. I like the introduction of the dryad, and hope we get to know more about this species in later books. Their life cycle seems to mimic their trees, acting childish in the spring, taking evening classes come autumn, and hibernating in the winter.

Aaronovitch has a really relaxed and fun style of writing and he’s heavy on the understatement. There’s barely a page goes by without some incident of litotes, although my favourite has to be, “In 1666, following an unfortunate workplace accident, the City of London burnt down.” The following description of how London was rebuilt against the wishes of Christopher Wren and his buddies is also brilliant.

A nice continuation of the series, although I was desperately sad to realise that many of the buildings in this novel are fictional, when most of what had come before seemed so realistic. Nonetheless, it’s handled well and with great fun. Expect the fifth installment along soon.

“Whispers Underground” by Ben Aaronovitch (2012)

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“Back in the summer I’d made the mistake of telling my mum what I did for a living.”

Any review of a book that’s in the middle of an on-going series requires a certain amount of preamble, although I’m far too lazy to provide a fresh synopsis of what you’ve missed so far, so either duck out of this review now until you’ve read the series, or if you’re happy to get potential spoilers or would like a brief rundown on what came before this, then click for reviews of the first two books, Rivers of London and Moon Under Soho.

And breathe.

Whispers Underground reunites us with Peter Grant and the supernatural side of the Metropolitan Police. After Abigail Kamara, a nosy young girl from his housing estate, tells him that she’s seen a ghost, but Grant is soon pulled away from this discovery when a young man is found dead, stabbed, on the platform at Baker Street tube station. James Gallagher was an art student with no known enemies, but unfortunately for the police, his father is a US senator, and soon the FBI have descended.

The cause of Gallagher’s death certainly seems to be in Peter’s remit, which becomes more obvious when it turns out that Gallagher’s housemate is half-fairy and doesn’t seem all that keen to help the police with their inquiries. Meanwhile, Peter is still struggling to get used to magic and Lesley’s half-face, the FBI agent seems to be on a mission of her own and should definitely not be allowed to know about magic, there are some shifty looking traders down the market who swear they can do you a good deal on some unbreakable pottery, and Christmas is just around the corner. Just another day, then.

More than anything this time round, I felt a lot of similarities to Peter James’s novels featuring Roy Grace. The research into the working of the police force is evidently greatly detailed, and whereas those books show the familiar streets of Brighton, here we get to explore London. The true joy comes from the supernatural elements that most of society ignore, partly because the police are very good at hiding the truth, and partly because people would rather not deal with anything out of their comfort zones.

The style remains flippant and genuinely funny, packed with pop culture references, and there’s a real joy in these worlds. When I reviewed the first book, I said that something was missing, and I think I know what it was now. The books are not separate entities; they are complete continuations, and if they all existed in the same tome, while it would be heavy to read in the bath, it would make just as much sense. The ending is great, setting up things for the fourth book, and the final line sends a shiver down the spine. Clever, clever stuff.

“The Radleys” by Matt Haig (2010)

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Every family has secrets.

“It is a quiet place, especially at night.”

Vampires have a long and fascinating history, from the tales of blood-sucking demons of ancient Persia, via Bram Stoker’s famous addition to the canon Dracula, up to sparkly immortal teenagers of Twilight. It’s always fun to see these kinds of monsters turn up where you least expect them too, and so suburban England is perhaps the last place you’d think there might be any vampires. Oh, how wrong you’d be…

Peter and Helen Radley look like pretty normal people. Sure, they may be a little insular, but they seem harmless enough. Their teenage children, Clara and Rowan, though are a bit odd. Often sickly and slathered in sun cream no matter the time of year, both insomniacs with a distaste for garlic and a fondness for the macabre, they’re considered by their peers to just be strange. One night, Clara is attacked by another student on the way home and her reaction would perhaps seem a little over the top. By that time, however, it is too late and Peter and Helen must tell their children what they’ve tried to hide for them for their whole lives – the Radleys are vampires.

Now they know they should be drinking blood, Rowan and Clara begin doing so (although Rowan with some trepidation at first) and start learning about their history. With fresh blood now inside them, they become stronger and undergo changes in personality and appearance. Things may have gone alright, if not for the arrival of Peter’s brother Will, a practicing vampire who has become sloppy of late and killing people in a more obvious manner, and often from the back of his camper van. But once you invite a vampire inside, it’s very hard to get them to leave, and Helen is determined that he should before secrets are revealed and their quiet little suburban life is ripped apart.

Matt Haig is a great writer and I’ve covered both his fiction and non-fiction on here before. The Radleys appeals to me firstly because of the sheer Englishness of the whole thing (a friend of mine this week said that all my writing is deeply English too, which isn’t a bad thing as far as I’m concerned) despite the fantastical elements. I also love the juxtaposition of the mundane with the magical. Haig delves into the lore of vampires in this universe. They aren’t immortal, but can live for a couple of centuries, faking their deaths and continuing on in a new guise later (Lord Byron is stated to have been a vampire who did this and only died in the late twentieth century). There is a difference between vampires who actively suck blood – and often kill – and those who abstain, such as the Radleys. And certain branches of the police are fully aware of the existence of vampires and there is a special branch of the force armed with crossbows to deal with errant members of the community.

The science of vampirism is mostly brushed over, but that’s how it should be. Going too deep into it would, I think, take away some of the much needed mystery, but instead uses the old lore in a modern setting and showing how society has changed. For example, while people aren’t going around swinging cloves of garlic at one another, it makes eating a Thai salad something of a risky endeavour.

But as much as it’s about vampires and fantastic powers, it’s really about being human. The Radleys are all perfectly nice people and just want to be accepted in their community but allowed to have a private life. They feel love and hate and envy and pride like the rest of us, but the primary difference, aside from the blood-sucking, seems to be that they have to deal with a lot more temptation. All the characters are tempted throughout the novel, mostly by the thought of renegading on their promise to live a blood-free life, but for other reasons too. Peter is tempted by a flirtatious neighbour, and Helen is tempted with memories of her past that have recently come back in ways she had never dreamed.

I expected gore, and I expected wonder, and I got both, but I didn’t expect such a charming tale of a family who simply want to be allowed to live. A disarmingly sweet novel for anyone who feels their family is a bit weird.

“Moon Over Soho” by Ben Aaronovitch (2011)

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moon-over-soho

London is dancing to a darker tune…

“It’s a sad fact of modern life that if you drive long enough, sooner or later you must leave London behind.”

It’s always a risk when you spend a long time away from a series. I read Rivers of London back in 2015, and at the time felt something was missing but over time I have found myself looking back with fondness at it. Clever and funny, it’s the very book I would want to write, but never quite as well. Several people told me it had a lot in common with my novel, although I’d never be so bold to claim they are of similar quality. Anyway, while my fondness for it increased, it turned out that when I started this one, I had forgotten rather a lot about the actual details of the plot. Whoops. Never mind, we soldier on and find ourselves now in the underbelly of Soho.

Peter Grant is a constable in the Metropolitan Police, and also a trainee wizard. Following on from the disastrous results of his last case, his closest colleagues are all recovering from spell damage, so he seems to be working alone. When two more bodies are found, men with their genitals bitten off and laying in a pool of their own blood, Peter and his boss Thomas Nightingale are called in to assist given that this is probably more their area.

Elsewhere, it becomes apparently that jazz musicians all over Soho are dropping dead after gigs with an efficient regularity. The only link seems to be their music, but Peter is no expert on jazz. Fortunately he knows someone who is – Richard “Lord” Grant, Peter’s father. Meanwhile, Peter has found himself smitten with a groupie called Simone, who has an insatiable appetite for sex … and possibly for something else too.

Once I’d untangled all the threads from the last novel (I’d remembered that had happened in the very last chapter of the first book, which at the time seemed like a throwaway epilogue but becomes very important here), I found myself enjoying the book. Aaronovitch writes with ease and charm, and Peter Grant is a wonderfully enjoyable protagonist. The jokes come think and fast, but are tempered with some truly graphic scenes of body horror.

Grant aside, there are some great characters here, too. Nightingale and Peter’s colleague Lesley both seem to take a back seat given that they’re dealing with the fallout from the first book, so we get to spend more time with some others. I particularly like Miriam Stephanopoulos, a no-nonsense lesbian who runs the murder team and seems to have a grudging respect and fondness for Peter. Although she seems tough, there are also moments where it’s quite clear that she likes him, and the development of their relationship is really rather joyful. Peter’s parents are also great fun, and Peter’s sex-obsessed girlfriend Simone reminds me of someone I once knew, but that’s a whole other story.

While I enjoyed it, the book is very clearly part of a series now, and so there seems to be little in the way of a resolution. There’s a nice ending, with a smart cliffhanger, sure, but there are so many details that have yet to be explored and a lot of questions that require answers, so with any luck they’ll turn up in the third book. I’ll try not to leave it so long this time.

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