“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.

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“Foxglove Summer” by Ben Aaronovitch (2015)

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“I was just passing the Hoover Centre when I heard Mr Punch scream his rage behind me.”

It’s been a difficult weekend for London. As the city dusts itself off from the second terrorist attack this year (the third in the UK), it showcases once again that the British people are strong, brave and resilient, and despite claims of certain American news outlets, we are not left “reeling” or “cowed”. What better to read right now than a story about the Metropolitan police continuing to do the outstanding work they do.

Foxglove Summer is the fifth installment of Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London series, only this time we’re leaving the beauty of London for the even more outstanding beauty of the British countryside. There may be a couple of spoilers here if you’ve not read the first four, but this book feels slightly out of line with the others and more of a standalone. It opens with PC Peter Grant leaving London on the orders of his boss to join the investigation into two missing girls. Finding nothing inherently magic about the disappearance, but with little to return to London for right now, Grant offers his services to the local community and joins their team.

However, he soon learns that perhaps not everything is quite as it seems. He meets with an old wizard in a country manor house, has to rescue Beverley Brook – a river goddess – from the clutches of some rivals, and sets about trying to understand the magic of the countryside, which, being a Londoner born and bred, he knows little of. Soon he’s on the track of an invisible unicorn, dealing with nutty UFO spotters, and wondering if maybe there is a magical angle to this crime after all. In the countryside, there’s no one to hear you scream…

After the events of the last few books, this one brings a whole new breath of fresh air to the series. We’re out of the city, the air feels cleaner, and everything’s bright and sunny, although that might just be the weather outside. The fact that most of this book was read while sunbathing in my garden means that the descriptions of a very hot summer hit right at home. As usual, Grant knows little about what he’s getting involved in as he is still an amateur wizard, so many things go unexplained, even up until the end. You really have to just go with these stories. Yes, this person is a god, and this person is a fairy, fine, just accept it. It’s also satisfying that mundane things that some people in our world have trouble with are shown with the normalcy they should have. Grant’s colleague, the charming and sweet Dominic Croft, is gay, and it’s never considered by anyone to be an issue, even in a small country village where everyone knows one another. There are a couple of nods to Peter Grant’s mixed race heritage, with some of the local coppers claiming that his help will do wonders for their diversity figures, and a scene in which he is given menacing looks by a couple of local racists, noting with humorous tragedy that the trouble with being a racist in the white heartlands of Britain is that you don’t get much practical exposure.

Aaronovitch, as usual, writes with great humour and the book is packed with witty one-liners and smart, unusual metaphors. Grant’s internal monologue – although it seems clearly in this book that he’s actively telling someone the story – is great fun. At one point, he finds himself having to scurry up a tree and notes, “This is where the whole ape-descended thing reveals its worth […] Opposable thumbs – don’t leave home without them.” He remains a fun lead character and someone I enjoy spending time with.

We see less of the other regular cast this time, with I think all of them being on the other end of a phone for the whole book, and one of the few nods to the continuing plot of the books is that Lesley May, his former friend and colleague who has recently changed loyalties, is trying to get in touch with him, but her motives remain unclear. I suppose more will be tidied up in the next installment which, I’m informed by a friend who is one book ahead of me, requires a notepad to keep track of all the newly introduced characters. Bring it on, Aaronovitch.

“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.

“The Woman Who Died A Lot” by Jasper Fforde (2012)

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woman-who-died“Everything comes to an end.”

Despite this novel’s opening line, this isn’t quite the end. However, it feels like it some days. This is the seventh book in the Thursday Next series, and there hasn’t been a new one in four years now, although it ends on a cliffhanger and reports that she will return. All I say to you now though is, if you haven’t read the ones before, then this is going to make even less sense to you than if you had. On we go.

Thursday Next has been forced into semi-retirement. Now in her early fifties, she has survived the kidnapping attempt of the previous book, but now she walks with a stick, has double vision a lot of the time, and is addicted to painkiller patches. With the news that SpecOps is about to be reinstated in an effort to use up as much of the country’s excess money in stupid ways as possible, she is sure that she’s in line to be the new head of SO-27, the Literary Detectives. After all, having worked for them for a long time, as well as spending several years inside literature, surely she’s the ideal person for the job. That is, if it wasn’t for Phoebe Smalls, who is younger, fitter and perhaps even more tenacious than Thursday.

Thursday is instead offered the job of heading up Swindon Library, a task that is somewhat more relaxed but still doesn’t come without its problems, such as the impending budget cuts, the Blyton fundamentalists who want all the racism put back into their novels to better represent their “perfect England”, and the fact that Goliath, everyone’s least-favourite multinational are after some specific and unusual antique books.

But, being a Thursday Next book, that’s not all.

Thursday’s son Friday has lost the job he never had with the Chronoguard and has been told he’s going to commit a murder at the end of the week; an angry god is planning on smiting Swindon on the same day, unless Thursday’s genius daughter Tuesday can find a way to prevent it; memories keep going astray and Thursday doesn’t understand the tattoo that’s appeared on her hand; there seems to be something going on within the Dark Reading Matter that contains all the stories that never got written; and Thursday herself keeps getting replaced by very lifelike synthetic versions of herself which is proving to be very annoying.

In the last book, we spent the vast majority of the time inside the BookWorld, emerging once to learn a little bit about what was going on in the Outland, and this time it’s the other way around. Because of Thursday’s injuries, she can no longer jump into fiction and instead must make do on this side of the page. This lets us explore more of the strange world of Fforde’s Swindon, bringing back Joffy Next, Jack Schitt and Daisy Mutlar, to name some of the characters. By this point in the series, you better have a firm grip on what’s come before as Fforde enjoys dropping in references to names and events from previous books without explanation.

He’s as funny as ever too, turning librarians into a task force of the military elite, who are regularly shot at by angry patrons and perform raids on private houses to get back the books that rightfully belong in their hallowed buildings. Despite writing off time travel as impossible two books ago, he’s obviously had a change of heart and it’s back and even stranger than ever, paradoxically working and not at the same time.

There are also some deeply dark moments in here, such as the Letters of Destiny which tell would-have-been members of the Chronoguard about the life they would have had and the one they now will. All the scenes involving Aornis Hades and her memory-altering powers are also incredibly powerful and actually quite terrifying. Thursday is an amazing protagonist, and seems almost unique in the canon of female heroes as being a mother, over fifty, highly intelligent, and still able to kick butt when necessary (or in a synthetic body).

I could languish in this world forever, if only for the puns, wordplay and beautifully constructed nonsensical sentences. Every scene is utter bliss, from Thursday’s father who until recently didn’t exist but now has memories of his family that they don’t share, to the Manchild, who has half of his body aging in reverse.

If you’re new to this world, get reading The Eyre Affair. You’ll thank me later.

“The Rain-Soaked Bride” by Guy Adams (2014)

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rain-soaked“From the other side of St Isaac’s Square, a driver beats his horn twice in quick succession.”

I made a mistake this week, it turns out, although not one that had particularly dramatic consequences. I started reading the book in question this week and thought something seemed a bit … odd. It jumped right into the action, and while that’s not unusual in a book, said action was never then later explained. It took longer than it should’ve done for me to realise that The Rain-Soaked Bride was a sequel. As such, I may have missed some of the finer points of an ongoing arc, and perhaps it tainted my enjoyment a little, but nonetheless, here are my thoughts.

The novel opens with Tony Greene chasing down the Russian Mafia through a hotel to save a woman from a life of prostitution. (I think if I’d read the first book, this would’ve all made a bit more sense to me as to the stakes and the characters.) It jumps ahead three months and we learn that Tony is the latest recruit of The Clown Service, the department of British Intelligence that deals with paranormal threats to the nation. This time round, people have started dropping dead after receiving a cursed text message, each of them being killed by the accident-causing rain-soaked bride of the title.

When it turns out all the dead people are all related to a trade agreement between the British and the South Koreans, Tony Greene and his superior August Shining are called in to accompany the delegations at Lufford Hall in Alcester. They are accompanied by August’s sister April and various other members of the Secret Service, but before long more people are found dead, each in a situation that could be an accident, but the sodden and saturated surroundings suggest otherwise. Tony, Shining and the others must work out how to remove this curse once and for all before the negotiations entirely fail.

The cover of the book bills it as “the spy thriller that Douglas Adams never wrote” and I can see where they’re coming from with that. It has shades of Douglas Adams about it, but it’s not as funny for a start. The funniest character is April Shining, by a long way, and that’s simply for her amazing dialogue and sense of not caring what anyone else thinks about her, nor bowing to any demands thrown her way. The rest of the characters all fall a bit flat for me, and there are very few physical descriptions of any of them, although, again, perhaps this is what happens when you miss an installment.

It does have some great observations, particularly those about the English, noting that the English response to approaching trouble is “polishing the silverware and pressing the shirt collars while the enemy advances”, and April at one point notes that English food is fine “once you get the hang of gravy”. However, generally a lot falls flat and there feels like there are a lot of plot points left hanging that never quite get explained, and the reveal of who is behind it all comes a bit too soon, meaning we spend a lot of the final third of the book dealing with the fallout without the suspense. The supernatural stuff is quite good – I enjoyed the expert in curses and the dip into a Japanese mythology – but I’ve seen this sort of thing done better, such as in The Rook.

I’m probably not being fair on the book, because I’m obviously missing a fair amount from having skipped ahead, and while the dealings with the bride herself work as a standalone, the ongoing plot threads are lost on me. Still, I’m not writing it off, and I probably will end up reading the first book too. Lesson learned – stick to the prescribed order!

“Kraken” by China Miéville (2010)

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London is home to many secrets.

London is home to many secrets.

“The sea is full of saints.”

A couple of months ago, as some of you may know, I started up a second blog, unrelated to this one, called Love Letters To London. There, I can share my thoughts and views on every conceivable aspect of my favourite city. But those are very much based on reality and, as anyone with even a smattering of fondness for fiction will know, London is a popular destination for anything slightly strange to be going on.

In Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, the tube network takes the station names literally; in Harry Potter there are magical buildings hidden all over the city; and in Doctor Who, every landmark is somehow linked to aliens. That’s just scratching the surface. In Kraken, Miéville shows us another version.

The book opens in the Natural History Museum, with curator Billy Harrow, expert on molluscs great and small, showing a tour group around the Darwin Centre, the back area of the museum that contains hundreds and thousands of pickled creatures; endless shelves of glass tanks containing preserved specimens of most of the planet’s species. The pride of the tour is the preserved, nine-metre giant squid, Architeuthis dux, one of the least understood animals on Earth. But this time, when Billy and his guests get to the central room, the squid, tank and all, has gone.

With no sign of a break in, and the odds of someone sneaking out a tank of Formalin and squid nearly ten metres long without being noticed at absolute minimum, they are left with a quandry as to what has happened. The museum is closed for the day and the police are called in. And once the regular police have gone, a very specialised department move in, ones who deal with the stranger aspects of London.

Confused, and after rejecting an offer of working with Baron and Collingswood, the strange police officers, Billy tells his friends Leon and Marge about what happened. Back at the museum a few days later though, Billy then finds a man picked in another jar, and before long that’s about the most normal thing that’s ever happened to him.

Billy is dragged through the strange, unseen underbelly of the city where he meets two torturers-for-hire, Goss and Subby, a villainous tattoo, a cult of squid worshippers, the angels of memory that patrol the city’s museums, the striking union of magical familiars, and the Londonmancers, those who use the city’s magic for their own ends. Because it turns out there are a lot of cults and sects hidden in London, and all of them have just predicted the apocalypse.

The world is about to end a hundred times over, but by finding the squid and restoring it to the museum, Billy might just be in with a chance of saving London and the world.

I knew from experience that Miéville was going to be a dense slog, but I didn’t expect it quite like this. I always feel when I preface a review by saying it’s dense that it sounds like I’m being negative, but I’m really not. The novel is absolutely crammed with ideas I wish I’d come up with, from the idea of imprisoning someone in a tattoo (and then having them corrupt the innocent body they’re on), to Wati, a character who died and then crawled back through all the afterlives to the world of the living, but found he now had no body of his own, so instead inhabits London’s statues, figures, dolls and carvings. There’s the idea of how you can communicate using the city (speak into a post box, and the recipient gets the message in Morse code from their nearest streetlamp), and the fact that the city has antibodies, creatures made up of remnants of city life.

But above all you have the angels of memory. Each museum has its own angel, made from things found within it (the Natural History Museum’s is a tank of formaldehyde with bones for limbs; the Sewing Machine Museum has a beast made of needles and bobbins) that protects the past from the present. It’s a wonderfully cute idea, although the angels are not strictly benevolent.

And then there’s the stuff I can’t tell you because it’ll ruin some of the surprises.

The plot jumps around a lot between numerous characters, and we see events unfold from many angles. It’s a fun ride, and part of the joy comes from never really being able to tell who is on who’s side; the lines of good and evil are blurred and alliances that would never normally be formed have had to come into play simply through necessity. The language is fun, the plot is complex but nonetheless works and very much holds together, and Billy is at least a likeable hero.

There are lots of books out there about the mystical, hidden side of London, but you could do far worse than this one. Miéville is definitely an author worth checking out at least once – the new master of weird fiction.

“The Magician’s Land” by Lev Grossman (2014)

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magic land“The letter had said to meet in a bookstore.”

Well, here we are. A year and a day after my review of The Magician King, I finally produce one for the final book in the trilogy, The Magician’s Land. The first one, The Magicians, was my first ever review, and this has a weird sense of a circle closing. Not that I’m packing in this blog, but nonetheless the completion of a series – particularly a very good one – is always a moment for reflection. So I’m going to crack on and, please be careful, there are spoilers ahead.

NOTE: Below there will be spoilers for those who haven’t yet read The Magicians or The Magician King. Read on at your own risk.

The book opens with Quentin Coldwater back in the real world, banished from the fantasy land of Fillory which, until recently, he was the High King of. Now forbidden to return by the ram god Ember, he is alone in the world and has no direction. He manages to find his way back to his old college, Brakebills, where he learnt so much of his magic. He’s not sure how pleased they’ll be to see him, but Dean Fogg allows him to join the teaching staff, where he proves to be a competent teacher.

However, he is also distracted by a page he stole from a book in the Neitherlands – the world that exists between the worlds – which seems to contain some kind of very heavy duty magic. Dedicating his non-teaching time to decoding the page, he develops further passion for magic and its wonder. And then something terrible happens and he has to leave, and so does one of his students, Plum, a highly talented witch who seems to have her own private link to Fillory.

Now unemployed and with even less direction than before, he finds that he has been summoned to a bookstore where several other magicians have gathered. They are given a task by a blackbird: track down two thieves known only as the Couple and steal an unstealable suitcase from them. The bird says that the contents are valuable but claims not to know what they are. Quentin and Plum join the team and soon find themselves up to their necks in some of the most powerful magic they’ve yet encountered.

Meanwhile, back in Fillory, Eliot and Janet, the High King and Queen, are coming to terms with the fact that the world appears to be ending. The clock trees are running out of sync, the daily eclipses have stopped, and even the animals have started going a bit funny. With time rapidly running out, they must try and find a way to save their kingdom before the apocalypse comes and wipes everything out.

And on top of all of this, the ghost of Quentin’s ex-girlfriend Alice has started appearing at mirrors throughout the multiverse, which is probably not a good thing.

Like the previous two installments, Grossman fills this one with a wonderful series of interlocking narratives, taking the reader on a journey backwards and forwards through time, teaching us things we haven’t yet learnt, and explaining things that have so far been unexplained. Everything ties together but you better have a good memory because there are things brought back to the forefront here that haven’t been relevant since the first book, and given it’s been two and a half years since I read that, my memory is a bit shaky. Nonetheless, it all felt right. There’s not too much exposition on what has come before, but we do get lots of long stories from the characters about things we didn’t see first time round.

Grossman is a very smart writer and his style is beautiful. Whatever causes him to produce his ideas must be pretty special indeed, and I want some of it. Without trying to give too much away, this book contains a flying billiards table, a moving chalk man, a room in a library that contains all the novels that were never written, time spent in the mind of a blue whale, a potential explanation for why ghosts are happy to stay ghosts, and the most powerful spell ever encountered.

Perhaps it ends too abruptly, but that might just be me always wanting to know what happens next, and there’s definitely a quite literal dues ex machina quite late in the story, but you can forgive it (just) because everything else has been so smart. There’s a lot of wisdom about books in here, especially the repeated wisdom that you can never unread a book, so be careful which ones you choose.

Frankly, as a series, it is a thing of beauty and I’ll probably end up returning to it again at some point and discover many, many things I missed or don’t remember from the first time round. If you’re going for this series, do start at the beginning, and I really think that if you have even the smallest interest in magic and how irresponsible people can be with it, then it’s worth checking in and spending some time in the company of some of the most intelligent magicians of all time.

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