Sunday, June 16, 2024

Rivers of London is Urban Fantasy Done Right

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Could it have been anyone, or was it destiny? When I’m considering this I find it helpful to quote the wisdom of my father, who once told me, “Who knows why the fuck anything happens”

I had been considering to pick up Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London series for quite a while, before I finally got around to it, it had a lovely cover, well in my country anyway, and police wizards sounded right down my alley. I was not disappointed.

The book series is set in modern London and is very much contemporary, it features people from all walks of life and examines the society they live in from a systemic angle.

It follows Peter Grant, who has just finished his probationary period and is now becoming a police constable of London’s Metropolitan police. Just before his dreaded assignment to the paperwork unit he takes a witness-statement from a ghost, meets the last officially sanctioned wizard in England and joins the Folly as his apprentice. The Folly is the branch of the police that deals with the “weird bollocks”, in other words: Magic.

Our protagonist and first-person narrator Peter Grant is the Kentish town born and raised, mixed-race son of a Sierra Leonean cleaning lady and a British almost- jazz legend, that was addicted to a lot- including heroin. Joining the police is not Peter’s career of choice, and apparently, he is too easily distracted to become a good copper, which is why he is about to be assigned to the Case Progression Unit.  Initially he had wanted to become an architect and still hates modern architecture with a passion. He knows lots of trivia about architecture, science, and history, which his narration is full of; and as a self-professed nerd his pop culture references are hilarious. Other than that he has the dark humor of someone encountering death daily. He has problems maintaining relationships, which he is self-depreciating about and like many children of addicts he represses most of his emotions. He is better at sensing magic than doing it and always wants the scientific explanation for everything. He has a tendency of causing/witnessing property damage, which his friends and colleagues tease him about constantly.

Other main characters are Lesley May and Thomas Nightingale. Lesley finished at Hendon, the police academy, with Peter. She is a white small-town girl and his best friend. He is attracted to her, but since she doesn’t reciprocate he is happy to be friends, the term “friend zone” never even occurs to him. She is very good at her job and she knows it, out of probation, she gets directly assigned to the Murder department, before she too becomes entangled with magic. I would like to talk about her more, as she is a very interesting character, but that would give too much away.

Thomas Nightingale is the only active, Folly sanctioned, wizard since World War II, which he fought in. He was born in 1900 as one of five sons and seven children of an upper middle-class family. Like his uncle he attended Casterbrook (stop calling it Hogwarts Peter), one of several English wizarding schools. He worked for the Folly, traveled the colonies and eventually fought at the Folly’s final battle at Ettersberg. Claiming PTSD is something that happens to others, which it is not, he isolates himself in the Folly for decades, with only Molly as company. He started aging backwards around 1970 and is appearing to be in his forties when he takes Peter on as an apprentice. He slowly helps him connect to the modern world. Peter often mistakes him for a cliché strict Fantasy Mentor, but he does have a sense of humor and occasionally even shows his feelings.

The worldbuilding is complex and lovely and the system of magic is well thought out.

This is a spell: ‘lux iactus scindere’. Say it quietly, say it loudly, say it with conviction in the middle of a thunderstorm while striking a dramatic pose – nothing will happen.  That’s because the words a just labels for the ‘forma’ you make in your mind; ‘Lux’ to make the light and ‘Scindere’ to fix it in place.  If you do this particular spell right, it creates a light source in a fixed position. If you do it wrong, it can burn a hole through a lab table.  ‘You know’, said Nightingale, ‘I don’t think I’ve ever seen that happen before’

The thing is, everybody can learn magic, it is a craft like any other.  But you needs a teacher and can’t teach it to oneself, which is why it is restricted to those the Folly deems worthy of learning it. On top of that learning magic is dangerous.

´If you overdo it there are consequences´ said Nightingale. I didn´t like the sound of that at all. ´What kind of consequences?´ ´Strokes, brain haemorrhages, aneurysms…´, said Nightingale. ´How do you know when you´ve overdone it?´ ´When you have a stroke, a brain haemorrhage or an aneurysm,´ said Nightingale.

Cover of Rivers of London Comic 2 – Night witch

The Folly was the center of English magic before WWII, founded by Sir Isaac Newton, which is why the spells are in Latin, as at the time of Sir Isaac it was the scientific language, it controlled the demi-monde of the British Empire and it’s dealings with the non-magical world.

Magic back then was less strictly hidden and more restricted to those chosen by the Folly, which were exclusively white men of upper middle class, to lower upper class backgrounds. Other Newtonian practitioners would not be officially sanctioned and thereby labeled as rogue magicians. Then WWII happened, were the wizards of the Folly actively joint the fighting. Many died in mundane and magical battles, but the final blow for the Empire’s wizards was the battle at Ettersberg, now better known as Buchenwald. Most died, those who survived suffered from PTSD and soon retired, until Nightingale was the last officially sanctioned wizard in England.

Of cause there are more practitioners of both Newtonian and of other magical systems alive, magic is not as extinguished as the Folly might think. Some of them disturb the Queen’s Peace, others just live as hedge wizards in the country or are part of London’s magical community: The demi-monde.

The demi-monde does not only contain practitioners (witches and wizards), in fact those are the smallest portion and mostly considered outsiders by the actual magical community, which is made up in large part of fae and demi-fae.

Fae is here merely an expression for anything non-human, don’t call them goblins, that’s a slur. There have been many attempts by the Folly at classifying the different types of fae which were more or less successful and in many cases, as Peter calls it, “racist bollocks”.  Zach, a demi-fae himself says there are three sorts of magical beings: those who were born different, like faeri or Mama Thames daughters, those who chose to become different, like Mama Thames herself and the different magical practitioners, and those that were changed by magic like chimaeras.

Mama Thames and her daughters are the actual Rivers of London, they are spirits of places, river goddesses, called genii locorum by the Folly, Orisa by themselves. Father Thames was the Thames’ original genius loci, but when the great stink killed several of his sons he retreated with his remaining court to the upper Thames above Teddington lock.

Decades later a Nigerian student nurse planned to commit suicide, but before she could jump the river offered her a second life as goddess of the river Thames. She  agreed and became Mama Thames who now rules the lower Thames with her many daughters.

The demi-monde is kept together by an unstable web of agreements and arrangements, which the Folly is supposed to uphold, they are the arm of the police whenever “weird bollocks” interferes with the Queen’s peace.

The actual workings of the police are meticulously researched in both structure and work methods, there are no super-detectives only lots of people following lots of little leads. The policework and cases themselves help lend structure the story and center the different books, but are when it comes down to it, secondary.

There is a larger narrative going on in the background and often there are several plot threads at once. This leads to the case-by-case plots seeming unfocused or jumpy at times, but in my opinion does not detract from the reading experience.

It does not start out perfect, one could even say it starts with doing the minimum of being inclusive and improves from there. Of course, I am not the ideal fit for talking about race, being so white myself that I’ve gotten used to vampire jokes, but I’ve checked several reviews from people of color who talked about Ben Aaronovitchs portrayal of race as something positive, so I’ll try anyways and welcome contradiction from people who have personal experience and know better than me.

Cover of Rivers of London Comic 3 – Black mould

Peter, of course describes himself of mixed-race and even goes so far to mention that he passes as black or north African/Arabian depending on how much sunlight he has seen recently. He is aware how people perceive him as “other” and points out micro-agressions when encountering them. Further he occasionally mentions things he grew up with, a two pot cuisine where his mother cooked West African food for herself and English food for her husband, his mother straightening her hair and her involvement in the Sierra Leonean expat community as a few examples.

The Londoner river goddesses, daughters of the Nigerian Mama Thames, too are black, except for river Lea who is a relic of Father Thames old court.

The good thing about Peter’s narration is, that he details people’s ethnicity/nationality all the time, even that of white people, the only time I can think of where he didn’t is Jaget Kumar, whose name indicates south Asian ancestry.

There had initially been some confusion in the case of Dr. Abdul Haqq Walid, who is a white adult convert to Islam and though he had been described as both Scottish and gingery many assumed him to be brown. By the way he isn’t the only Muslim around, self- proclaimed Somali “Muslim-Ninja” Sahra Guleed becomes the Met’s official liason to the Folly and I will write more about Lady Caroline later.

Most of all race and racism are approached as a systemic problem. Sure, there are douchebags, Albert Pryce coming to mind, but getting rid of the douchebags doesn’t solve the problem. The problem is in the system, but the system can be changed, if slowly.

´You can’t call them black magicians,´ I said. ´You realize that we’re using black in its metaphorical sense here,´ said Nightingale. ´It doesn’t matter,´ I said. ´Words change what they mean, don’t they? Some people would call me a black magician.´ ´You’re not a magician,´ he said. ´You’re barely even an apprentice.´ ´You’re changing the subject,´ I said. ´What should we call them?´ he asked patiently. ´Ethically challenged magical practitioners,´ I said.

Of course this example is Nightingale, who by book six is complaining that transphobia is “unbritish”. In many things Nightingale stands for the systems of old,  and it takes a while, starts with some callouts, some checks to the vocabulary, but soon dangerous fae are arrested and cautioned instead of being quietly disposed of, the quiet people get an entrance to life above ground without being stripped of their culture (this one should be credited to Lady Ty, though,) and diplomatic relations to other orders of magic are taken up.

LGBT characters too are a thing that exists. Miriam Stephanopoulus is competent and so terrifying, that the only in-universe joke about her sexuality is: You know what happened to the last guy that made a joke about Stephanopoulus sexuality?  Me neither, we haven’t found the body yet. This is passingly mentioned by Peter, he does not endorse homophobic jokes. She has a wife she raises chickens with.

Furthermore, there are several minor LGTB characters associated with cases, backstories and the River Fleet, before in book five we meet Dominic Croft, who is a “city-person” from the country and feels pressured to marry his boyfriend, which he is uncertain about.

After the author’s first, majorly failed, attempt at including trans-people there is Caroline Linden-Limmer, maybe Ethiopian, probably not Somali, she is a black Muslim woman adopted by an English viscountess and the heir of the Newtonian witches’ tradition.

Which leads us to what Rivers of London has done less than ideally; Aaronovitchs portrayal of women is steadily improving, yet it started out kind of skeevy, though I must insist, that at no point of the narration Peter was predatory, creepy, or sexist, and all the women are fully fleshed out characters who have friends, strengths, and lives independent of Peter and other male characters. But, especially in the first book his descriptions of women were male-gazey, when he was attracted to a woman the reader would know it, and even if it was framed as subjective it could be slightly uncomfortable.

Of course the author and the books are not perfect. For example, Peter’s mother has not yet been given a first name, while his father’s was given early on in the series, even if his mother is the parent he is closer to.

Most characters of color are African and black, except for Jaget Kumar, Asian characters have only been teased, but will probably play an important role in future books. South-Americans and Latinx characters have not yet appeared.

The transfail was a thing that happened, the author tried to include a trans woman, only to promptly have Peter misgender her without being called out on it, which is usually what happens when a character is politically incorrect. Aaronovitch was criticized for that, and judging by his later treatment of Lady Caroline, took the criticism to heart.

The same happened after some teaser pages for the first comic “Body Work” showed Stephanopoulus and Guleed in (low) heels at a crime scene, the tumblr fandom complained and by the time the comic was published the issue had been fixed.

Ah yes, there are comics. So far, the series consists of six books, three comics and a number of short stories.

People are not simply killed off for the sake of “twists”, and dead LGBT people are rare and usually dead first and LGBT later, thereby regular murder victims and treated as such.

A last thing I wish to point out is the lack of sexualized violence. Six books and a decent number of corpses in the only case of sexual assault that we know of went quite badly for the wannabe-rapist. However here’s the disclaimer, that the shit the bad guy pulls in his strip club is probably not done with the consent of the individuals he experiments on. But what exactly that entails is unknown to Peter and the reader, since he was strongly advised to leave the searching of the club to experts and Nightingale, and as the books don’t give toxic-masculinity points for unnecessarily traumatizing oneself, he stayed out of it.

Overall the Rivers of London books aren’t perfect, but especially by comparison they are pretty good and well worth a read. The only reason they aren’t more popular worldwide is that they are hard to get in the US (and the first two US-covers are atrocious). So give it a try!

Images courtesy of Victor Gollancz Ltd and Titan Comics

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