Saturday, June 22, 2024

Rivers of London Opens Up a New World

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In anticipation of the impending release of the novella The Furthest Station, I made the decision to reread the entire Rivers of London series in chronological order. That means six books and three finished comics so far, as I don’t have access to all the short stories, and they aren’t meaty enough to merit a review each. So, let’s start at the beginning with Rivers of London or as it is called in the US, Midnight Riot.

Police Constable Peter Grant finds out about magic on accident. He interviews a ghost who witnessed a murder, runs into a wizard, and soon becomes the first apprentice wizard since Word War II. With a scientific mind and skills in bureaucracy and diplomacy, he slowly reforms the Folly and the entire magical community.

“I once asked my dad” – when he was sober – “how he knew what to play. And he said that when you get the right line, you just know because it’s perfect. You’ve found the line, and you just follow it.”
“And that’s got the fuck to do with what?”
“What Nightingale can do fits with the way I see the world. It’s the line, the right melody.”

The novel is by nature both a police procedural and an urban fantasy series. In fact, the plot of the first book is split in two to accommodate this. The main plot follows a police investigation while the subplot with the rivers focuses on diplomacy and peaceful conflict resolution.

But first things first, our protagonist.

Peter Grant

Joining the metropolitan police is not Peter’s first choice in terms of work. It is, in fact, his third. His preferred career options were architecture, for which he is lacking the drawing skills, and science, for which his grades did not suffice. So he ended up joining the police.

When the novel begins, Peter is just finishing up his probationary period, and is now about to become a proper constable. However, he has to be assigned first. And there lies his problem. Peter is too easily distracted to be out on the streets, and thus likely to end up doing paperwork in a desk job at the Case Progression Unit.

The truth is that the paperwork is not that onerous – any half-competent temp would dispose of it in less than an hour and still have time to do his nails. The problem is that police work is all about ‘face’ and ‘presence’ and remembering what a suspect said one day so you can catch them in a lie on the next. It’s about going towards the scream, staying calm and being the one that opens a suspect package. It’s not that you can’t do both, it’s just that it’s not exactly common. What Neblett was saying to me was that I wasn’t a real copper – not a thief taker – but I might play a valuable role freeing up real coppers. I could tell with a sick certainty that those very words ‘valuable role’ were rushing towards the conversation.

This makes him desperate to find a lead in a current murder case. After he took a witness statement from a ghost, he starts to sniff around.

Things click when he meets the last officially sanctioned wizard in England and Peter becomes his apprentice soon after. Thanks to his scientific mindset and his diplomacy skills he starts to bring the Folly, the police branch dealing with magic, into the twenty-first century.

Peter is mixed race. His mother is a former librarian, a Fula from Sierra Leone. In England she works as a cleaning lady and probably runs half of the Sierra Leonean expat community. His father on the other hand, is a white British jazz-man, and a drug addict. Both parents play a significant role in Peters life and influence his character. Like many children of addicts for example, he is used to suppressing his emotions and does not rely on others.

Race and class like their respective -isms are important issues and weave thorough the entirety of the series. Peter is constantly aware of how people perceive him and what kinds of assumptions they make. He also points out micro-aggressions as they occur and reacts to them.

Rush hour was almost in full flood when I got on the train, and the carriage was crowded just short of the transition between the willing suspension of personal space and packed in like sardines. I spotted some of the passengers eyeing me up as I took a position at the end of the carriage with my back to the connecting door. I was sending out mixed signals, the suit and reassuring countenance of my face going one way, the fact that I’d obviously been in a fight recently and was mixed race going the other.

Of course, Peter is far from the only character of color around. Even if my favorite Muslim-ninja does not appear until book two, we do meet Mama Thames and some of her daughters, all of which are Yoruba from Nigeria. But more on the Rivers later.

The Folly

Worldbuilding wise, both the mechanics of policing and the nature of magic are expertly crafted and researched. Peter’s unique worldview, as both a science and an architecture nerd leads to lots of trivia, detailed descriptions, and scientific speculations, thus making the series easily approachable and giving it a strong sense of place.

In a series with  strong urban fantasy vibes, magic is of course integral. So what does it take to learn it?

Practice. There is neither natural inclination or integral skill when it comes to magic, no ‘You’re a wizard, Harry’. If you want to learn magic, go for it, just don’t overdo it, because your brain might explode.

“I’m not tired, you know,” I said. “I can keep this up all day.”
“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 …”
“How do you know when you’ve overdone it?”
“When you have a stroke, a brain haemorrhage or an aneurysm,” said Nightingale.

So, if everybody can do magic, how does it come to happen that there is only one sanctioned wizard in all of Great Britain?

Once upon a time the Folly was a big and elite organization, policing London’s magical community, the demi-monde, easily. Although it can be argued that it was not a mutually beneficial relationship between the practitioners and the mostly fae-ish rest, as the former tended to oppress the latter.

However, World War II came, and with it came the end of the Folly of old. We don’t know exactly what happened, barely anything at this point, but the English attack on Ettersberg ended in a catastrophe. The Folly’s practitioners were decimated, and after the war, magic seemed to fade.

The Nightingale

Only a shadow of its former glory, nowadays the Folly operates as a specialist unit of the metropolitan police force, and it’s only remaining member is Thomas Nightingale. Oh, and Molly, the non-human housekeeper who has not left the Folly for almost a century.

During the first book, it is repeatedly hinted that Nightingale has been doing his job for a far longer time than should be possible for his apparent age. This is confirmed when he ends up hospitalized after being shot.

“Got shot,” he whispered.
“I know,” I said. “I was there.”
“Shot before,” he said.
“Really, when?”
“Which war was that?” I asked.
Nightingale grimaced and shifted in his bed. “Second,” he said.
“The Second World War,” I said. “What were you in – the baby brigade?” To have enlisted even in 1945 Nightingale would have had to have been born in 1929, and that’s if he’d lied about his age. “How old are you?”
“Old,” he whispered. “Turn century.”

Nightingale stopped aging after the war. As the strength of the Folly dwindled, he shut himself off and carried on as usual. By now, he is basically a human relic, fallen behind in both technology and modern police procedure. Nightingale’s go-to method is shoot first, ask questions later, and his attempts at diplomacy are questionable at best. Moreover, he expects to die and chooses to train Peter not as an assistant, but as a replacement.

The good thing about Nightingale as a character is that although he is the good-looking white guy with the tragic past, he does not steal the attention from Peter. Whatever we learn about Nightingale helps to equally characterize Peter. For example, Nightingale realizes that the organization he spent his life working for is elitist, racist and sexist. It’s Peter who gets to point this out, and it is Peter who starts changing things for the better, not Nightingale.

“Do I have to call you Sifu?”
That got a smile at least. “No,” said Nightingale, “you have to call me Master.”
“That’s the tradition,” said Nightingale.
I said the word in my head and it kept on coming out Massa.
“Couldn’t I call you Inspector instead?”
“What makes you think I’m offering you a position?”
I took a pull from my pint and waited. Nightingale smiled again and sipped his own drink. “Once you cross this particular Rubicon there will be no going back,” he said. “And you can call me Inspector.”

It’s the same with the science of magic, Peter loves experimenting with his powers, finding out things in the process that are sometimes relevant for cases and sometimes just interesting to him generally. While Peter is bringing magic into the modern world, Nightingale acts low-key disapproving. The only explanation for this we have so far is that Nightingale once knew a wizard named David Mellenby who ‘shared Peter’s obsession’ with science and died in the war, where the Germans experimented on vampires (more on this as we progress through the series).

By the way, from his introduction onward, Nightingale is heavily queer-coded.

I heard [a woman] complaining that ‘all the good-looking ones are gay.’
Which was what I was thinking when I saw the man watching me from the across the Piazza. […]
He was about one-eighty in height – that’s six foot in old money – and dressed in a beautifully tailored suit that emphasised the width of his shoulders and a trim waist. I thought early forties with long, finely boned features and brown hair cut into an old-fashioned side parting. It was hard to tell in the sodium light but I thought his eyes were grey. He carried a silver-topped cane and I knew without looking that his shoes were handmade. All he needed was a slightly ethnic younger boyfriend and I’d have had to call the cliché police.
When he strolled over to talk to me I thought he might be looking for that slightly ethnic boyfriend after all.

Lesley May

Had I just read Rivers of London for the first time, I would now go on to tell you how awesome Peter’s and Lesley’s bromance is. How refreshing it is to see a guy who unrequitedly crushes on a woman is fine with being just friends and doesn’t ask for more. I would point out how touching those moments are when the two of them simply are there for each other, and yes, to a point they are.

“Sorry,” I said. :But you’re being strong for me and I’m being strong for you and— Don’t you get it? This is how you get through the job.’”I got my giggles under control and Lesley half-smiled.

But of course, hindsight affects even the sweetest of moments. While the relationship between Lesley and Peter is interesting to this day, it is neither sweet nor particularly healthy.

Over the course of even this first book, there are moments where Lesley seems not herself, drunk and rambling or possessed by Punch, the spirit of riot and rebellion.

How long, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, are you prepared to put up with this? Why is it that men of good quality pay their taxes while foreigners pay naught, and yet expect the liberties that are an Englishman’s hard-won prerogative?

But Punch only emphasizes the negative qualities a person already has, like the white English mother who is frustrated that when she takes her children to the cinema there are too many foreigners, too many people not speaking English. So, she tries to strangle a refugee. The action comes from Punch, not the inclination.

Lesley is from a small town, a white girl who went into policing because she was ‘bloody amazing’ at it, not because she believes in doing good by following the rules.

“Maintain the Queen’s peace,” I said. “Bring order out of chaos.”
She shook her head sadly. “What makes you think there’s any order?” she said. “And you’ve been out on patrol on a Saturday night. Does that look like the Queen’s peace?”

She had a career in front of her. Handpicked by Seawoll for the murder team, she easily could have been his third Valkyrie. She didn’t believe in magic and when it proved real, she resented it.

“Is that true?” asked Lesley.
“Which bit?” I asked.
“Spells, food, obligations, wizards – the bailiff,” said Lesley. “For God’s sake, Peter, that’s false imprisonment at the very least.”

She resents it both the dubious ethics of what magic can do, and for the things magic can’t do.

“But what’s escalating?” asked Lesley. “And why can’t you stop it?”
“Because, Constable,” said Nightingale coldly. “We don’t know what it is.”

So, when Lesley loses her face and her easy entry into her supposedly great career to magic, there is no question whom she blames. Hint, she nicknamed Nightingale ‘Lord Voldemort’ long before she met him.

Punch and the Police

Since we are already talking about Punch and the murder case, let’s talk about the police.

Criminals are not caught by brilliant deductive reasoning but by the fact that some poor slob has spent a week tracking down every shop in Hackney that sells a particular brand of trainer, and then checking the security-camera footage on every single one. A good Senior Investigating Officer is one who makes sure their team has dotted every I and crossed every T, not least so that some Rupert in a wig can’t drive a defendant’s credit card into a crack in the case and wedge it wide open.

Yes, that was a Discworld reference.

Rivers of London is a police procedural at its core, it’s no accident that the book starts describing the proceedings around a crime scene. Only after a while does it hone in on our protagonist. And even as Peter gets more and more entangled in the magical, the ‘normal’ policework stays important and the non-magical officers are usually just a call away.

Gastroenterologist and Cryptopathologist Dr. Abdul Haqq Walid, for example, is always prepared to deal with magic as a cause of both death and injury. In his shared love of science, he quickly becomes a friend of Peter’s, to Nightingales chagrin.

The matter of Alexander Seawoll is a little more complicated. On the one hand, there is the way he talks to Nightingale, which would normally be associated with a misogynist talking down to a female coworker. This rings as especially unpleasant since Nightingale is decidedly queer-coded.

“I heard rumours there was a nasty smell in the building,” said a voice behind us. “And bugger me if it isn’t true.”[…]
“This is my fucking investigation, Nightingale,: said Seawoll. “I don’t care who you’re currently fucking – I don’t want any of your X-Files shit getting in the way of proper police work.”

On the other hand, Seawoll is known to handpick promising young women like Lesley to join his team. He puts them into sink and swim situations, and if they make it through the first few cases, he does everything to push the careers of his Valkyries. The one Valkyrie we meet in this book is Miriam Stephanopoulus, his highly competent right hand and a proud lesbian.

Of course, the police is not exclusively good, corruption is a thing that, while not prominent in the present day, is heavily referenced to have been a thing in the past.

“Conflict resolution,” said Nightingale. “Is this what they teach at Hendon these days?”
“Yes sir,” I said. “But don’t worry, they also teach us how to beat people with phone books and the ten best ways to plant evidence.”
“It’s good to see the old craft skills are being kept up,” said Nightingale.

Institutionalized racism is also acknowledged, even if it was again Punch who ‘helped’ Commissioner Folsom to speak his mind.

Folsom: I hate police constables. Do you know why?
Peter: Why, sir?
Folsom: Because you never stop moaning. I joined up in 1982, the good old days, before the PACE, before Macpherson and quality-control targets. And you know what? We were shit. We thought we were doing well in an investigation if we arrested anybody at all, let alone the perpetrator. We got the shit kicked out of us from Brixton to Tottenham and, fuck me, were we bent? We weren’t even that expensive! We’d let some scrote go for two pints of lager and a packet of crisps. And you. How long do you think you’d have lasted back then? A locker full of excrement would have just been a warm-up. Odds are, a few of your relief would have taken you to one side and explained, in a rough but friendly manner, just how unwanted you were. And don’t think your relief inspector would have helped. He wouldn’t have been able to spell “racial discrimination” on his report, if there had been a report.

Overall the Punch plot sets the tone for much of the series. This despite the fact that Peter doesn’t get too much opportunity to show off his bureaucratic and diplomatic skills here.

The Rivers

Which leads us directly to the subplot that gives both the book, and the entire series, its name: the Rivers of London are people, spirits of places, called genii locorum.

The first genius locorum of the Thames was father Thames, who with his sons ruled the entire Thames since the Romans were in power. However, when the Great Stink killed three of his sons (Effra, Fleet, and Tyburn), he abandoned London and moved upstream, where he holds court even now.

His people are Travelers for the most part. Most of his business is run by his oldest son Oxley, but his younger sons are pushing for him to return downstream. The problem is that another genius locorum has taken residence there, and Father Thames no longer controls the tidal areas. South of Teddington Lock Mama Thames has set up her court.

Back in the fifties, a Nigerian nurse who lost her job and was left by her fiancé for a white woman wanted to throw herself into the river. When the river offered her a second life as a goddess, she took the chance and became Mama Thames. By now Mama Thames has many daughters, probably more than father Thames had sons back in the old days. All of them are black woman, but the two relevant for this book are Beverly and Tyburn.

Beverly Brook Thames is a good-looking nineteen year old with the ability to talk incessantly. Her and Peter are immediately attracted to each other, continuously flirt and eventually kiss. Although she helps Peter to establish a line of communication between the court of her mother and Father Thames, and saves Peter’s life in the eventual ‘Midnight Riot’, she does not seem to be much of a permanent love interest in this book. She’s more of a bond-girl-esque sidekick without the horrific levels of misogyny and lack of clothes and agency.

If you ask me, sending her upstream to Father Thames court in a mutual hostage situation is basically the best choice the author could have made. When Beverly returns a couple of books later she has visibly matured. Having figured out what she wants in life, the age difference between her and Peter is much less noticeable, and their relationship is better for it.

The other daughter of mother Thames that plays a significant role here is Tyburn, Lady Ty if you know what’s good for you. Ty is not a villain, but she is an antagonist.

Cecilia Tyburn Thames has a double first degree from Oxford university. She is a socialite with a straight, media-friendly nose, and she knows all the right people. When the Folly proved incapable of managing the demi-monde due to Nightingale’s reclusion, it was Lady Ty who stepped up. And her power goes much further than her role as her mother’s right hand. Lady Ty has managed everything about the demi-monde for decades. Then Peter shows up, a ‘boy’ from Kentish town, no university-education at all, and he starts meddling in what she perceives as her affairs.

And instead of just sitting down and talking to him, Ty decides to show off her powers and play mind games, which doesn’t sit well with Peter, at all.

She’d gone too far and she knew it, and she knew I knew she knew it too.

Peter and Tyburn are perfect foils. Both want only the best for the magical community, but their approaches to reaching it couldn’t be more different. Peter believes in Policing by Consent; those you are policing have to agree to be policed, you are dependent on their approval. Because the authorities need the people to remain in power, they are bound to act in the people’s best interest.

Ty on the other hand believes that to make sure her people are well provided for, she has to be the authority herself, or at least have them in her pockets. But a well-meaning dictator is still a dictator, and as long as Peter’s on watch, Tyburn will not hinder the police just because they are inconvenient to her vision. Even if that means he has to tell on her to her mother.

Overall thoughts

I loved Rivers of London going into this reread, and I still love it. On reread, it really stands out just how often things are foreshadowed that will be relevant later. From Lesley’s right wing rhetoric to Mellenby and Ettersberg, even what is probably the black library is already hinted at. I actually wonder if the DCs that went to America were Guleed and Carrey, seeing as they didn’t appear yet.

What I didn’t like was the writing of the female characters. While it in no way reached Dresden Files levels of sexism and isn’t as widespread, there was still objectification of women going on, especially in terms of Beverly. Thank god, I know that it only gets better going forward.

Pictures courtesy of Gollancz and Titan

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