Midnight Riot/Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch
January 8, 2019 7:46 PM - by Ben Aaronovitch - Subscribe

Probationary Constable Peter Grant dreams of being a detective in London’s Metropolitan Police. Too bad his superior plans to assign him to the Case Progression Unit, where the biggest threat he’ll face is a paper cut. But Peter’s prospects change in the aftermath of a puzzling murder, when he gains exclusive information from an eyewitness who happens to be a ghost.

The first book! I've got the rest of the novels scheduled for every other week on Tuesday, but can change the timing or intersperse the graphic novels/novellas in chronological order. There's a fanfare talk about it here.
posted by dinty_moore (52 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Thanks for posting this! I read this on the recommendation of askme and enjoyed it. Actually, I listened on audiobook, and I had a bit of trouble following the plot, but I couldn't tell if that was because I don't always listen as closely as I read? The basic concept was cool and the imagery of the Punch faced ghoul was very visceral and visual. I enjoyed the river goddesses and thought the descriptions were terrific. I'm not sure I was drawn in enough by the actual story to read more in the series..
posted by latkes at 8:06 PM on January 8, 2019

I've read the whole series and thoroughly enjoyed it - great character development, solid plot twists and some exceptional world building. I really like that the author is clearly a massive London history nerd and is always looking for weird pieces of city history to inject into the plot.
posted by simonw at 8:45 PM on January 8, 2019 [2 favorites]

Actually, I listened on audiobook, and I had a bit of trouble following the plot, but I couldn't tell if that was because I don't always listen as closely as I read?

This might be the weakest of the books I've read so far - I didn't particularly like Peter until I realized he was undervaluing his worth as a cop and started paying more attention to the way that the other characters reacted to him. But I don't think that the plots get any easier to follow from here on out - one of the things I like about the books is that it honestly feels like what the characters are doing is real policework, which involves a lot of drudgery and hoping for a big break or something to finally click. Only, that also means that the books sometimes feel like they're just meandering along.
posted by dinty_moore at 8:47 PM on January 8, 2019 [4 favorites]

By coincidence, I'm listening to this again. I still can't get straight in my head who killed who at the beginning. Luckily, it doesn't really matter.
posted by kjs4 at 11:03 PM on January 8, 2019 [1 favorite]

I enjoyed the audiobook very much--I think I picked it up because of an AskMe recommendation, and I was very pleased. The Punch and Judy ghoul was so vividly scary that I still remember it, even though it's been a coop,e of years since I've listened to it. But the best part was the narrator, Kobna Holdbrook-Smith. What a voice!
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 2:14 AM on January 9, 2019 [1 favorite]

I'm glad I saw this posted, I have been enjoying this series. Grant definitely gets better at his job over time, especially from the beginning of book 1 into book 2. One of the things I like in general about the series is that when a character makes a mistake or error of judgement it always makes sense in context and seems believable. There aren't any major "idiot ball" moments. The plots are sometimes verging on farcical, but they develop in a believable way.

So anyway, about this book specifically. The story is engaging, a great ghost story, and while I thought the pacing is a little uneven towards the end, the world it establishes is fascinating. dinty_moore's note that it pays to notice how other characters react to Grant is true; Grant isn't an unreliable narrator exactly but the text definitely conveys things through character actions and dialogue that Grant doesn't explicitly give in his narration.

One of my favorite things about these books is Grant's (Aaronovitch's?) loving but sardonic take on London's police, architecture, history, and denizens. Passages like:
"the public doesn’t like it when the police start screaming; it contributes to an impression of things not being conducive to public calm"
"In 671 A.D., an abbey was founded on the high ground south of the River Thames in what is now Chertsey. It was your classic Anglo-Saxon establishment, half center of learning, half economic powerhouse and a refuge for those sons of the nobility who thought there was more to life than stabbing people with swords. Two hundred years later, the Vikings, who never got tired of stabbing people with swords, sacked the abbey and burned it down"
make me snicker into my drink.

In the same vein, I like that Aaronovitch is able to complain about/mock the civic bureaucracy while acknowledging the reality that it exists to keep society functioning and more or less works most of the time. This is not a cop novel about how one badass cop defies "the system" to bring bad guys to justice. Even once Grant begins to gain more political skill/influence later in the series, he is working to improve the system, and the system repeatedly saves his ass.
posted by Wretch729 at 6:03 AM on January 9, 2019 [6 favorites]

I love this series, but it's a series where every time a new book comes out I have to reread from the beginning to remember all the details of what's going on. I haven't looked into the audiobooks, but I have some Audible credits to burn and am definitely going to check them out!
posted by odd ghost at 8:01 AM on January 9, 2019 [3 favorites]

I've never gotten into audiobooks, but I may start with these because there's been so much praise for the narrator. I guess I'd have to sign up for Audible? I got a taste of it with this video and actually got interested. I used to have a tendency to drift off while listening to them but being more familiar with the story

Odd ghost, I had something similar happen. After the most recent book came out, I went back for a big reread and discovered that while I definitely still had the sense memories of the books all there, I forgot big plot chunks.

Anyway, this book sucked me in right away. I also was a little confused about how the deaths played out, but I was so willing to go along for the ride with Peter that it didn't worry me that much. (And I think I get it now after the rereads.) But the horror of the Punch face and the acting out of the puppet show with real people was legitimately creepy. The river deities are fascinating too, and their blend of forces of nature but also real people with gripes and quirks is really well done.

My thought is that Peter isn't necessarily undervaluing himself as an officer, but that certain tendencies of his (namely an endless curiosity about things and how they work) sometimes bumps up against the more blunt realities of policing (and which gives Leslie room to endlessly razz him). So he's a little unsure about his place in the force, even as he really believes in himself and his job as one of the things that, as Wretch729 says, keeps society running, even if things are imperfect on both sides.

There's this music video about the books, too, with is pretty adorable.
posted by PussKillian at 8:23 AM on January 9, 2019 [1 favorite]

In this first book, I'm not sure it's so much Peter undervaluing himself per se, but that Peter is clearly unaware that he hasn't been shunted off into the Case Progression Unit out of a lack of skill, or because his superiors lacked confidence in him, but that it was exactly the opposite. Aaronovitch has mentioned that this assignment was in fact Peter being groomed for a management or supervisory position in the Met. I think it's a great and believable character note that of course, a guy like Peter who has a friend/crush like Leslie is going to find his Case Progression Unit assignment disappointing. His friend just got onto the exciting, glamorous murder squad! He wants to be with her, doing the cool stuff! Never mind that the unglamorous work he's been assigned to is building the foundation for him to rise up the ranks. Of course, it's all moot as he ends up with the Folly, but I think it's interesting in light of how much initiative we see him take later on, and how his superiors respond to him.

I'll nth the recs for the audiobooks, Kobna Holdbrook-Smith is a wonder, to the point that I sometimes forget the audiobooks aren't full cast recordings, they're just one guy! But yes, it can be a little hard to follow along with the plot when it gets denser, especially if you're doing something else while listening to the audiobook. I've often found myself rewinding to make sure I caught everything.

Back to this specific book, when I first read it, I remember being so charmed and interested by the sheer specificity of Peter's narration. The things Peter pays attention to, the things he chooses to describe and the ways he describes them tell us so much about who he is and where he's come from, which isn't always something you get in such detail in first person POV, and these narrative tics are consistent, not just trotted out once or twice a book to remind you "oh yeah, Peter's into architecture" or "right, Peter's mixed race, white is never default for him."
posted by yasaman at 9:59 AM on January 9, 2019 [10 favorites]

One of the best bits of writing in the books is Peter lacking confidence in his own abilities, while almost everyone around him assesses him accurately, and responds to him on the basis of that assessment. Lesley thinks she has to keep smacking him so he'll toughen up and look after himself; Nightingale thinks he has to keep reining him in to stop him turning out like -spoiler from later books-; Seawoll and Stephanopoulis seem amusedly annoyed, but clearly believe in his abilities; Tyburn sees a genuine threat, and probably fears him in a way she never fears Nightingale, although she is also amused by his blindness to his own power.

A lot of the skill of the writing is definitely, as noted above, in repetition without falseness or tedium: the use of repeated motifs, turns of phrase, childhood stories, etc etc. Peter's voice is meticulously constructed, using many elements of Aaronovitch's life and interest, and is all-pervasive in the books.

I think that the greatest strength of the audiobooks is that Holdbrook-Smith has (I think with some minor input from Aaronovitch, from an interview with them at the end of one of the audiobooks) been able to inhabit Peter in an astonishingly effective way, particularly from the second book on. This extra layer of artistry probably strengthens the books sufficiently for the audiobooks to be the "better" format. His performance brings the character closer to the audience and further from the writer, without losing the vibrancy the writer imparted, and in fact adding to it. This is, in my experience of listening to audiobooks, a hard trick to accomplish, and I really don't think I've heard it done better than in this series. The fact that the rest of his voice work is genuinely excellent too is almost a bonus. My only criticism of his work at all is that he struggles slightly with some Welsh accents.
posted by howfar at 11:32 AM on January 9, 2019 [5 favorites]

I don't know if Tyburn sees an actual threat - well, definitely not in the early books anyway. She's not just a river goddess, she's got significant worldly political clout, right? Enough to have stooges available to her within the police command structure.

On the other hand, Peter did get in the good graces of Mama Thames by the end of the book.
posted by PussKillian at 1:52 PM on January 9, 2019 [1 favorite]

On the other hand, Peter did get in the good graces of Mama Thames by the end of the book.

Interestingly, that was the scene I was thinking of when saying she sees him as a threat. I think that Tyburn sees everyone she respects, except possibly a few of her family (?), as threats. She's the ultimate Blairite, after all, a dogmatic pragmatist, who believes that holding on to power has to come first, because how else are you going to do any good? So anyone who challenges her accumulation of power is a threat to her and an obstacle to progress. It's not that she's a monster, it's just that she's a politician. That she's likeable, witty and human, despite those more iconic aspects of her characterisation, is a good example of Aaronovitch's thoughtful work.
posted by howfar at 2:16 PM on January 9, 2019 [1 favorite]

When people at work ask me for book recommendations, I can usually hum a few bars and get them something they like. When they ask me if I've read a particular book, I have to shyly admit I only read books about wizards who are also detectives. I've been keeping up buying this series at work, but also for myself (even to the point of picking up UK copies if one has come out while I'm visiting).

As for this book in the series, I too first experienced it via the audiobook version, but then went back and reread it. I've always enjoyed Sinister Punch stories and while the ending felt slightly pat, it actually set up further books in the series, especially THAT MOMENT.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 5:31 PM on January 9, 2019 [2 favorites]

There were things that bugged me about about Peter with women in this book - for example, the way that the torch for Lesley plays out, since she doesn't seem interested but he is repeatedly low-key setting up situations where something might happen, not really taking the hint. Tie that in with the description of Stephanopolous as a terrifying lesbian and then the unfortunate fact that the female rivers glamours seem to work in a completely different way than Oxley's. Any one of them by itself would have been fine, and even together it's pretty typical, but it still got in the way of me liking Peter as much for the first novel.

On the other hand, Peter definitely gets better after this book, and I did like the way he just takes everyone and everything as they are, then asks the relevant follow up questions. The humor landed and I really appreciated the London geekery - especially since I can do this with a bunch of American housing styles but don't had an excuse to look up the UK versions. And I love how quickly things go from Peter claiming that he gets bored and distracted by everything, including random historical plaques, to people commenting on how much Peter is obsessed with architecture. A lot of Peter's best qualities just sort of seem normal to him, so they're harder to spot in the narration - including being better at the community policing aspect.

For the undervaluing himself as an officer - it definitely comes up a lot more later so I'll save the discussion for when it's relevant, but two more of the things I was thinking of was the assumption that his placement was because he wasn't good enough, and how Peter's 'inner Lesley' seems to be a better police officer than actual Lesley.

I love the scene with the coach house television debut. The plot meanders quite a lot - which I don't mind partially because it allows for those kinds of character scenes.

It's only been a little over a month since I read this and I'm already a little hazy as to what happens with Molly and the trip back to the beginning of London. But the weirdness of that scene was affecting, as was the punch-face imagery (followed by the faces falling off).

(as a completely unrelated note I absolutely hate the tagline about 'just like if Harry Potter joined the fuzz', because a) describing all urban fantasy as like Harry Potter means that comparing anything to Harry Potter tells me absolutely nothing b) Harry Potter canonically joined the fuzz. Peter would agree with me)
posted by dinty_moore at 7:39 PM on January 9, 2019 [1 favorite]

I just listened to an audiobook of this based on the happy coincidence of a friend's recommendation and an audible sale. I really liked it too. I have little to add of substance that hasn't been set, other than the fact that the basic setup is so typical of an average urban fantasy that the superb execution really snuck up on me. The body horror aspect of Mr. Punch--and the high stakes with it hitting Leslie--hit me hard.

I had no idea Fanfare would be doing this but will try to keep up now!
posted by mark k at 9:41 PM on January 9, 2019

In addition to everything else mentioned, I love the worldbuilding involved here. The historical reason why the Folley is down to one elderly mage. Why magic can be subject to analysis and modernization by one young cop. The way magic and the powers of the river gods seem to be interralated. In fact I'm suspecting that the various embodied deities and the mages have more in common on a fundamental level than it seems at first.

And yes, the complex way Peter and the rest of the cops and supernaturals and civilians relate. Where, unlike that series set in Chicago, you can't easily stick D&D alignment labels on people, thereby justifying whatever they do. This London needs rules and procedures and negotiations, and can't just depend on One Maverick Mage Doing the Heroic Thing.

The way that it is happily and easily diverse, depicting the multiculturalism of London. Again, in a way that Chicago series isn't.

Bottom line, this is a series I enjoy greatly, and I'm looking forward to more novels. I both love and staff the idea of a TV series.
posted by happyroach at 12:08 AM on January 10, 2019 [3 favorites]

Heh, yes, while I mostly love the Harry Dresden books, and I think a lot of people try to bring them up in a "if you like this, you'll like that" kind of way, they are tonally so completely different. Peter doesn't work alone, by and large. He's used to calling in other people based on their expertise for help. He likes having backup when he can. He starts learning magic but it's clearly not a fast process and has inherent dangers to curb people who try to go too fast. It's hard and almost boring. But when he first produces a werelight...

"Fuck me," I thought. "I can do magic."

I was so happy! Yay, Peter! You did it!
posted by PussKillian at 7:19 AM on January 10, 2019 [4 favorites]

Oh yeah. And Peter, though he complains about being slow, he makes obvious progress through the series.

Also, thank you to this thread--I hadn't realized until now that Peter's dread of being put in case management, and related self-assessment was an unreliable narrator thing.

This is the second time this week where I've dealt with a character's self assessment being at odds with how others view them. It plays a major role in Anne Leckie's Provenance.
posted by happyroach at 8:58 AM on January 10, 2019

Also, thank you to this thread--I hadn't realized until now that Peter's dread of being put in case management, and related self-assessment was an unreliable narrator thing.

Me either. I believed him about it being a bad spot for him, while Leslie got the Good Cop star assignment.
posted by PussKillian at 9:04 AM on January 10, 2019 [2 favorites]

Ha, yes, I believed Peter too, especially back when I first read this first book and wasn't as familiar with Peter yet! That's why I mentioned it here, it wasn't anything I would have known or considered myself.

I also basically took Peter at his word for why he didn't end up pursuing architecture as a career. IIRC, in this first book, he's pretty self-deprecating about it and about how his exam scores and school performance just weren't good enough. Having read more of the books now though, I think it's fairly clear it wasn't lack of smarts holding Peter back. Peter's actually meticulous and intelligent, with an enormous depth of knowledge about London history and architecture, and with a laudably scientific and questioning approach to learning magic. We often see him mentioning how slow the magic learning is going, and the learning of Latin and Greek, but I'm not so sure he's going all that slowly at all. Peter is, I think, far more intelligent than he gives himself credit for. I think it was traditional schooling that didn't serve him so well. Learning with Nightingale at the Folly seems to go better for him, given that he has more independence about what he's studying and how.
posted by yasaman at 12:10 PM on January 10, 2019 [3 favorites]

I've always thought there was something slightly fishy about Peter's reasons for not going into higher education. Why did his chemistry teacher write a letter to the Guardian about his disappointment? That story gets brought up more than once and has always seemed promising to me.

It is worth noting that Peter seems to have been, in some ways, a somewhat emotionally neglected child, which I think is significant to his sort of strange self perception. I think that the rhetorical and personality disparity between his parents, and between their approaches to him, seems to be a factor in his struggle to make fair self-assessments. It feels like he doesn't have the sort of consistent perspective that a more stable upbringing would have provided. On the other hand, his father did give him a piece of wisdom I frequently pass on to those around me: "Who knows why the fuck anything happens?".
posted by howfar at 12:44 PM on January 10, 2019 [1 favorite]

I had no idea Fanfare would be doing this but will try to keep up now!

(yay!) If you join the club, there's a schedule and things get added to my fanfare, which makes it a bit easier to keep track of when things are happening. Also, I just sort of made up the posting frequency, so that can be changed (discussed here)

I've always thought there was something slightly fishy about Peter's reasons for not going into higher education. Why did his chemistry teacher write a letter to the Guardian about his disappointment? That story gets brought up more than once and has always seemed promising to me.

Yeah, I assumed Things Were Going On At Home, considering. The fact that Tyburn brings the Guardian letter up at the exact same time she brings up that his father was a junkie seems telling (IIRC). It could easily be more than a 'top five things that Peter Grant is sensitive about' connection, though there's that, too.

One of the things that I like about the series is the way that magic and policework seem to work by the same process: you do a lot of hard, boring work and it seems like you're not getting anywhere, but something finally comes through and it's exciting.

There's parts of policing that Peter isn't great at, especially in this volume - being aware of his surroundings in the moment, notably. But when it comes to engaging people, asking questions, and figuring out what to look into next or who to ask for help - he's good at that, he just doesn't value it as much. I can see how he could be bored out of his mind in the case progression squad, but the BA explanation that it wasn't really a punishment or a shit spot makes sense, because he is good at the non-flashy workhorse parts of the job. Lesley's generally good at most of that, too - and she's the first to admit that it really is just hard work and dedication. Except she's not great when it comes to the community policing/relations part of it.

Also, on Peter not having white as a default - one of the other things that he does is describe POC as lighter or darker skinned, which is a nice subtle reminder that he's not white.
posted by dinty_moore at 1:01 PM on January 10, 2019 [2 favorites]

I read the first book last year and dove into the whole series because I was starving for fun light-hearted-ish speculative fiction with non-white main characters. It was somewhere in the sixth book that I realized every character's skin tone is described. Not just the non-white characters, but the white folks as well. And it subtlely makes you aware and understand that this world of London isn't just old white dudes with funny accents. I loved it.

Just before the last book, I stumbled across this interview with the author about the amount of work and thought he puts into creating a character of color that isn't a stereo-type and isn't white-washed. There are some slight spoilers for later books, but the article is worth a read if you're up to date.

I love the world of this book and I think it's turning out to be one of my favorite series in a long time.
posted by teleri025 at 1:43 PM on January 10, 2019 [2 favorites]

The worldbuilding has been mentioned above, but one thing is Aaronovitch's deep knowledge, and obvious love of, London's history and folklore. So much of these novels are taking these threads of reality and weaving them into something new and amazing. There are novels that are set in places you know that you can't read because the author has not done their research, or has just failed to get the 'feel' of the place. These books are the opposite. People I know who live in and love London bloody love these books, and often end up learning things about London from them that they didn't know before.

The comment above about Peter's attitudes to women in the first book, and him getting better as they go on - it makes me think of things about the culture of sexism and racism within the police, and whether you can therefore think of that as character development. Does taking Peter out of the 'mainstream' police environment/culture and put him under Nightingale's tutelage basically improve his attitude towards women?

Kobna Holdbrook-Smith is amazing with these books. I mean, he's pretty awesome with other audiobooks I've heard him read (frankly, he could probably read out the phone book and I'd listen), but these are super special.
posted by Vortisaur at 2:16 PM on January 10, 2019 [1 favorite]

YAY!!! I'm so glad that y'all are reading these books - I just joined the club! I brought home the first book on a whim and my husband wound up stealing it from me. I had to renew it so that I could read it, and then got through it in two nights.

I have not read all of them yet (so I hope we keep the spoilers for later books to a minimum?) but I love Nightingale, I wonder what's going on with Molly, and I really love his worldbuilding. I love reading fiction and actually learning something. It's like sneaky educational.
posted by Gray Duck at 7:31 PM on January 10, 2019 [1 favorite]

I love this series! The characters, the love of history, the River goddesses (and gods). I often think of them whenever I am near a river, wondering what sort of character it might justly assume.
posted by Coaticass at 7:36 PM on January 10, 2019 [2 favorites]

Slight diversion but robocop is bleeding, what other Bad Punch stories have you read? The only other one I can think of is Tim Powers’ The Anubis Gates and it’s not really a plot thread, per say.

Punch as this scrap of urban murderous id madness is so creepy and well done.
posted by PussKillian at 8:06 PM on January 10, 2019

The comment above about Peter's attitudes to women in the first book, and him getting better as they go on - it makes me think of things about the culture of sexism and racism within the police, and whether you can therefore think of that as character development. Does taking Peter out of the 'mainstream' police environment/culture and put him under Nightingale's tutelage basically improve his attitude towards women?

IDK, I wonder how much of this is what happens in later books, how much of this Aaronovich not realizing how some of the situations might read*, and how much is that tolerance for casual sexism has gone down since 2011. Peter's also pretty young. The police force tends to come off as, if not idealized, at least slightly better than they probably are in reality.

*Like, Lesley is definitely aware that Peter has a crush on her and keeps on trying to get her alone in a private place - she asks why they're drinking in his room instead of a pub, when he invites her over to the coach house alone, she invites Beverley, ect. But I also 100% believe that if Peter believed that it bothered her he'd stop. But also I don't know if I trust Peter to actually notice?

I often think of them whenever I am near a river, wondering what sort of character it might justly assume.

The one I wonder about is the Red River between North Dakota, Minnesota, and Manitoba. It has the misfortune of running north, so every spring the melted water runs into still-frozen water and spills out into the plains. Plains being what they are, the floods spread pretty far. So months spent frozen, followed up with just freaking out and going everywhere.

Well, that and the Chicago River. Poor backwards bastard.
posted by dinty_moore at 8:15 PM on January 10, 2019 [4 favorites]

Oh, cool. I've read three of these so far (one, ridiculously, in German translation (not terrible)) and look forward to filling out the others.

So much of these books was enjoyable but I think what struck me with the most resonance was the way history of the Thames and the people who live along its banks is treated - as a living thing whose reverberations are still ringing.

I haven't heard any on audiobook but might look into it considering the ringing endorsements.
posted by From Bklyn at 2:54 AM on January 11, 2019

The other Punch related book I know is Riddley Walker which is among the most weird, haunting, inventive stories I've read.
posted by latkes at 7:04 AM on January 11, 2019 [2 favorites]

I also am curious about the background on why Peter didn't go to uni.
posted by Wretch729 at 7:47 AM on January 12, 2019

Oh and per the discussion of imagining other Rivers/genii loci I totally do that too. I keep wondering if the rivers have their avatars what else might? Does St. Paul's? The city itself?
posted by Wretch729 at 7:54 AM on January 12, 2019 [2 favorites]

It is worth noting that Peter seems to have been, in some ways, a somewhat emotionally neglected child,

Man, is there any interest in doing an [ALL BOOKS] version of these books? Like one thread for the first read, and another for people who have, ahem, may have read them a time or two?

Because one of the things that Aaronovitch is SO GOOD AT is salting the books with hints and themes that get more fully explored later on, and I want to talk about that with other many-time-re-readers without spoiling folks.
posted by joyceanmachine at 9:08 AM on January 14, 2019 [2 favorites]

I was just going to hold off talking about certain things until we got to those books and then go backwards, but I'm not going to stop anyone from posting their own thing (haven't read the Hanging Tree or Lies Sleeping yet, so I'd be out).
posted by dinty_moore at 9:24 AM on January 14, 2019 [1 favorite]

Yeah, I was also just going to do my best to only talk about future things in vague generalities, not least because I'm hazy on what happens in which book. I'm listening to Lies Sleeping right now, so I'm trying to avoid spoilers too.
posted by yasaman at 10:03 AM on January 14, 2019

A non-spoiler-y comment:

One of the things that I love best about the Rivers of London books is the way that they can be read as a very specific response to the Harry Potter books.

Like, I think Aaronovitch read the Potter books and liked them, but man, take how Rowling manages to write seven books at a school for teaching wizards, but you never actually figure out much about the nitty gritty of magic -- what is magic? Why does it work? Why are some people able to do magic but others can't? How do you get better at magic? Why are some spells more powerful than others? Why is Dumbledore such a powerful wizard? Aaronovitch drills down into this, giving us a fully-fledged system of formae and a theory of magic in the very first book.

Rowling presents English life as middle-class, suburban/rural, and default white. It's what Midsomer Murders says England looks like, and non-white people are basically identifiable only because they have funny names. They aren't differentiated in any other way, really.* Because they're just like us, you see! That's the entirety of Rowling's nod to multi-culturalism in the UK. Aaronovitch's narrator is English to the very last molecule in his bones -- but is mixed-race, child-of-an-immigrant who grew up on an estate as part of the modern London working class. For Peter, white is not the default. It shapes how Peter looks at the world; it shapes how other people look at him and treat him

Rowling puts the boarding school as the heart of traditional magical English education. Aaronovitch points out that apprenticeship has an equally long history in England. In later books, there's a description to the rural boarding school that Nightingale went to, but the whole point of it is that model has passed into history.

Rowling overlays a story about wizards onto one deeply English genre, the boarding novel. Aaronovitch points out that mystery novels are just as English.

Rowling has house-elves. Aaronovitch has Molly.

Rowling has Dumbledore. Aaronovitch has Nightingale.

Rowling has Hermione, who I love, but L E S L E Y.**

* This comes out in some interesting ways. The one book canon black kid in Harry Potter is a big Tottenham fan, and it just gets mentioned in passing, but it's been pointed out that it's very, very unlikely a black kid in London in the 90's would be a Tottenham fan, given the historical racism by their fans against the black population in London, and the fact that their arch-rivals Arsenal had, at that time, some of the most exciting young black players in all of the Premiere League. It's why Idris Elba, apparently, is a longtime Arsenal fan.

So Rowling gets this flagrantly wrong, and Aaronovitch gets this right by salting a number of references to Peter supporting Arsenal in the books, although Mr. Machine seriously considered getting a Twitter handle just to ask Aaronovitch how Peter could possibly have attended match with 60,000 other fans if [something something old stadium capacity change me passing out asleep in boredom three feet away]

** Fine, this got a little spoiler-y.
posted by joyceanmachine at 10:18 AM on January 14, 2019 [7 favorites]

Also, Aaronovich plays with the Harry Potter connection little bit too:

“You put a spell on the dog," I said as we left the house.
"Just a small one," said Nightingale.
"So magic is real," I said. "Which makes you a...what?"
"A wizard."
"Like Harry Potter?"
Nightingale sighed. "No," he said. "Not like Harry Potter."
"In what way?"
"I'm not a fictional character," said Nightingale.”

Which might be the fact that of course Harry Potter is going to be the first thing that comes to mind when British magic comes up, so it makes sense to reference it. And of course everyone, even the centenarian quasi-shut-in, is aware of Harry Potter whether they like it or not (I love that sigh, because it's clear that answering this question has been Nightingale's life for the past twenty goddamn years and he has opinions on this matter). But also, the series already has a more sophisticated take on the institutions and processes in magical Britain, and how those systems would relate to a mundane world - for better or worse.
posted by dinty_moore at 11:16 AM on January 14, 2019 [3 favorites]

Ohhh I hadn't specifically thought about parallels between Lesley and Hermione but now I'm actually intrigued. I don't think I can blather about this without getting spoilery though.
I can wait for an all books thread, or just until we get to the later books.
posted by Wretch729 at 2:18 PM on January 14, 2019

I'm cool with upping the posting schedule to once a week as a compromise. People don't have to wait as long for later discussions, but those of us who haven't read the entire series can still participate (and have some time to catch up)
posted by dinty_moore at 8:20 PM on January 14, 2019 [1 favorite]

I wouldn't want to rush people who are just starting to read through the series.
posted by Wretch729 at 5:52 AM on January 15, 2019 [3 favorites]

So Rowling gets this flagrantly wrong, and Aaronovitch gets this right by salting a number of references to Peter supporting Arsenal in the books

Arguably he gets Peter to make the correction explicit in the first book: "For a certain generation of African immigrants cleaning offices became part of the culture like male circumcision and supporting Arsenal". Which supports your points about the parallels with Potter.
posted by howfar at 3:55 PM on January 16, 2019 [1 favorite]

Of general and tangential interest for this series - a hand-drawn map of the rivers of london.
posted by dinty_moore at 4:20 PM on January 20, 2019

(I love that sigh, because it's clear that answering this question has been Nightingale's life for the past twenty goddamn years and he has opinions on this matter)

I read this to my wife, and she immediately pointed out that Nightingale is old enough that before that, for maybe 40 years, there would have been dialogue referring to the OTHER default English ideal of magic. So if Rivers of London was set in 1988...
"So magic is real," I said. "Which makes you a...what?"
"A wizard."
"Like Gandalf?"
Nightingale sighed. "No," he said. "Not like Gandalf."

posted by happyroach at 8:35 PM on January 20, 2019 [3 favorites]

Oh man, I haven't even started thinking about how LoTR-style ideas of British fantasy might intersect with this universe. That's a whole 'nother level of thinking about how Proper English Magic is white and rural and distinctly non-London than Harry Potter.

(Also, with the aging backwards, I've got to imagine that Nightingale's main fantasy touchpoint would have been TH White's version of Merlin - down to the bird name. Technically Merlin is travelling backwards in time, but if we're talking about famous literary British magician mentors, harder to get more archetypical than that)
posted by dinty_moore at 6:05 AM on January 21, 2019 [2 favorites]

Side note for people following this in recent activity - next book thread is up.
posted by Wretch729 at 10:36 AM on January 22, 2019 [1 favorite]

> Slight diversion but robocop is bleeding, what other Bad Punch stories have you read? The only other one I can think of is Tim Powers’ The Anubis Gates and it’s not really a plot thread, per say.

Punch shows up in one of the Bryant and May books, too, which I feel happen in the same universe as the Rivers of London.
posted by The corpse in the library at 9:09 AM on January 24, 2019 [1 favorite]

Wandered in because so many of my contemporaries rave about these books, but I bounced off the print. You don't have to succumb to Amazon's Borg--the audio versions are also available from Libro.fm, a North-American based service that offers DRM-free (therefore loanable) audiobooks on a low-cost plan.

...trots off to get the first MP3
posted by Jesse the K at 10:47 AM on January 24, 2019 [2 favorites]

That's an amazing map dinty_moore, and thanks so much for doing these posts, I really enjoy the whole series, it's totally different from anything else.

I've traveled in the uk a lot and the uncanny (at least for me) is always near the surface - I probably got it close to home as when I was a kid folk always used to tiptoe around my mum (and behaving ever so respectful) saying she was fae

It's very easy to believe in Aaronovitch's tales
posted by unearthed at 12:56 AM on January 26, 2019 [2 favorites]

I just started this series and I'm glad to hear that in future books there might be fewer descriptions of each woman's boobs. Also, thank y'all for keeping it spoiler free! I'm not even completely finished with this book and was able to safetly read this thread.
posted by tofu_crouton at 5:29 AM on March 27, 2019 [1 favorite]

TV Series being planned, an adaptation by Simon Pegg and Nick Frosts' production company.
posted by Coaticass at 1:00 AM on April 30, 2019 [3 favorites]

I'm cautiously excited about it! Talking about anything at the optioned stage seems iffy, but at least Aaronovitch has worked in TV before and seems like he's going to be fairly involved.
posted by dinty_moore at 9:42 AM on April 30, 2019 [1 favorite]

Between this and The Rook getting an adaptation, this is a good time for British urban fantasy.
posted by happyroach at 10:23 AM on April 30, 2019 [2 favorites]

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