Whispers Under Ground
February 5, 2019 4:40 AM - by Ben Aaronovitch - Subscribe

It begins with a dead body at the far end of Baker Street tube station, all that remains of American exchange student James Gallagher—and the victim’s wealthy, politically powerful family is understandably eager to get to the bottom of the gruesome murder. The trouble is, the bottom—if it exists at all—is deeper and more unnatural than anyone suspects . . . except, that is, for London constable and sorcerer’s apprentice Peter Grant.
posted by dinty_moore (21 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
Thanks, dinty_moore!

Which is to say that Whispers Underground is my comfort book in the series. Foxglove Summer is my favorite Peter Grant novel, but when I'm in bed trying to drift off, this is the one I put on because it's my happy place. It has so much of what I love about the Rivers of London series -- Peter and Lesley as apprentices together, bits and pieces of magical lore, bits and pieces of London lore, wisecracks about magic using contemporary references, the smart cultural nods in recognition of how non-white people experience life, the fantastic side characters like Abigail and Jaget Kumar and Madame Teng, the recognition of just what a big, diverse, fascinating place modern London is, contrasted with small, wonderful emotional beats.

Peter and Lesley spend so much of the book giving each other shit, and Peter is so closed-down about certain emotions that you forget they deeply like and care about each other -- and then, that moment when Peter is having the panic attack about being in an enclosed space, and then Lesley wordlessly, reaches out and takes his hand. It's wonderfully spare and concise and very true to both of them.

This book has, by the way, one of my favorite "yup, this was written by a person who actually does live in a big city and knows how big city people think" bits in the series is here -- I can't count the number of times when I've stood outside fancy real estate in a city with a friend or Mr. Machine, and basically had the dialogue that Carey and Guleed and Peter have while pricing the mews where James Gallagher lives.
posted by joyceanmachine at 7:35 AM on February 5 [3 favorites]


The ghost incident with Abigail that kicks off the plot is, by itself, reason enough to love this book. So much fun. I've fallen behind on my reread so I don't have as much to add besides what I already said in the last thread about Peter's development and motivations.
posted by Wretch729 at 7:24 PM on February 5 [1 favorite]


the recognition of just what a big, diverse, fascinating place modern London is, contrasted with small, wonderful emotional beats.

Yes! There are so many good off-hand character lines in here: Abigail's everything, Newly-minted DI Stephanopolous's interactions with Peter (and her wife reading Pratchett to her), Nightingale watching horrible B-movies and apparently used to be Indiana Jones?; the Quiet People shopping at Tesco, Peter and Lesley both playing RPGs as kids. The raincloud! The rave scene with unexpected Zach! It's all great.

I love the glimpses we get of Effra, Fleet, Olympia and Chelsea, too - they're distinct from each other and their other sisters, but you still get the impression that they all had Mama Thames as a mom. And this goes for both physicality and personality-wise. I don't know enough about London to understand - do their locations match up to their personalities at all?

I'm still not exactly sure why Peter met the previous Tyburn, and if that's somewhat typical or maybe a side-effect of haeomancy and nearly dying.

I tried to remember what the answer was to who killed James Gallagher before rereading, but I couldn't. I'd remembered the basics of the plot until they reached the quiet people and being buried underground (holy shit that scene), but then it was ecoli worries lead them underground again and there's a good tesco joke.

Peter and Lesley - Peter's so supportive of her in this book - both of them have at least gotten to the point where he's able to be supportive and she's feeling receptive to the support. I was thinking back to the first book, where there were a number of references to Peter being the comic relief sidekick and not the main character. And it still feels pretty rare that a male protagonist is good at being supportive, especially of his female colleague. He has to be the calming influence on Lesley's more aggressive policing style. During the first novel, I had felt like I was presented a sort of mediocre-ish dude who had a incredibly terrifyingly competent female best friend, and sort of wondered why the books weren't about Lesley. This is the book where I officially stopped thinking that.

The architect question comes up twice, and nobody seems to believe his reason.

I feel like there's probably something to say with the way that jazz and magic interacted in Moon Over Soho and the way art and magic interact here - and how both of them seem to be diametric opposites with the way that Peter is learning magic. But I'm not really sure how to phrase it.
posted by dinty_moore at 9:09 PM on February 5


The ceramics are infused with magic by the maker singing to them, right? There seems to be some sort of music is a pattern, patterns can get you magic thing, but I can't suss it out either. It's not completely opposite the Newtonian system, but it seems to involve more emotion.

Peter and Leslie in this book are so good together. Leslie is so prickly (I think this is her, even before her face was damaged) but she clearly cares about Peter. And he's getting better about supporting her.

I was not too interested in the civilization in the Underground at first, although it was charming to think of all these people with their beautiful Victorian steampunk tech. But I love Jaget, and I'm glad he comes back and the Quiet People also make a few appearances. This is one of those books where I most thoroughly forgot the plot, but remember scenes like Peter trapped underground very vividly.
posted by PussKillian at 7:00 AM on February 6 [1 favorite]


My theory for this book is that Zach takes the space originally intended for Ashe, which makes some of the nonsense in the previous book... less annoying? Like a sketch that was never completed.

It’s certainly the last of the “beginning” of the series— the slightly random fumbling with ideas, seeing what works and what doesn’t. After this, the series really moves ahead on the “big plot.”
posted by GenjiandProust at 5:07 PM on February 6 [2 favorites]


Oh, that makes sense. Has the author said anywhere that he ended up cutting Ashe out for reasons?

Zach bugs the heck out of me but that's exactly what he's there to do, so.
posted by PussKillian at 6:50 AM on February 7


Zach has kind of grown on me; perhaps like a mold. He serves a bunch of functions that are pretty illuminating. He give the perspective of the Magical society that doesn’t interact with or care for the Isaacs (hmmm. Zach/Isaac; coincidence?). He’s a useful source of low-level crime leads. He’s a nice foil for Peter: lazy where Peter is industrious; shifty where Peter is honest and direct; messy where Peter is neat. So he tests Peter hard.

Most importantly, though, he likes Lesley like Peter does, but where Peter struggles to accept Lesley’s disfigurement, to hide his horror and revulsion, Zach literally doesn’t care; he has a different standard for faces. In this way, he’s a huge challenge to Peter’s sense of being a good guy.
posted by GenjiandProust at 10:27 AM on February 7 [2 favorites]


dinty - I think maybe the meeting the previous Tyburn thing is supposed to link into the idea that Peter is near death underground and in the text isn't sure if he's hallucinating or not (the crack about the great vowel shift is great). Tyburn also "died," figuratively at least buried in underground sewage. Also there's a longstanding connection between execution/police/crime and Tyburn which resonates with Peter. Then Lady Tyburn shows up to rescue him so maybe some connection there too?

I was more confused about Tyburn's reappearance in [later book], but that's spoilery and we'll discuss it when we get there.
posted by Wretch729 at 11:23 AM on February 7 [4 favorites]


The ceramics are infused with magic by the maker singing to them, right? There seems to be some sort of music is a pattern, patterns can get you magic thing, but I can't suss it out either. It's not completely opposite the Newtonian system, but it seems to involve more emotion.

I'd completely missed that! Stephen apparently describes it like singing a song in their head - which does sort of sound like creating forma, coming at it from a different direction. Maybe not opposite, but orthogonal? It's just interesting, the way that Newtonian magic is about form and function and control (making sure you aren't twisting the formae so they don't line up), versus the way that vestigia does seem to be about emotional reactions and impressions and generally created by life somewhat involuntarily. The quiet people's magic seems to be somewhere in the middle, and what Simone and her sisters did slightly closer to somehow harnessing vestigia than the type of magic that is created.

There's something with history of science, maybe, and classification - with the Folly, we're talking about what's essentially an Enlightenment way of thinking about things being easy to put into boxes, just if you looked and tried hard enough. They missed the 20th century, when shit got weirder in a lot of disciplines, and in a lot of ways, we learned how much we didn't know.

We also get a glimpse of Madame Teng, but not really a sense of how different her magic is from the Folly's.

Tying some stuff back into the Moon Over Soho conversation - the quiet people are another thing that Nightingale missed, and Seawoll is right to call him out for it (as a side, I like that the non-antagonists that still cause friction like Seawoll and Tyburn are allowed to make good points). But I think that it's telling that Nightingale's reaction is to admit that they're understaffed - with the way he described his friend Wallace with the Scottish god of telephones theory, you get the idea that Nightingale's pre-war method of leadership (or just dealing with things) was to surround himself with people who had the weird theories and questions and then listen and evaluate their usefulness. And he's still sort of doing that with Abdul and Peter, even. But in general - we've talked about how Peter's most effective at policing when he's compassionate; Nightingale is most effective when surrounded by others who feel free to give their opinion.

Leslie is so prickly (I think this is her, even before her face was damaged)

This is probably true, but I think it's still notable that she draws attention to her face as a way to put people off balance while policing. She does this most aggressively in the goblin market, but also with Woodville-Gentile and in the interview room. It's sort of a method of coping, sort of a way to weaponize everyone else's discomfort.

I think maybe the meeting the previous Tyburn thing is supposed to link into the idea that Peter is near death underground and in the text isn't sure if he's hallucinating or not (the crack about the great vowel shift is great). Tyburn also "died," figuratively at least buried in underground sewage. Also there's a longstanding connection between execution/police/crime and Tyburn which resonates with Peter. Then Lady Tyburn shows up to rescue him so maybe some connection there too?

Yeah, that makes sense - part of me is still wondering if this is still partially an effect of what Molly did to him in the first book, or something else.
posted by dinty_moore at 11:18 AM on February 8 [1 favorite]


The other reason for Tyburn turning up is that Oxford Circus would definitely fall into Tyburn’s manor, so to speak. She runs down the other end of Oxford street so Peter being the unexpected piece of grit in the ground would definitely have set alarm bells ringing for her. He was probably making a lot of metaphorical noise and generally mucking the place up.

Zach is the connecting piece for the demimonde in the way that Ash would never be. Ash was a very decorative rural bumpkin hostage exchange, a chess piece in the mama and father Thames detente, while Zach is a Fae/Londoner with his sticky fingers in all sorts of useful pies that are more connected to the main aspects of the on-going plot.
posted by halcyonday at 1:02 PM on February 8 [3 favorites]


This book also highlights the split between Nightingale, who knows how things work, Lesley, who knows what works, and Peter, who always wants to know why things work the way they do. All of these drive the story for the next two books, and the way the characters move around the questions is important.
posted by GenjiandProust at 9:48 AM on February 10 [4 favorites]


This book also highlights the split between Nightingale, who knows how things work, Lesley, who knows what works, and Peter, who always wants to know why things work the way they do.

This is a good point, and I'll be keeping this in mind during my Broken Homes reread.

One other thing I forgot to comment on earlier: Kim Reynolds is apparently important enough to get a mention on the summary blurb. In other words, more important than Jaget or Abigail or Zach. I realize that summary blurbs are weird and market driven, but the back of the book made it sound like it was going to be a full-on buddy cop thing, and I'm so glad that wasn't the case.

I mean she's is fine? With American characters written by non-Americans, there can be a false sense of familiarity brought on by consumption of American media. I do realize it's better than what the rest of the world typically gets in American media, but considering a) how much of these books work on the tension between genre expectations and the book's reality and b) how dicey it can get when you're talking about the differences between reality vs. media portrayal of the FBI, I was worried that Kim Reynolds, Evangelical FBI would bring me out of the book.

The one thing that seemed odd was Kim claiming that Oklahoma got upstate New York levels of snow, but also if I've learned anything from the two weeks, it's that people from places with Weather are prone to exaggerate the typical severity of it as a point of pride (unless they're from Saskatchewan, in which case they're completely serious about going out in -20F standing temperatures to shovel snow in a bunnyhug and are not to be trifled with).

So yeah, it's still weird that she appears on the back of the book blurb (unless that's only on the US editions, I guess), but mostly I'm really glad the evangelical FBI thing didn't play a larger part.

There is apparently a Kim Reynolds novella in the works, and I have some morbid curiosity about what that's going to look like.
posted by dinty_moore at 8:14 PM on February 10 [2 favorites]


Reynolds is more important than Jaget, Abigail, or Zach in this book. She’s simultaneously an obstacle, an assistant, and a threat of things to come. I think Abigail, especially, gets developed a lot more in future books, and maybe Zach, but Jaget?

Actually, I wish Abigail would get more of a “perspective.“ Currently, she’s in that “slightly bratty kid who is smarter than the protagonist“ stage, and, while I like her character, it doesn’t really add much to the spine of the story. I’d like to see her views on magic and the world and how they differ from Peter’s and Nightengale’s, and Beverley’s, and so on.

Back to Reynolds, I think Aaronovitch didn’t develop her character very well. She’s supposed to be evangelical, but seems awfully unflappable about the weird things that happen and doesn’t mention Jesus even once. Which, I mean, we don’t really need cartoon evangelicals in the books, but it would be interesting to see what somebody with a very defined faith would make of the situation. Walid and Guleed are apparently practicing Muslims but their faith doesn’t make a lot of impact on the books. I mean, what does a committed monotheist make of all the gods and goddesses? Just call them genii locorum and call it a day? I’d like to see some wrangling with how they square the world with their religions....
posted by GenjiandProust at 8:11 AM on February 11 [1 favorite]


I'd like to see that too, GenjiandProust. There's some similar stuff going on in the Dresden books, where a black man of Russian descent who is an athiest serves as a Knight of the Cross. He gets a little room to explain his thoughts and I'd like to see what Walid and Guleed think. I hope we get more of Reynolds' perspective in the novella. I can buy her being too caught up in the rush of events here to maybe stop and think about how she feels about all this. It's only after this book that she sort of resigns herself to becoming "Scully," so to speak, isn't it?

Abigail also has a short story that's set post-Lies Sleeping that you can read here. It's called Favorite Uncle. I'm not sure if it's actually spoilery for Lies Sleeping, though.
posted by PussKillian at 8:26 AM on February 11 [3 favorites]


There's also a short moment from Kimberly Reynold's perspective here, a year or two after this book.

(I have something on the club calendar to discuss all of the short stories/moments that are available for free after Lies Sleeping. I hadn't included the waterstones shorts since I figured most of the people discussing it wouldn't have a copy, but can be talked into changing things up).

Abdul Walid is the one I really wonder about. He's religious enough to convert and has known about magic for decades - he's got to have some thoughts on it (hell, it's possible that learning about magic is what made him convert). But unlike other characters, he seems content to stick to Nightingale and Molly for information - with new extra added Peter.

With Kim Reynolds, I'm not too surprised that she's tamped down on the Evangelism - she's at work, and somewhat professional despite the mavericky haring off and bugging people. By the time she finally sees actual magic after meeting the Quiet People, she's had a number of quasi-inexplicable run-ins worthy of an early X-files Scully, so I can buy that she's more glad to get confirmation that it wasn't just in her head. It would have been interesting to see more of the Evangelical mindset with her - I'm thinking the rigid, hierarchical, binary in-group/out-group thinking - but also, that can be difficult to do without it coming off as cartoonish. Mostly, I'm glad that we didn't get what seemed to be described in the back of the book blurb:

At least he won’t be alone. No, the FBI has sent over a crack agent to help. She’s young, ambitious, beautiful . . . and a born-again Christian apt to view any magic as the work of the devil. Oh yeah—that’s going to go well.

Which sounds horrible.

With Jaget - I think most of his characterization is that he's just a fairly well-balanced guy who likes his weird job. (I do love his reaction to magic, which is to play it cool until Kim is out of the room and then freak out). He does answer a worldbuilding question, too - that the whisper network of who to call about the weird stuff is deteriorated (unsurprising), and so other people are assigned to become ad-hoc experts in isolation. Jaget was already a weird stuff go-to-guy, but now Peter can help to rebuild the weird stuff network leading back to the Folly. There's almost certainly more Jagets out there.

I always want more Abigail, so I definitely wouldn't mind more Abigail. I do like how her bookending Whispers Under Ground mirrors how Lesley bookended Moon Over Soho., complete with ending with some sort of introduction into magic.
posted by dinty_moore at 9:06 PM on February 12 [2 favorites]


I'm a book ahead in my reread and I have to admit, I missed any evangelical/born again for Reynolds. She doesn't even get a mention in the UK blurb, which is as follows. I'll have to go back.

Peter Grant is learning magic fast. And it's just as well - he's already had run-ins with the deadly supernatural children of the Thames and a terrifying killer in Soho. Progression in the Police Force is less easy. Especially when you work in a department of two. A department that doesn't even officially exist. A department that if you did describe it to most people would get you laughed at. And then there's his love life. The last person he fell for ended up seriously dead. It wasn't his fault, but still.

Now something horrible is happening in the labyrinth of tunnels that make up the tube system that honeycombs the ancient foundations of London. And delays on the Northern line is the very least of it. Time to call in the Met's Economic and Specialist Crime Unit 9, aka 'The Folly'. Time to call in PC Peter Grant, Britain's Last Wizard

posted by halcyonday at 3:24 AM on February 13 [1 favorite]


The only real in-text hints in Whispers Underground that Reynolds is religious is that she objects to Jaget and Peter blaspheming and she thinks that Peter is praying, I think. That's a far cry from the book blurb. Interesting that the UK blurb references Simone, though! Marketing.

Anyway, the Broken Homes post is now up
posted by dinty_moore at 4:39 AM on February 19


Yes, I think I just read her as being, well, American with that, rather than Evangelic. Even the story snippet from the blog just read as that to me.
posted by halcyonday at 5:13 AM on February 22 [1 favorite]


Going through the books for the first time.

I was struck by how low the personal stakes were in this one. Obviously getting buried alive was horrific. But compared to Lesley being possessed or Peter dating a brain-eating jazz vampire it seemed almost relaxing. No horrific twisting of the human shape, either.

Where are people getting the bit about Reynolds being evangelical? Is it just the blurb or the later books or author claim? There were just a couple lines in the book and that could be anything (including mainline protestant or catholic.)

Newly-minted DI Stephanopolous's interactions with Peter (and her wife reading Pratchett to her),

I love all the closet nerd-dom here. Lesley's off hand "don't you have to make a perception roll," after Peter was playing coy about his RPG past, was great too.
posted by mark k at 8:57 AM on February 23 [2 favorites]


It was mostly off the back of the book blurb, though religious mentions in the blogpost sound a lot more conservative than your more mainline American Christian sects. I don't know if Aaronovitch has said anything more on Kim Reynolds. If it gets retconned out of existence or proves to be a marketing overreach, I'm not exactly going to shed tears over that.
posted by dinty_moore at 9:17 AM on February 23


Seeing the FanFare posts inspired me to start re-listening to the series (I have the audiobooks) and I've just caught up to here. I'd read this thread before re-starting this book, so I kept an ear open for mentioned of Reynolds' evangelicism. Unless I missed something, it's not mentioned at all; the only hints I spotted in that direction were those mentioned by dinty_moore a few comments up. And I'm not even sure that Peter was blaspheming, I think he was just swearing.

I'm enjoying reading the discussions in this series of threads, thanks for your thoughtful comments, all!
posted by metaBugs at 10:12 AM on March 15 [2 favorites]


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