REVIEW: “Rivers of London” & “Moon Over Soho”, or: so you’re a London nerd?

Title: Rivers Of London & Moon Over Soho (Peter Grant/Rivers of London series, book 1&2)

Author: Ben Aaronovitch

Review by: Captain Clo

Verdict: enjoyable, slightly bland, with a side serving of salt.

I’m reviewing these two together because I’ve read them one after the other, and I think they’re overall pretty similar. I was interested in this series because the protagonist is a biracial Londoner, and the books themselves are urban fantasy. (By the way: I understand why they do it, I understand it’s standard marketing procedure, but if I see a book advertised as any variation of “Harry Potter but edgier” one more time…)

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If you:

  • are looking for a diverse protagonist and cast

  • are a London nerd

these books are for you.

The protagonist, Peter Grant, is not only a biracial police officer, he’s a sassy biracial police officer with a wicked sense of humour, a take-no-shit attitude but also a pretty warm way of approaching the whole problem with “I’m ambiguously brown but also an officer of the law”. Also, he will describe every single London landmark in painstaking detail, complete with its social and architectural history. I, not being a London enthusiast, found it annoying, but I can see why other readers might find it appealing.

The books are pretty straightforward detective stories; Rivers Of London follows the trail of bodies left by a misterious entity that possesses people and ultimately kills them; Moon Over Soho is about jazz vampires (no, I’m not kidding. In this universe, a “vampire” is a creature that absorbs life energy from someone else; it can be blood, but sometimes it’s musical talent. They’re still going to kill you very, very dead). Plus, you guessed it, magic. Peter becomes the apprentice of a sort-of secret branch of the London Police – the one that deals wiht magical crimes – and thus meets Nightingale, the last living wizard of the UK I just have to quote his introduction:

«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 cute 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.»

Told you he’s sassy.

(Suggestion: the reading experience can be henhanced by imagining Nightingale as Victor Nikiforov.)

Peter and Nightingale’s relationship will warm your heart. Nightingale is older than he looks, and sometimes he’s adorably lost when dealing with technology older than the sixties; he also carries a sombre sadness with him that Peter’s presence starts to soothe. It’s obvious that Nightingale hasn’t dealt with people in a long time, and he warms to Peter right away. Peter himself has endless questions and always new theories to test; Nightingale indulges this with relish and uses it to channel Peter’s scatterbrain attitude (“What an interesting question that is, it’s related to things we’re supposed to cover later in your studies, now I’ll tell you only after you finish this deadly boring exercise you don’t want to do”).

The cast of characters is not only diverse; the characters of colour are all essentially Londoners in new and refreshing ways. The coroner, Doctor Walid, for example, is introduced like this:

«I was introduced to Abdul Haqq Walid, a spry, gingery man in his fifties who spoke with a soft Highland accent.

[…]’Salem,’ I said.

Al salam alaikum,’ said Dr Walid, shaking my hand.» [Rivers of London]

I know I’m setting the bar incredibly low by saying that this is an example of diversity taken in stride instead of an awkward oh-my-god-a-MUSLIM, but such are the times in which we live. Dr Walid is described in a way that recognizes his religion, but by stressing his regional accent, the narrative doesn’t make him a foreigner, but a new Londoner.

In these two books, recurring diverse characters comprise Peter and his mother (a Fula from Sierra Leone), a black girl/spirit of the river, her Nigerian mother/goddess of the river (it makes sense in context… somewhat), Dr Walid himself, a lesbian police officer, and a muslim ninja girl*. No seriously, it’s great:

«One of them was a young Somali woman in a leather biker jacket and an expensive black silk hijab. She caught me looking and smiled.

‘Muslim ninja,’ she whispered.» [Moon Over Soho]

*yes I know a ninja girl is called a kunoichi. I’ve watched Naruto too.

That said, I couldn’t help but getting annoyed by the portrayal of black women in these two books. Especially in the first book, Peter deals with four regular black female characters: his mother, the goddess of the Thames, and two of her daughters. It’s unclear to me whether this is just Peter’s opinion – something that will be later proven wrong – but for being a biracial character, he certainly uses the concept of “things all black women do” a lot. It’s like the author (who is, by the way, not black) takes the stereotype and, after acknowledging it, just turns it around and makes it another sterotype. Take this excerpt from the first book, for example:

«People are conditioned by the media to think that black women are all shouting and head-shaking and girlfriending and ‘oh no, you didn’t’, and if they’re not sassy then they’re dignified and downtrodden and soldiering on and ‘I don’t understand why folks just can’t get along’. But if you see a black woman go quiet the way Tyburn did, the eyes bright, the lips straight and the face still as a death mask, you have made an enemy for life […]».

So, in one paragraph, Peter debunks the ‘sassy black woman’ stereotype, only to give us… another sterotype? I mean, I guess there aren’t countless different ways to deal with rage, but certainly all kind of women can show that quiet reaction to fury. And certainly, black women don’t have only three standardized reactions to rage? What really made me mad was this sentence, though:

«This I know for a fact: the reason African women have children is so that there’s someone else to do the housework.» [Rivers of London]

Oh really, Peter. Oh really.

I want to give Peter the benefit of the doubt – and by extension, to Aaronovitch – but it’s hard when Peter’s own mother is a cluster of stereotypes who doesn’t get to tell her own story: she cleans offices for a living, and steals supplies from them; she’s the borderline abusive mother who stole toys from Peter when he was a kid to send them to his cousins in Sierra Leone. I guess the only stereotype she eludes is that she mothered only Peter. The problem, of course, is that Aaronovitch might have been trying to give Peter a flaw by writing this; but there’s no one in the narrative to prove Peter wrong (in these two books, at least). Same old problem, I know.

Also, and this is just something that makes me doubt my own ability to read, I am almost sure the race of Peter’s father was never explicitly described. His mother’s ethnicity is made explicit, but I re-read (well… skimmed) both books to find out his father’s, and found nothing. I couldn’t figure out if he’s white. Peter describes himself as ambiguously brown, so I assume his father is white, but he could also be another ambiguously brown man. The only other clue I could find was that Peter’s mother cooks very spicy food, but only her and Peter can eat it; his father gets a different plate. Is that a hint that he’s not African? But he could still be from somewhere else in Africa where they eat less spicy food, or he could be a Londoner, hell, he could just dislike pepper. I realize this is very minor, but still. Isn’t the purpose of a diverse cast to break the assumption that every character is white unless explicitly described as not? Did I miss something?

And then there’s the sex. This I really disliked, and that’s the reason for the side serving of salt. Mind you, I don’t mean there’s a lot of it; in fact, there are no sex scenes in Rivers of London. But in Moon Over Soho Peter meets the lover of a magical murder victim, and of course they end up in bed together in a heartbeat. Of course the sex is great and lenghty and there are multiple bouts in the same night. Of course Peter never thinks twice about going to bed with a witness (you get no points if you figure out what’s her role in the story). I can’t figure out if I, as a reader, am supposed to understand he’s under some magical compulsion, or if Peter is just that stupid (and lacking in the ethical department!). The easiness with which Peter just goes with it is appalling. I am by no means a prude (full disclosure: I write smut), so the problem cannot be the sex itself – the problem is that in these kind of novels, the heterosexual male protagonist becomes a stand-in for his heterosexual male writer’s fantasy of power. Which, of course involves having sex with as many beautiful femmes fatales as possible – a staple of the murder mystery novel. And it’s so unrealistic. It’s like these characters don’t have tastes, or compatibility, or simply other things to do; sex is offered? Sex is served! No questions asked! And of course the sex is always great, and with a supremely beautiful woman. Are there really people out there who are always up for it? Well, maybe, I guess. Is it acceptable that every single het male detective in these stories is like that? No, dammit. It completely ruins my reading experience. One moment I’m enjoying Peter’s banter with Nightingale, and the next one I’m rolling my eyes so far back my ancestors are feeling it.

“But Clo, you’re reading what basically amounts to an police novel, what did you expect?”, you might ask me. To which my answer would be, “Honestly, I don’t know what to tell you”.

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