Peter Grant is a constable-in-training in London’s police force. At the end of his probation period, it looks like he’s in line for a long career of boring desk work in the Case Progression Unit, but that all changes when he draws the luckless duty of guarding a crime scene overnight where, earlier that day, a headless body was found lying on the street. While Peter is freezing his heels off in the cold London night, he is approached by possibly the crime’s only witness — who also happens to be a ghost…
Peter is swiftly recruited into a secret department that focuses on the supernatural and magical, and apprenticed to the mysterious Thomas Nightingale, the leader and only other active member in this centuries-old department. Peter begins the long process of learning exactly how magic works and, at the same time, investigating who is responsible for the headless corpse, which will lead him on a complex and surprising adventure on the streets — and rivers — of London.
So begins Midnight Riot, the first book in the Peter Grant series by Ben Aaronovitch — and the good news is that it’s simply a blast from start to finish. The novel is fast-paced and exciting from the get-go, and there’s barely any let-up in the action until you’ve turned the final page. It almost reads like a particularly exciting episode of a good detective TV series (just add magic), which makes perfect sense because Ben Aaronovitch has written extensively for TV, including two Doctor Who serials. Then again, he also knows how to describe visuals in such a way that you don’t need a picture to get what he’s talking about. His prose is consistently witty and never boring. Take, for example, this description of a building in London:
City of Westminster Magistrates’ Court is around the back of Victoria Station on the Horseferry Road. It’s a bland box of a building built in the 1970s; it was considered to be so lacking in architectural merit that there was talk of listing it so that it could be preserved for posterity as an awful warning. Inside, the waiting areas maintained the unique combination of cramped busyness and barren inhumanity that was the glory of British architecture in the second half of the twentieth century.
The novel is full of this type of quirkily effective prose, and the dialogues are likewise snappy and snarky (especially Peter’s, who sounds like a less annoying version of, well, almost every John Scalzi character). Combine that with the rapid but steady pace of the plot and you end up with one of those books you occasionally look up from, realizing you’ve been reading much longer than you thought.
Peter Grant is the most well-defined character in the novel, mainly because Ben Aaronovitch deftly balances Peter’s various struggles throughout the book. On the one hand, he’s trying to master his magic (there are hints that magic has a methodical, even scientific underpinning going back to centuries of research) and investigating the strange, random murders occurring in London, but he’s also a bachelor in the city, dealing with the various young women he encounters, including an attractive colleague and the female personification of a Thames tributary (the original title of the novel is Rivers of London). Also, because Peter has a mixed-race background, the novel gives an interesting look at what life’s like for vaguely Arabic-looking young men in modern day London, especially when he’s out of uniform. The other characters in the novel never reach the same level of depth as Peter, but then again, this isn’t a novel you read for the deep character studies. It’s a fun, fast story, part police procedural (Aaronovitch has evidently done his research) and part urban fantasy, but it’s best not to take it too seriously and just go along for the ride.
As for the main intrigue, set in motion by the headless corpse in the very first chapter but quickly becoming more and more involved — I’m not going to spoil it for you here. Suffice it to say that I didn’t see the big twist coming at all. Once Ben Aaronovitch suddenly puts the various pieces together (at right about the start of chapter 8), I was extremely surprised and very impressed. Even more promising are the hints that this is just the start of a larger story, as we’re sure to learn more about the nature of magic, the history of Peter’s mentor Thomas Nightingale and his mysterious maid Molly, and several other items that are only hinted at in this first volume of the PETER GRANT series (book 2, Moon over Soho, is due on March 1st).
On the book’s cover, Diana Gabaldon describes Midnight Riot as “[…] what would happen if Harry Potter grew up and joined the Fuzz.” This is a good sound bite and probably will get many people to pick up the novel, but if you really need a comparison, it’s probably more accurate to go for something like Mike Carey’s Felix Castor series or even Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files. Regardless of comparisons, Midnight Riot is an excellent novel: it reads like a breeze but has just enough substance to keep you coming back for more. If you’ve read my reviews in the past, you may know I’m not a huge urban fantasy fan, but this novel was so refreshing and fun that I’m eager to read more of Peter Grant’s adventures soon.