Midnight Riot: A blast from start to finish

SFF book reviews Ben Aaronovitch Peter Grant 1. Midnight RiotMidnight Riot by Ben Aaronovitch

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 Butchers 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.

~Stefan Raets

It takes a lot to surprise me with an urban fantasy anymore. Ben Aaronovitch does it. The supernatural thing that turns out to be going on here is nothing I EVER would have expected.

~Kelly Lassiter

What a great first novel!  Peter Grant is a London constable who has discovered that the police force includes a very tiny magic section, and he becomes apprenticed to the force’s only wizard.  I especially like the scientific approach Grant takes to figuring out how magic works.

~Terry Weyna

Began in 2010. Midnight Riot was also published as Rivers of London in the UK. Publisher: 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. Peter’s ability to speak with the lingering dead brings him to the attention of Detective Chief Inspector Thomas Nightingale, who investigates crimes involving magic and other manifestations of the uncanny. Now, as a wave of brutal and bizarre murders engulfs the city, Peter is plunged into a world where gods and goddesses mingle with mortals and a long-dead evil is making a comeback on a rising tide of magic.

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STEFAN RAETS (on FanLit's staff August 2009 — February 2012) reads and reviews science fiction and fantasy whenever he isn’t distracted by less important things like eating and sleeping. In February 2012, he retired from FanLit to focus on his blog Far Beyond Reality.

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KELLY LASITER, with us since July 2008, is a mild-mannered academic administrative assistant by day, but at night she rules over a private empire of tottering bookshelves. Kelly is most fond of fantasy set in a historical setting (a la Jo Graham) or in a setting that echoes a real historical period (a la George RR Martin and Jacqueline Carey). She also enjoys urban fantasy and its close cousin, paranormal romance, though she believes these subgenres’ recent burst in popularity has resulted in an excess of dreck. She is a sucker for pretty prose (she majored in English, after all) and mythological themes.

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TERRY WEYNA, on our staff since December 2010, would rather be reading than doing almost anything else. She longs to be a full-time reviewer, critic, scholar and writer, but nonetheless continues to practice law as a civil litigator in California. Terry lives in Northern California with her husband, professor emeritus and writer Fred White, the imperious but aging Cordelia Louise Cat Weyna-White, and a forever-growing personal library that presently exceeds 15,000 volumes.

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  1. So this is the same book as Rivers of London? I’ve been hearing all sorts of great things about it, and your review cements it: I need to read this book!

  2. Just the title and cover draws me in. For some reason it makes me think of a low-budget 70’s/80’s action movie which I absolutely love.

  3. Yep, same book – it’s mentioned in the full-length review too.

  4. Sounds good. I’m adding it to my booklist.

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