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17 December 2011 @ 12:19 pm
Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch  
Ben Aaronvitch wrote the Dr Who episode Remembrance of the Daleks which catapulted classic Doctor Who into the Cartmel era. It represented a hugely dramatic shift in style to any Doctor Who that had gone before and it is difficult to evaluate it properly. I suspect to new eyes today it would look over-lit, over-earnest and self-conscious, but it did a combination of things radically differently to what had gone before, its inter-cutting between scenes and shots was much faster, it relied on the audience to do a lot of the mental legwork to join the storytelling dots, the companion was relied upon by the Doctor to act independently*, and it explicitly sought to deal with "issues" and use metaphors.

Aaronovitch went on to write novelisations of his own Dr Who episodes which were distinctly more ambitious than many of the series novelisations though not quite as stand out as the actual episodes had been. Once the series ceased, he wrote a couple of original novels the first of which I've always thought of as Aaronovitch writes William Gibson (and was incredibly controversial which says much about the reading habits of Dr Who fans) and the second of which I've always thought of as Aaronovith writes Iain Banks. Despite their incredibly derivative nature, both novels were stand outs in the range. A third original novel was hugely late, suffered from a computer crash and was eventually completely by Kate Orman - I've never personally rated that one very highly.

The upshot of all of this is that I've always thought it would be interesting to see what an Aaronovitch novel looked like when he was writing himself rather than a more famous author. I finally have my answer and I'm impressed.

Rivers of London is an urban fantasy novel. I quite like the genre though I've only read a few such novels most of which have been by American authors. A lot of them feel a bit twee, which I don't particularly mean as a criticism, its just that inevitably while Doc Martens may somewhat de-sparkle your fairy, your fairy also somewhat sparkles up the Doc Martens. There are no fairies in Rivers of London and it feels a lot more grounded in the every day than many of its american cousins. This may be that the protagonist and narrator, DC Peter Grant, is a rookie policeman considered more suitable for paperwork than life on the streets by the powers that be. His first instinct, on being confronted by a ghost, is to take down its statement and a recurring theme throughout the book is the way the characters fall back on police convention and procedure when faced by the inexplicable. It may be that the UK setting makes it instantly seem less fantastical and exotic to a UK reader, although Peter Grant does rapidly acquire the wish-fulfillment residence which (in retrospect) seems fairly typical of the genre.

It's quite a gruesome novel. I'm not a horror genre reader so it may seem quite tame to many people, but there was a lot of blood in the novel, and several at least marginally sympathetic characters meet distinctly unpleasant and undeserved fates (although no pets were hurt) which Aaronovitch doesn't flinch from describing. It was definitely more explicitly blood-filled than the average detective novel which it, superficially at least, imitates.

It also reflects an interest, that was present in Aaronovitch's Doctor Who works, with the experiences of ethnic minorities and people of African descent. Peter Grant's mother is from Sierra Leone and there is a well-drawn and well-observed scene where, on being apprenticed to a wizard, Peter makes it fairly clear there is no way he is going to refer to the man as "master". I don't know how accurate Aaronvitch's portrayal of Grant's background is, though a quick Google suggests the internet isn't aflame with condemnation of the handling of race in the book. I appreciated the way that the book suggests that the immigrants who entered Britain during the 20th century have become absorbed into the fabric of its mythical and magical worlds.

If I have a criticism it is that the final few chapters seem over-frenetic. Peter comes up with a series of plans to defeat the antagonist each of which is defeated in turn. It makes for an exhausting climatic roller-coaster ride but the sense of things amounting to not very much dampened my enjoyment. That said, this book comes otherwise highly recommended.

*The odd thing at the time was that although this was stark contrast with Doctor Who of the 1980s, the 1970s was awash with independent and resourceful companions. I've always found the 80s back-sliding in this regard very peculiar and it is difficult not assume it was related to script-editor Eric Saward's "macho" approach to storytelling. Remembrance of the Daleks comes a year after Saward's abrupt departure from the job and coincides with the new script editor, Andrew Cartmel, clearly beginning to find his stride.

This entry was originally posted at http://purplecat.dreamwidth.org/58358.html.
Greg McElhatton: TARDISgregmce on December 20th, 2011 02:27 pm (UTC)
I've been sitting on a copy of Rivers of London for months -- glad to know it will have been worth the wait once I finally get around to it. :)
louisedennislouisedennis on December 21st, 2011 01:38 pm (UTC)
Definitely worth wait, I would say.