Ben Aaronovitch: Midnight Riot / Moon Over Soho

It all starts with a headless corpse in Covent Garden. Constable Peter Grant is in the wrong place at the right time, guarding the crime scene in the early hours of the morning, when he speaks to a witness … who just happens to be a ghost. Even though his career prospects are down the drain, courtesy of a bureaucratic need for warm bodies in the paper-pushing Case Progression Unit, he decides to investigate his ghost-given tip. And that’s pretty much how he ends up assigned to the ultra-obscure ESC9, AKA The Folly, the department which investigates all matters magical and bizarre. It turns out that talking to ghosts is a perfect prerequisite. Now Peter’s the official apprentice of Detective Chief Inspector Thomas Nightengale, an old-school wizard and the only other member of the Folly. When Peter’s not learning Latin or practicing fireballs, he’s investigating the case of the headless corpse, a nasty bit of business that inevitably leads to even more messy situations. Someone’s leaving a trail of bodies behind, messily mutilated, and if they can’t find a pattern soon, London’s in real trouble.

Meanwhile, Peter’s also learning the fine art of diplomatic negotiations, as he deals with two different feuding clans of river gods, currently up in arms over territorial claims regarding the Thames. The learning curve on this job is a real killer.

In Moon Over Soho, Peter’s still learning the ropes, after surviving his first set of cases. Under Nightengale’s tutelage, he’s making progress as a wizard, and bringing a modern sense of scientific curiosity to the magical field. Things are looking up, even though Peter’s still dealing with the grievous injuries a friend of his suffered last time. It never stays quiet for long, of course. Soon enough, he’s sent to look into the sudden magic-related death of a jazz musician, which turns out to be the latest in a series of related incidents. Possessing a jazz background of his own, courtesy of his father, a former musical legend, Peter delves into the smoky, seductive world of music and nightclubs, where he makes new friends and even falls in love. But something dark is nibbling at the heart of the jazz community, causing the best and brightest to break down or die early. Is there such thing as a “jazz vampire” stalking London? A rash of cases stretching back to World War 2 suggest so….

As if that wasn’t bad enough, there’s evidence that a rogue wizard, someone also trained in the classical style, is afoot and conducting obscene experiments with innocent people, creating murderous monsters. Suspecting there may be a connection, Peter risks life and limb to get to the heart of the matter. The answers may cost him his career, if not his soul.

Right from the start, this series has blown me away. Aaronovitch made a name for himself writing for Doctor Who, but it’s clear that he’s got a hell of a future with his own work. The Peter Grant books are, in a word, captivating. The narration blends horror and wry commentary with matter-of-fact acceptance and a sense of wonder, drawing the reader in to a world where ghosts and gods interact with mortals. Now, that could be true of any urban fantasy series, but Aaronovich takes it even further with his rich use of description and atmosphere. He builds a world with such lush attention to detail that you can almost see, smell, hear, taste and feel it. Music and food, street scenes and procedural methods, it’s all here with astonishing authenticity, transporting the reader to a London almost seductive in its believable strangeness. These books stand out simply because they’re accessible and generous in the sensory input.

As a bonus, Aaronvitch’s characters exist in a multi-cultural world. Peter Grant himself comes from an eclectic heritage including a mother from Sierra Leone, and as such, race plays a small but omnipresent part in his perception of the world. Where most books start by assuming everyone is white until mentioned otherwise, Peter’s like as not to note everyone’s color, ethnicity, or origin. And because London’s a melting pot, we get all sorts of characters from all manner of origins, and that’s just how it is. One describes herself as “a nice desi girl” while the river goddess Mama Thames is noted as originally coming from Nigeria before her elevation to present status. One recurring character in Moon Over Soho is nicknamed “Somali ninja girl” before Peter finally learns her real name, after she jokingly calls herself a Muslim ninja. And all of this is business as usual in this world. In a minor, ongoing bit of debate between Peter and his old-school mentor, Nightengale, the term “black magic” comes under fire for its racial tone, with Peter suggesting the more appropriate “ethically challenged magic” since he could himself be considered a black magician. I’ve seen this issue raised in online discussions, so kudos for an author putting it in the mouth of an appropriate character.

Intriguing mysteries set in a fully fleshed-out world, populated by interesting characters? So far so good. While I’m not sure I’d like to live in Peter Grant’s world, given some of the stuff that happens there, it’s a world I’m happy to believe in and support. Fans of Jim Butcher, Mike Carey, Simon Green, or Mike Shevdon would do well to check out these books, as well as anyone feeling underwhelmed by some of the field’s shallower offerings. Aaronovitch is well on his way to making an impact.

(Del Rey, 2011)

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