Thursday, July 18, 2013

Midnight Riot

I picked up Midnight Riot because I kept running across reviews saying that it was brilliant, unique, down-to-earth. And in some ways it is. In others, I perhaps should have been more nervous about the fact that one of the blurbs is from Mario Acevedo.

Rating: 3 stars
Length: Average (310 pages)
Publication: February 1, 2011 from Del Rey
Premise: Peter Grant is still a probationary constable in London's Metropolitan Police, but he dreams of being a homicide detective. But then he meets the ghost of a thief who can give him details about the murder, and he soon finds himself wrapped up in deeper mysteries than he ever knew were possible.
Warnings: gore of varying levels, magical possession as violation
Recommendation: If you're looking for a police officer instead of a freelance PI consultant or have a soft spot for London, this might be your cup of tea; it introduces some fun concepts, even if all of them don't quite mesh together.

Light spoilers along the lines of "these are characters who exist" are woven throughout the review, but the plot twists are largely untouched.

Why this one blends with the real world:

Peter Grant has been living with his feet in the ordinary world while his mind wanders off into the vagaries of London's history-- he dreams of glamorous cases while Leslie, his more practical partner, tells him that his focus on everything but the present and its simple answers makes him a bad cop. His superiors have noticed as well and are planning to keep him wrapped in in paperwork, but meeting the ghost of a thief throws him onto a different path entirely. When a senior policeman asks him what he's been doing, he flippantly admits that he's been talking to a ghost. Fortunately for him, Detective Chief Inspector Nightingale believes his story and has him transferred to a murky branch of Economic and Specialist Crime. That branch consists entirely of Nightingale, and he wants Peter to be his apprentice in maintaining magical truces and standing against the hordes of mysterious things that go bump in the night. Aaronovitch has a deft touch for hinting at those things, allowing for the possibility of all sorts of monsters without trying to flood all of them into one book.

One of Midnight Riot's strongest points is the magic system and how all of the characters learn to work with it. When Peter starts to learn magic, it doesn't come with a wand or any sort of simplicity; it shares the near-mandatory Latin-style incantations that show up all over this genre, but beyond that it's good. Peter spends hours making a forma, or magical shape, in his mind and focusing on it with enough precision that it creates an effect in the real world. He spends weeks learning how to produce a simple light and can only practice for so long each day without running the risk of melting his own brain. This style of magic is heavy on research and practice, so Peter generally has to rely on non-magical means to make progress on the case. His most immediately useful bit of talent is picking up vestigia and assorted magical traces, and he can do that with very little training beyond learning to pay attention in a different way. The results work, though; Peter can be around anything from a corpse to the embodied spirit of the River Thames and pick up general impressions. These can be phantom smells, tastes, sounds, ideas about power levels or age, even snatches of vision. It helps build in a multi-sensory feel that many urban fantasy novels are lacking in departments beyond how blood looks, and that adds depth to the story as a whole.

The slow buildup of the magic system pairs well with the police procedure. Peter, Nightingale, and Leslie are all involved in the system, so they spend a lot of time doing paperwork or answering questions around the station. Peter finds several of his most vital clues by combing through swathes of CCTV resources, and he makes no bones about the fact that it's time-consuming as well as boring to the point of being mind-numbingly dull....but it's also necessary. His investigation may be more about tracking magical influences and using that to predict his next move, but he also answers to non-magical authorities and is fully accountable to them, as is Nightingale. They work within the system that they protect even when it's boring or bad at getting the point, and that helps make their methods versatile. When evil creatures need to be destroyed, they're just as likely to use grenades as spells-- the mysteries and dangers have their roots in the human world, and thus the solutions need to as well, which is something that isn't always grasped in urban fantasy as a genre.

Going into the exact pattern of the murders would entail massive spoilers, but suffice to say that they're following a predetermined structure. Knowing whats supposed to come next gives Peter and company something of an advantage, but it also adds a layer of chilling depth to the story. It's one thing to spot a sequence and another to realize exactly how unhinged the murderer has to be in order to choose this darkly comical story as a mold and cast living people into it. The exact nature and identity of the main villain is somewhat unclear, and the story as a whole would benefit from more flesh on the bones of this frankly great idea, but it manages to work, and the climactic sequence is good enough to make up for many other shortcomings.

The red pen:

Peter himself is frequently the problem with this book. When he meets a ghost, he admirably keeps his head and carries on questioning a valuable witness, but the shock of acclimating to this world never really sinks in. He casually lists off creatures that could be real so Nightingale can confirm them, starts to learn magic, and never seems to hit the "come on, this can't be real" struggle with his preconceptions that even experienced wizards tend to have in other series. This level-headedness might work in other circumstances, but here it feels like an excuse for Peter to be the insightful new blood who studies magic with science like it's some hot new revelation instead of following in the footsteps of Newton, who (in a good touch) invented magic in its current form. After Leslie's pointed comments about how Peter can't focus on work, it's odd to see him so focused here-- it seems like an attempt to point out that his unfocused explorations are an asset because they get results, but his characterization starts to seem shakily uneven whenever we're reminded how new he is to this way of life. 

I'll refrain from harping on Peter's tiresome habit of ogling both of his (powerful and generally smarter than he is) female allies like he's a horny teenager who hasn't figured out where to find good porn yet, but really, introducing your co-lead by saying that she's blond and "impossibly perky even in a stab vest" before mentioning that you want into her uniform trousers on page sodding three is not the best way to introduce yourself as a reasonable narrator, let alone person. Going on about your erection after the two of you are trying to recover from mutual trauma later does nothing to relieve that initial impression. When sex isn't on the line, he acts like he's good friends with some people or close to others, but his reactions to them are either shallow or nonexistent until they're in danger, and even then he's just always able to cope. Victory means nothing if the reader can't see all the struggle that went into it, and Peter doesn't take quite the physical or psychological beating to make the resolution as satisfying as it could be.

Leaving Peter aside for the moment, the investigation has great elements and then a good twist with absolutely no hints dropped, and that tends to feel like cheating in a detective-style novel. Having Peter be absolutely blindsided was a good touch, but the reader was as well. Conversations or encounters are relayed in summaries, and then the essential question of "who among the people who have access to X could be doing this dire thing" isn't introduced until pretty late in the story....and then Peter arrives as his conclusion within only a few pages and acts as though he's been turning the question over internally for a while. But the reader has no real hint about that, so a major source of potential background uneasiness and trying to decide who to trust in this group of strange magical creatures and tough civilian authorities is neglected for no discernible reason. Asking the question in-narrative earlier would have been a valid stylistic choice, but asking and then answering it with "well, I guess I should go find that person" instead of discovering it face-to-face flattens this whole arc so much that it's hard to care. Information comes in spurts when it's convenient, whether or not it always makes sense, and that can chip away at the valuable police work that works so well in other instances.

On the whole, Midnight Riot doesn't fall down so much for being objectionable per se as it does for wandering and not giving full explanations to braid all of the ideas into one story. The big offenders here are the spirits of the Thames and the surrounding rivers? Are they interesting as concepts and sometimes as individual people? Yes. The dueling spirits of different parts of the Thames are both people who essentially gave their lives to the river, and their identities have grown into something beyond mortal to give the power of the river shape and direction....which it needs desperately, given the pollution problems of the modern era. Magical bindings and treaties and the children of rivers make for a rich backdrop that will almost certainly be great in the sequels, but they don't quite gel here. One of the junior rivers has a useful part to play, and the two halves of the Thames are vital to the conclusion, but it's not clear why they are. Peter has homework about getting all of these spirits to somewhat get along, but the conflict spikes just often enough to be confusing and then tends to trail off in a way that kills the tension.

The verdict: Midnight Riot is fun, and I might be willing to go back for seconds if Aaronovitch writes another series. Unfortunately, Peter and the story as a whole are too emotionally flat to carry everything that's flying around in this plot. It's not bad, but it was too easy to set down for days at a time and too hard to pick back up. If Aaaronovitch can put together more books with the smooth narrative style of Midnight Riot's big climax, the work will be much stronger.

Prospects: This is the first of the Rivers of London series. It was followed by Moon Over Soho and then by Whispers Under Ground, which came out last July. The fourth, Broken Homes, comes out later this year.

Enjoyed this? Try: 
~A Madness of Angels is also set in London and works well with the unique magic and history of the place, though there's not as much engagement with normal humans as there is here.

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