Voidhawk.com Book and film reviews


“Whispers Underground” by Ben Aaronovitch


The first two books in Aaronovitch’s Fantasy/Detective novel series had both been entertaining stories as detective constable Peter Grant tried to adjust to his new role as apprentice to the Metropolitan Police’s lead investigator of supernatural crimes and the third book is another good entry in the series.

This time Grant is investigating the murder of a young American student whose body was found on the tracks just outside Baker Street Underground Station. This initially seems to be a mundane, if mysterious crime, but Grant feels that magic was involved in the killing and his investigation will lead him to discover long-hidden secrets in the dark tunnels beneath London. He also has to deal with the parallel investigation by a FBI agent (the dead student having been the son of an American politician) who is adept at ignoring the technicalities of being outside her jurisdiction which leads to the additional complication of Grant having to investigate without letting her find out that he is the apprentice of one of Britain’s last magicians. There is also a parallel plot as Grant and his colleagues continue to investigate the mysterious and powerful magician who confronted them in the previous book in the series.

There are a lot of things to like about this book. The characterisation is strong again, Peter is an entertaining narrator and a likeable protagonist and there’s some welcome character development for his colleague Leslie as she adjusts to her new role working alongside Peter in The Folly. Agent Reynolds is a good addition to the cast as well, although her initial introduction suggests that there might be a fairly clichéd clash of cultures between her and Peter they do make a reasonably good team after some initial misunderstandings. The exploration of the hidden depths of London’s underground is interesting, as is the continuation of Peter and Inspector Nightingale’s quest to track down the enigmatic Faceless Man, however one downside is that the actual murder investigation itself isn’t as interesting as the other elements. Although some of the subplots have good endings the actual resolution of the murder investigation is disappointing and manages to be simultaneously dull, rushed and implausible including the murder confessing to the crime in a way reminiscent of a bad TV murder mystery. It’s also a bit disappointing that we don’t end up learning much more about the Nightingale’s background or the history of the decline of magic in Britain, this was one of the more interesting parts of the previous book but there isn’t much extra information given here.

This continues to be a good series, however like the previous novel “Moon Over Soho” is doesn’t feel as if it has quite realised its full potential either as a detective story or a fantasy story.

Rating : 7.5 / 10


“Moon Over Soho” by Ben Aaronovitch


Detective Constable Peter Grant is adjusting to his new life as the apprentice to one of Britain’s last wizards (who is also Peter’s superior in the Metropolitan Police) and trying to come to terms with the ways in which his life changed during the first book, “Rivers of London”. His latest case is to investigate the untimely deaths of a series of men which Peter and his boss believe may have been caused by a supernatural being. The victims were seemingly unrelated, the only apparent connection being that they were all big jazz fans and part of the investigation involves Peter revisiting his childhood growing up as a the son of a respected jazz musician. Although that plot makes up most of the book there is also another investigation into a rogue magician who was associated with an unsavoury supernatural club and may be the most dangerous adversary Peter has yet faced.

I really enjoyed Rivers of London, the first book in this series, and I thought Moon Over Soho was almost as good although the plot does take a while to really get going. The pacing is a little bit slow to begin with as Peter Grant starts to investigate two different sets of separate supernatural murders but it picks up pace in the second-half of the book and has a fast-moving climax. Both the mysteries are reasonably interesting, although the background history of Inspector Nightingale and the Folly is probably the most intriguing bit again, with a bit more revealed in addition to what we learned in Rivers of London – Nightingale’s return to the long-abandoned school where he learned his magic was a particularly effective scene. I think Aaronovitch possibly needs to work a little bit harder on his plot twists, since this is the second book in a row where I've spotted one some time before any of the characters figured things out.

Grant's narration was entertaining again, mixing a fair amount of humour with some deft exposition about policing, magic and London, and he continues to be a believable character even when he is doing something very foolish. Some of the supporting cast are good characters, although some others struggle to develop any characterisation beyond a couple of quirks.

Overall, it was an entertaining read, and the unresolved plotline with the rogue magician is something that seems like it should provide good material for future books in the series.

Rating : 7 / 10


“Rivers of London” by Ben Aaronovitch


PC Peter Grant is guarding a murder scene when a witness approaches him to say they witnessed the killing. Normally, the police are only too happy to have witnesses come forward, but in this case it is an event which is going to change Grant’s career, life and understanding of reality completely since the witness in question happens to be a 19th Century ghost. Grant’s encounter with the ghost soon comes to the attention of DCI Thomas Nightingale, the Metropolitan Police’s lead investigator of supernatural crimes and the last survivor of a centuries-old order of magicians found by Isaac Newton. Nightingale decides that Grant has a natural aptitude for magic and takes him on as an apprentice, teaching him magic as the same time as having him assist in the murder investigation which turns into an increasingly complex case as the number of victims increases.

“Rivers of London” (which was retitled “Midnight Riot” in the US despite the fact that the riot in the book doesn’t take play at midnight) was a very enjoyable book. One of the blurbs on the cover tried to position it as a mixture of Harry Potter and a police procedural, but while I agree with the police part of the description, I think Tim Powers would probably be a more apt comparison than J.K. Rowling. Like Powers' best novels, this had a detailed and evocative description of its setting written by an author obviously very familiar with London, and the supernatural elements of the plot were all tightly connected to the setting, particularly the River spirits that provide the title of the book, supernatural beings who embody various London waterways. The police aspects of the book were also written well, the protagonist is a very believable rookie police officer (the only slight criticism is that sometimes the police characters seem a bit too quick to accept the existence of magic). The story is told from Peter’s perspective and he is an entertaining narrator with a distinctively British sense of humour a number of witty and informative asides helping to add details about London and the eccentricities of police procedure. Peter’s narration is one of the main aspects that makes this book so much fun to read, even if it is occasionally slightly implausible when he goes off on a tangent about an obscure bit of London history in the middle of an otherwise tense scene.

The plot moves along at a good pace and quickly becomes compelling. There is quite a lot of time spent on characterisation and establishing the setting and the supernatural elements of the story along with a fair amount of humour, but there are also times when the plot accelerates, particularly towards the climax of the story and there are a few surprisingly shocking moments of abrupt violence.

Although this does have a complete storyline on its own, it is also very obviously the first book in what is presumably intended to be a long series and there are many aspects of the background that are only hinted at (such as Inspector Nightingale's history). A significant is spent on the titular Rivers of London, but although they do have some impact on the main plot it does feel as if the part of the plotline dealing with the river spirits has only just begun.

I think one area where the sequels could maybe improve a bit is in the characterisation. Much of the time the characterisation is fairly good and Peter does get a decent amount of character development, but the supporting characters are interesting but sometimes a bit lacking in depth and only Grant and Nightingale really get fully developed as characters.

In summary, this was a very entertaining book and an impressive start to a series.

Rating : 8 / 10


“Red Country” by Joe Abercrombie


This is the third of three standalone follow-ups to the First Law trilogy, each of which has combined fantasy with a separate genre. After a revenge story and a war story in his previous two books this is a fantasy Western, a previously unexplored combination of genres (at least in books I’m aware of) but one that does work reasonably well. By their nature Westerns are fairly low-tech and take place on the edge of society so it isn’t too hard to transplant the genre into an obscure corner of Abercrombie’s fantasy world. At times it does feel like the book is trying to include as many Western tropes as possible – from a gold rush to “Indians” raiding wagon trains of settlers and, most significantly, the familiar Western storyline of an aging warrior forced back into the life of violence he has tried to escape. I’m sure there are probably plenty of references to classic Westerns throughout the book, but I’m not all that familiar with the genre so I probably missed most of them, although the TV series “Deadwood” does seem to have been a big inspiration.

The main plot focuses on the efforts of Shy South, a young woman trying to live a peaceful life after a short and bloody career as a bandit, and her stepfather Lamb, an aging warrior with an ever darker past, to rescue Shy’s younger siblings who were kidnapped by a band of armed men who are taking a group of captured children into the wild mountains of the Far Country. To travel to the Far Country Shy and Lamb end up enlisting as guards for a wagon train of settlers crossing the plains in the hope of a better life in the town of crease which is at the centre of a gold rush. Along the way they’ll have to deal with raids from Ghosts (the book’s equivalent of the Indians in a traditional Western), rival factions battling for control of Crease, an ancient cult centred on the legacy of a long-dead demigod and a mercenary company sent by the Union’s Inquisition to hunt down the ringleader of a failed rebellion.

To begin with the novel did get off to a relatively slow start, the book does have a large cast of characters and it does take time to introduce them all so the early parts of the journey of the wagons across the plain does drag a bit at times. A lot of time is also spent on the crisis of conscience of the mercenary company’s lawyer Temple at the brutal actions of his comrades as they aimlessly attack several harmless towns in a quest to try to track down rebels. Initially this subplot isn’t very compelling although Temple does become a more interesting and likeable character as the novel goes, particularly once he leaves the company and ends up joining the same group of settlers that Shy and Lamb are guarding. Fortunately, all that time spent on characterisation in the early of the novel does pay off in the later parts of the book and the second half is much stronger than the first as the plot becomes more complex with Shy, Lamb and Temple having to both try to survive an increasingly bitter battle for control of Crease and also figure out how to confront the mysterious Dragon People, a tribe from a remote mountain stronghold who employed the men who kidnapped the children.

Characterisation has always been one of Abercrombie’s strengths and I think it has improved since his earliest novels. In the First Law trilogy one flaw of the characterisation was that while the main characters were interesting and well-developed characters the supporting characters sometimes felt a bit caricatured and simplistic. His last book, “The Heroes”, had improved characterisation of secondary characters and same is true here with a number of memorable characters in both large and small roles. There are a number of returning characters from previous books, perhaps a slightly implausible number considering how far away the events here are from the previous stories. In a couple of cases the characters have changed their identities, but even if it hadn’t been widely reported in advanced publicity for the book it wouldn’t be too hard to work out Lamb’s real identity and one of the highlights of the book is to revisit one of the major characters from Abercrombie’s previous books as an older and wiser character but one who has not managed to escape his previous flaws. There are also welcome returns from other characters such as duplicitous mercenary commander Nicoma Costa as well as some references to wider events involving characters who don’t appear in the book but might play a more major role in the upcoming trilogy. Although some of the returning characters might be the biggest attraction there are also some good new characters with both Shy and Temple getting good character development through the book and Shy’s defiant younger sister Ro is one of the best characters as she tries to deal with being kidnapped.

There is plenty of action throughout the book including a lot of violence ranging from one-on-one duels to pitched battles but there is also plenty of Abercrombie’s trademark humour to add a bit of lightness to what is a fairly dark story. While some of his earlier books did have a formula of often going for a cynical outcome where even an apparent victory was more of a defeat there is a better variety of plot developments here. There are still a number of events which show that even good intentions don’t guarantee a good outcome but not all the attempts at heroism are futile and the book ends with a satisfying if slightly bittersweet ending.

The slow start does let the book down slightly but the later stages of the book aren’t too far behind Abercrombie’s best work, although “Last Argument of Kings” and “The Heroes” are still his best books.

Rating : 8 / 10