Janine's review of this book over at Dear Author was what first brought it to my attention. I eventually checked it out via interlibrary loan.
Probationary Constable Peter Grant is keeping watch at the scene of a murder when he meets a ghost who happens to be the sole witness to the crime. Peter is shocked and a little freaked out, but he does his job and questions the witness, which is how he learns that the murderer has a super-human ability to change his face and knock people's heads clean off.
Soon, Peter comes to the attention of Detective Chief Inspector Thomas Nightingale, the one and only member of a special branch of London's Metropolitan Police. Nightingale's job is to make sure that magic and magical beings don't cause so much trouble that ordinary humans start to notice them, and Peter is his new apprentice. They spend the book dealing with two primary issues: a bunch of murders, and a territorial dispute between Mother and Father Thames. Although the murders are all committed by different people, they each have magic and sudden, inexplicable violence in common. And also, the murderer's face always falls off afterwards.
This is one of those cases where my enjoyment of the main character's voice eclipsed my issues with the story. I loved Peter Grant. He had a dry, snarky, and often self-deprecating sense of humor, even when describing his work, London, or his childhood. When Nightingale took him on and started teaching him magic, he didn't begin to morph into a Gary Sue – his training involved lots and lots of repetition and practice, and he didn't become a magical whiz just in time for the final showdown with the killer. His strength lay in his ability to deal with people, including the not-quite-human sorts, and his interest in information of all sorts. I have no idea how much of it was true, but I loved all the little London details.
The main thing that turns me off a lot of urban fantasy is painful, angst-filled, messy relationships, particularly love triangles (or polygons). This series has the potential to go in that direction, but so far it's just that, potential. This book introduces two possible love interests: Leslie, another cop, and Beverley, a goddess of a small river.
There was a bit of flirtation between Beverley and Peter, but her being not-quite-human meant that going any further was not a decision to be made lightly. Peter and Leslie were very comfortable together, but weren't a couple. Peter was attracted to her, but Leslie was...I'm not quite sure. One particular scene had me raising an eyebrow and wondering if she was really more interested in Peter than he realized. I was relieved to see that, at this point in the series, there was no hint of snarling female jealousy between Leslie and Beverley. After the way the first book ended, though, I'm a little afraid that the next one is going to feature more relationship guilt/angst.
The weakest part of the book, for me, was probably the mystery itself. For a long while, things didn't seem to be moving forward. Peter would look into apparently random incidences of violence with Nightingale, or be on the scene during one of those incidences of violence. There wasn't much in the way of hints as to what connected those incidents, so it was just random stuff that happened in between Peter trying to learn magic and figure out a way to mediate the situation between Mother and Father Thames. It wasn't until later that the mystery really started to interest me, but I don't know if I would have gotten that far if Peter's “voice” hadn't appealed to me so much.
I definitely plan on reading the next book. Peter's an enjoyable character, and I want to see Aaronovitch does with him and his world. I'll just cross my fingers that the relationship aspects stay tolerable.
Read-alikes and Watch-alikes:
- Anansi Boys (book) by Neil Gaiman - Technically, the first book Gaiman wrote that was set in this world was American Gods. However, I think Anansi Boys is better. Those who'd like something else featuring gods who live among humans and a good dose of dry humor might want to give it a shot. I'm pretty sure it works fine as a standalone.
- Special Unit 2 (live action TV series) - If you'd like another series starring a cop who notices weird things other people don't and gets recruited to a special paranormal unit, you might want to give this a try. That is, if you can find it. It's been off the air for a while, and I can't seem to find it for sale anywhere.
- Storm Front (book) by Jim Butcher - The first book in Butcher's Dresden Files series. Those who'd like another urban fantasy series starring a male character and featuring a good dose of bloody murder mystery and snarky humor might want to give this a try.
- The Mister Trophy (e-short story) by Frank Tuttle - Again, another good one for those who'd like a mix of snarky humor, mystery, and fantasy. The main character is a private eye in a world populated with an uneasy mix of humans, vampires, trolls, and more. I've written about this short story.
- Neverwhere (book) by Neil Gaiman - If you liked Midnight Riot's combination of fantasy with lots of London details, give this book a try. Gaiman creates a dark fantasy world that exists in "London Below," just underneath and outside the notice of all us ordinary, everyday people.
- Guards! Guards! (book) by Terry Pratchett - If you'd like more cops, fantasy, and dry humor, give this book a try. It's not the first book in the series, but I'm pretty sure it still works as a good entry point for newbies.
- Fullmetal Alchemist (manga) by Hiromu Arakawa; Fullmetal Alchemist (anime TV series) - If you loved the way Peter approached magic from a logical, more scientific standpoint, you might want to give this series a try. In the world of Fullmetal Alchemist, alchemy is seen as a science. The manga and original anime series are drastically different after a certain point, but both are good. There's another anime adaptation, but I wouldn't recommend newbies to the series begin with it, because of the way it shortchanges some of the emotional content in the beginning. I've written about volume 16 of the manga and part of the original anime series.