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Fantasy Review: ‘Moon Over Soho’ by Ben Aaronovitch


This is the second in a series of urban fantasy/police procedurals set in London. They are rather whimsical, in a very British way, so if you’re allergic to self-effacing heroes, dry, understated humour and a severe lack of gun-battles, you should probably avoid this. I liked the first in the series, ‘Rivers of London’ (bizarrely called ‘Midnight Riot’ in the US), with a few reservations, but this one worked even better, I thought. It’s always a problem writing the first of what could be a lengthy series, since you have to establish the characters, the premise and the setting, while also constructing a major plot and weaving in a number of subplots which will run for some time. The second attempt is often much easier with the heavy lifting already done, as it were, and such is the case here.

The big attraction for me is the central character, Peter Grant, a fairly ordinary London copper who has been co-opted into the Metropolitan Police’s ‘magic’ department to train as a wizard after showing signs of magical ability. Unlike many such fantasy works, however, Peter doesn’t become all-powerful overnight, nor does he display unusual levels of ability. On the contrary, he struggles to learn anything at all, his spells often go wrong, and he regularly has to fall back on his not especially quick wits to get him out of trouble, leading to a surprising amount of (very entertaining) destruction of property. He is very male, however, which means that it isn’t always his brain which is doing the thinking, and in this book this leads to some improbably athletic sex.

The other characters are mildly interesting in their different ways, but not particularly compelling. The river spirits, who were a feature of the previous book, have a very small role in this one, and one-time potential girlfriend Lesley (a fellow cop who magically lost half her face in the first book) is sidelined here, but clearly is going to be developed further in future books. It’s a curious thing that almost all the female characters are either termagants (Tyburn, Stephanopoulos) or evil vampire-like creatures (several of those) or in some way weird or eccentric (Molly, Peter’s Mum). Then there’s the one who could be described literally as a man-eater. Ouch.

I do like a book that makes me laugh, and this one is laugh-out-loud funny (for those who get that low-key British humour, of course). I do wonder just how this sort of thing plays elsewhere – all those references to postwar architecture and A-roads and chavettes and Morse, and sly digs at Cheam and the peaceable nature of Glaswegians. Some of it is so subtle that many of the jokes must whizz over the heads of non-Brits. I’m sure I missed a few myself. The descriptions of London – Camden Market and Soho and the Trocadero – are probably less problematic, since the author describes them well enough for the reader to get some idea.

The plot – well, it’s not really the point of a book like this. Let’s just say that it’s a bit flimsy, but it serves well enough to get Our Hero to the appropriate number of setpiece encounters, where his limited magical abilities combined with some improvisation more or less get him out of trouble. As is usual in this type of book, the main plotline is neatly sewn up, with a scattering of characters and incidents left to bubble up in future books in the series. I’m not a big fan of urban fantasy as a rule, as it veers too close to horror for my taste, but this one is milder than the previous book in that respect, and the humour and gentle charm made it a totally enjoyable, if lightweight, experience. Four stars.

Books in series:

Rivers of London (US: Midnight Riot) (review here)
Moon Over Soho (this review)
Whispers Underground
Broken Homes (due out 2013) 

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Fantasy Review: ‘Rivers of London’ (‘Midnight Riot’ in US) by Ben Aaronovitch

I don’t normally read urban fantasy, but this combination of a police procedural and a little light-hearted magic was irresistible. It’s funny, the protagonist is very likeable and it’s a very pleasant way to spend some Christmas money. But I do find urban fantasy unsettling, and I’m not sure why. I can be quite happy reading about a wizard meeting a balrog in the Mines of Moria in company with two men, four hobbits, an elf and a dwarf, but a wizard meandering round Covent Garden and Hampstead and Staines chasing after a malevolent ghost in company with a river sprite seems kind of weird to me.

The problem with all urban fantasy is that, without the usual world-building going on in the background, it throws the other aspects – plot, character, magic – into sharper relief. The characters here are all perfectly nice and believable, but they’re mostly terribly ordinary, especially the hero, Peter Grant, and his colleague and would-be girlfriend, Lesley. The ‘wizard’ is rather ordinary, too – a little eccentrically dressed, perhaps, but in London that is unremarkable. Only the river spirits have a bit of character, but there too they are superficially ordinary folks who just happen to be river spirits, and the joke wears a bit thin after a while. The magic is a bit Harry Potter-ish, only without the magic wand, in that a Latin word is associated with each ‘spell’, so nothing very unusual there, and the plot is fairly slight, too. So not many big surprises, and I found it a bit dull in places.

If this sounds a bit negative, it’s mostly because I’m used to reviewing books where these things matter. Here, they don’t, much, because it’s simply a charming and amusing way to pass the time. The hero is a nicely laid-back sort of guy, the humour is premium quality dry British and the murder-mystery style is more Agatha Christie than anything else (or maybe Midsomer Murders – cosy with a slightly surreal twist). It’s not earth-shattering (but then it doesn’t try to be), it’s just plain good fun and I liked it. And Peter must be the nicest protagonist in the world. I wanted to give it four stars, if only for the humour, but realistically it’s a three. [Originally published on Goodreads in January 2012]

Books in series:

Rivers of London (US: Midnight Riot) (this review)
Moon Over Soho (review here)
Whispers Underground
Broken Homes (due out 2013) 

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