Peter Grant is a London police officer going on with his ordinary life. He has a washed-up jazz artist father, a complicated African mother, and a female best friend and lust object. He is also curious and highly distractible. I found this a sympathetic character trait. On a night much like any other, he is standing around at a crime scene when a ghost tells him about the murder most foul, as ghosts are wont to do. His life gets a lot more complicated all of a sudden, what with a smelly ghost-finding dog, a strangely ageless magical mentor, and an assignment to the X Files of the London constabulary.
I bought this book because the publishers made a questionable decision about the cover. There has been some awareness on the parts of the internet that I frequent that publishers targeting American audiences "whitewash" their covers. The most famous example that I can think of was Justine Larbalestier's Liar, which is about a biracial protaganist. The original proposed cover showed a white girl. The publisher was convinced to change the cover, but it took some doing. There are pictures of the original and modified covers of the Aaronovitch books at Neth Space. In researching the whitewashing, I thought the book sounded interesting, and bought the first one. 26 hours and some lost sleep later, I bought the second one. One of the blurbs said it was like "Harry Potter meets CSI". I thought it was more like "Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality meet Sherlock".
I liked Midnight Riot for many of the same reasons I liked Laura Bickle's Embers: the sense of place and space is palpable. Bickle's protaganist, Anya, lives in the current Detroit, a once-great city suffering through very hard times. Her details about empty blocks, shuttered buildings, and potholed roads give a good grounding to the otherworldliness of the action. Similarly, Aaronovitch's London is not an idealized London, or a sketchily detailed Major City. If this book were a TV show, it would be hard to film in Vancouver, because it is so very much about place, and neighborhood, and history. This is the London I catch glimpses of from the BBC, full of kebab stands and chavs and trainers and sewers and public transit. I think this would be a difficult book to read if you did not have that ability, beloved of scifi and fantasy readers, to just accept that you don't know all the words and probably you'll get them from context.
Peter Grant knows the city as a beat cop. He identifies everywhere he goes on a sliding scale of how many drunks he has rousted and fights he has broken up. Places can be historic, or architectural, but he is always evaluating them first in terms of public safety. Even when he is having a mind-blowing tryst with a new lover, he notes the fire escapes and weak points of the flat. He walks into rooms and scans them for threats, he is always aware of his surroundings with the police part of his brain.
He is also always aware of his surroundings in a racial way. It's not like he's a seething ball of biracial resentment, he just notices that he moves through a racial society. When he has had a rough day and is taking the Tube home, he watches people try to evaluate whether he seems more or less threatening than the homeless man. When he agrees to apprentice to a magical trainer, he refuses to address him as "Master", because while it might be traditional, he can't help hearing it as "Massa", and he will not do it. It reminded me, in a way, of walking around as a woman, and the thousand calculations that I make and almost don't notice I'm making them, thinking about keeping an eye on strangers who get into my personal space, and who to sit next to on the train, and how vulnerable I look when I'm walking, and where I could head for if I needed help. I am by no means a woman nervous of the big city, nor do I think I'm afraid, and I may not even be alert, but I am aware. Midnight Riot made me think about how that awareness might look on a different axis.
The language delighted me. There were little poem fragments scattered all through it, not as actual quotations, but as the sort of side reference-in joke that pop culture ends up being transmitted as. For example, there is a flip reference to "some corner which forever", in reference to the Rupert Brooke poem, The Soldier. Also, his ghost/magic sensitive dog is of the little yappy variety, and he identifies magic intensity he encounters by the "milliyap", as measured by how much the dog is likely to react to it. It's not obtrusive, not Pratchett-like levels of self-aware flipness, just the kind of language play and use that my friends and I sometimes indulge in.
I thought the plot was not astonishing. This is not a book you read for the tight, mechanical, magical interlocking plot points. It loafs along with the easy inevitability of Agatha Christie mystery. A bad person does something wrong, and our hero, by application of his unique personal skills, solves it in a way that no one else could have. Grant's unique skills include magic, a passion for the scientific method, and a millenial's facility with technology. Oh, and a hummingbird-like distractability. He is no respecter of tradition, which makes his mentor more than a little irritated, but his wildcat style works for him.
The plot is not the story's heart, though. The actual passion of the story is split between the setting, both real and mystical, of London, and the character development of a nice-enough guy who is trying to figure out how to be the best copper he can be. The setting is rich and surprising and charming. The guy is not at all rich, but somewhat surprising and quite charming. And the story has that sort of roll and rhythm that makes you keep telling yourself "just one more chapter".
Read if: you like police procedurals, the Lord Darcy books, urban fantasy about actual places, and drawing maps in your head.
Skip if: you don't like first-person narrators, or mystery stories. You would rather not read about gritty London as seen through the eyes of a police constable old enough to be cynical.