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'Rivers of London' - the book series by Ben Aaronovitch

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The Rivers of London - also known as the Peter Grant book series - is a series of Urban Fantasy crime novels set in and around London. The books are told from the perspective of young Police Constable and apprentice wizard Peter Grant, one of two members of a secret specialist unit of the London Metropolitan Police concerned with supernatural crimes. Peter gets involved in this magical world rather unexpectedly and learns that there is more to the streets of London and some of its inhabitants than he thought.

Ben Aaronovitch, author of the Rivers of London series, was born in 1964 and lives in London. He has written several scripts for television (for instance Doctor Who1) as well as audio dramas and Doctor Who spin-off novels. Rivers of London was his first original published novel.

The Folly at Russell Square

Since the 18th Century the wizards have inhabited a large Georgian terrace on Russell Square, London. The once lively place is almost deserted today, full of empty bedrooms, libraries, unused labs and too large dining rooms. It is surrounded by magical barriers which protect the whole house. The only wizard left in Britain, who had been living in Russell Square for a long time, was Thomas Nightingale, sole member of his own secret branch of the London Metropolitan Police entrusted with all supernatural cases. When he takes young Police Constable Peter Grant as his first apprentice, the attic of the coach house of the Folly - which today is used as garage - is equipped with all technological equipment necessary for modern police work.

As a wizard apprentice Peter spends countless hours practicing, learning Latin and reading ancient texts. Very often he is not exactly thrilled and even more often things blow up when he learns the most basic spells. Learning to do magic is difficult and needs much concentration. Every spell has to be perfected before learning the next. Peter also learns to be careful - doing too much magic changes your brain and can even kill you, especially if you are not used to it. That's why although in theory anyone can do magic it needs special training to avoid unwanted results. Others however are born magical or become something more than human through different events. Interestingly enough magic in the vicinity has the same effect on microchips if they are connected to a power source - so you better take the battery out of your phone before casting a spell.

In their work Peter and Inspector Nightingale make use of all the features of modern-day police work like watching endless hours of camera footage, questioning witnesses and waiting for forensic and pathological reports. It is of course mostly Peter who is entrusted with the more tedious aspects. But as wizards they can also make use of more unconventional methods, mainly detecting vestigia. Vestigium is the trace magic leaves behind, which can be felt by a trained person like a memory. It can be anything from a visual impression to sounds or smells and the stronger the magic, the stronger the feeling of vestigium it leaves behind. Vestigia are best conserved in stone, metal and also certain kinds of plastic, but for a short time also remain on a dead body.

The Isaacs

The father of modern magic in the western world is Isaac Newton, who wrote a book about the matter along with his well-known scientific works (that's why the wizards are sometimes called the Isaacs). To this date this book is the foundation of all magical education. For a long time there was a buzzing culture of wizards and apprenticeships, there even was a school for magic - we are assured it was not called Hogwarts. Unfortunately many wizards died in the Second World War, as they were used in the war on both sides. After the war magic in Europe seemed to decline. Many old wizards died of age, while others decided to give up magic. It is unclear how much of a magical culture there is in Asia and Africa, but there seem to be some practitioners left in North America.

Although wizards are rare there still seems to be a rather large parallel society of the demi-monde. Goblins, trolls, fae2 and other creatures live all over London, appearing to the mundane public as strange but still ordinary people. Among the most powerful of the demi-monde are the Rivers, goddesses of the different streams running through London and daughters of their powerful mother, the Thames. Everything is organised in a number of agreements and unwritten laws.

Genius Loci

Places, buildings and their history play an important role in all the Rivers of London books. Most of the time it is possible to trace every step of Peter Grant's way through the streets of London on a map. There are very frequent remarks about architecture and special sights in the vicinity. Ancient history as well as more recent events often have a very direct influence on the stories set in modern-day London.

Very often the Genius Loci is not just a metaphor in the Rivers of London novels, but rather an actual being which Peter can see and talk to. The most obvious examples for this are of course the Rivers of London, but there are also many lesser spirits which were born from the energies of different places.

Recurring Characters

The Folly

Police Constable Peter Grant: a young Police Constable and only wizard apprentice in Britain. His mother is a cleaning woman from Sierra Leone, and his father was once a well-known English Jazz musician whose career was ended by his drug addiction. Peter grew up in a small post-war council flat in Kentish Town, surrounded by the large family of his mother. He decided to join the police because he was not good enough at school to study sciences and not good enough at drawing to become an architect. He makes up for this by performing various scientific experiments to understand magic and asking many questions about the hows and whys of wizardry as well as making various remarks about buildings all over London. Peter has obviously read Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings and Discworld, played Dungeons and Dragons in his youth and likes playing computer games.

Detective Chief Inspector Thomas Nightingale: head of the Folly and last official wizard of Britain. While actually being much older, he appears to be in his 40s, always wears tailored suits, handmade shoes and at times when things get tough a wooden cane with a silver knob which serves as his staff. Inspector Nightingale drives a vintage Jaguar and is all in all quite old-fashioned. He is not only a superior but also a good friend to Peter, but does not always approve of his curiosity.

Molly: the Folly's maid, always wearing a white apron and blouse and black skirt. Silently she glides through the empty hallways of the Folly. Molly never talks but has a mouth full of dangerously sharp teeth. Molly loves to prepare vast amounts of typical English food (she donates leftovers to charity), but since Peter's arrival she has been known to dare some experiments on the modern cuisine. She is very fond of Toby.

Toby: a brown and white terrier mongrel and magic detector dog. He is used by Peter to determine the strength of vestigia in a measurement he calls 'yaps'.

DPhil Harold Postmartin: the curator of the magic books collection in the cellar of the Bodleian Library in Oxford. He is an old, white-haired man who, alongside his job at the library, is the archivist of all the Folly's reports.

Dr Abdul Haqq Walid: a spry, gingery, Muslim Scotsman in his fifties. He is the cryptopathologist who gets all of the Folly's bodies on his table and is as keen to scientifically study magic as Peter. In his other life Dr Walid is a well-known gastroenterologist who also teaches at university.

Frank Caffrey: member of the London Fire Brigade and ex-paratrooper. He and his 'friends' who tend to carry inconspicuous black bags form something like the Folly's special defense force.

The Metropolitan Police

Detective Chief Inspector Alexander Seawoll: Senior Investigation Officer of the Murder Investigation Team. A large, loud man from a town near Manchester who is not fond of the Folly and everything related to it.

Detective Sergeant/Detective Inspector Miriam Stephanopoulus: Seawoll's case manager and right hand. She is a short, stocky woman known to be very strict and to have no sense of humour. She is feared among all her colleagues, but there are rumours about her being a normal human being with a house, a wife and pet chickens. Contrary to her superior, Stephanopoulus seems quite intrigued by the Folly.

Police Constable Lesley May: Peter's friend and colleague whom he met during their basic training. Lesley seems to be much more talented than Peter in all respects. She becomes Nightingale's unofficial second apprentice.

Sarah Guleed: a young Somali woman, usually wearing very practical clothes and a quite stylish hijab. Part of the Murder Team and one of Seawoll's favoured few. Peter secretly calls her the 'Muslim ninja'.

The Rivers

Mother Thames: Goddess of the river Thames who controls all parts of the river downstream of Teddington Lock, a system of locks and weir in southwest London - this makes almost all of the city her territory. These downstream parts of the Thames are tidal and flood regularly. Sometime in the late 1950s she was a young Nigerian woman who drowned herself in the river, after which she took over the lower areas of the river which Father Thames had abandoned in the 19th Century. She is a glamorous matriarch who lives in a converted warehouse near Shadwell Basin.

Cecilia Tyburn Thames: the River Tyburn today runs completely underground from South Hampstead, through St James's Park, close to Westminster Abbey and Buckingham Palace and joins the Thames near Downing Street. Oxford Street once bore her name. Lady Ty, as she is called, is a posh middle aged woman who always seems to get what she wants and has connections to all kinds of influential people. Making her angry is never a good idea. Lady Ty lives in a large Regency terrace in Mayfair, is married to a civil engineer (specialised in hydrology) and has two almost grown up children.

Beverley Brook: a small river in southwest London which runs through various parks and green spaces like Richmond Park and Wimbledon Common. Beverley appears as a young black woman with dreadlocks and cat-shaped eyes. After doing her A-levels she studies Environmental Science. Beverley lives in both halves of a semi-detached house, with access to her river at the end of the large back garden.

Father Thames: the god of the river Thames above Teddington Lock. He is by tradition a traveling spirit and appears as an old, sinewy man with bright eyes and a short, narrow face. The Old Man must indeed be very old, certainly predating the Romans in Britain. He abandoned London at the Great Stink 1858, when river was all sewage and almost all of his London tributaries/sons died.

Oxley: what was once known as the Oxley Mills Stream is an artificial channel of the Thames in Chertsey, Surrey, built to power mills. Oxley is taller and thicker set than his father. He is married to Isis, whom he met some time in the late 18th Century.

Depending of the location of the crime many other rivers also appear during the course of the stories.

Books of the series

Rivers of London

Called Midnight Riot in the US
Published: 2011

Peter Grant is a young Police Constable who just finished his probation time and is now not particularly looking forward to a career of doing the paperwork for those who are actually out in the street. Everything changes one night when Peter and his friend and colleague Lesley May guard a murder site at Covent Garden. At St Paul's Church Peter encounters an unusual witness: Nicholas Wallpenny, a ghost.

Peter accidentally reveals his sighting to a senior officer, who turns out to be Chief Inspector Nightingale, the last sanctioned wizard of Britain. He takes Peter as his apprentice and thus starts the hunt for whatever makes ordinary people kill each other with giant clubs and makes their faces fall off. Additionally there is a dispute going on between the god and the goddess of the river Thames and someone has to negotiate a treaty...

Moon Over Soho

Published: 2011

During the past few years quite a few upcoming Jazz musicians have died shortly after a gig in Soho - apparently from natural causes. The newest case gets on the table of Dr Walid, who notices a suspicious amount of vestigia on the body. The Folly investigates the case and soon another musician dies.

Additionally Sergeant Stephanopoulus requests Peter's help with another peculiar case in Soho: it is the second time already that a man had his penis bitten off while visiting a club. This time the victim is dead and again it appears like the teeth were not in the offender's mouth. During the investigation it becomes apparent that there may be a black - or rather ethically challenged - magician somewhere in England who is very good at concealing his face.

Whispers Under Ground

Published: 2012

Abigail, the 13-year-old daughter of one of Peter's mother's many friends, shows Peter and Lesley a ghost which she encountered in the railway tunnel close to her school. It obviously is the ghost of a young man who was hit by a train while spraying graffiti.

At the same time the body of an American exchange student is found on the platform of the underground station of Baker Street. He came from somewhere in the tunnels and was stabbed with an unusual fragment of pottery. Unfortunately the student turns out to be the son of a politician and therefore the FBI sends an officer to observe the investigation done by the London police force. The hunt for his murderer leads Peter deep into the tunnels of the London Underground systems and the sewers.

The Folly is also still searching for the black magician as well as others who may have been trained by a practitioner in the 1950s. He is now officially called the Faceless Man.

Every chapter of Whispers Undergound has the name of a station of the London Undergound network. The last chapter is (of course) called Mornington Crescent.

Broken Homes

Published: 2013

A suspected apprentice of the Faceless Man is involved in a car accident and there is blood from a dead body in the rear of his car. Soon the police finds the body of a woman in a nearby forest. Her fingers have been cut off and her face destroyed by the blast of a shotgun.

Another suspected apprentice commits suicide by jumping in front of an underground train on his way home from work, but he doesn't seem to have done it voluntarily.

Additionally, a German grimoire turns up at Christie's - and immediately disappears into the hands of Professor Postmartin. The lockpicker who originally tried to sell the book to a small bookshop turns out to lie burnt to death in his own house and the Faceless Man appears to be involved in the case. Peter manages to trace the book back to a German architect who came to London before the Second World War and who is the designer of the infamous Skygarden Estate. Did the modernist architect combine buildings with magic?

Foxglove Summer

Published: 2014

Two 11 year old girls have gone missing in Rushpool, a small village in Herefordshire. Peter Grant is sent out to pay a retired wizard who lives nearby a visit in the unlikely case that he knows anything. He finds a weak old man, living in a tower with his strange granddaughter and a huge swarm of bees. Although he finds no clues, Peter decides to travel on to Leominster to help the local police with their search.

Unfortunately Peter detects that the girls' phones - which were found in the nearby forest - have been damaged by magic. Something strange seems to be going on somewhere between the long-distance trail, the forest owned by the National Trust and the ancient Roman road.

The Hanging Tree

Published: 2016

Tyburn calls in a favour from Peter: she wants her daughter Olivia to be kept out of an ongoing investigation. During a party involving drugs in a locked luxury apartment at One Hyde Park which Olivia attended, one girl died of a seizure. Unfortunately Olivia confesses to have brought the drugs to the party, which leaves no other option than to arrest her although nobody believes that her story is true. Tyburn is not a happy river.

The dead girl's brain turns out to be damaged by magic and her boyfriend obviously was an anthropomorphic creature, who also tries to sell an important book to the Folly. It turns out that the Faceless Man as well as a witch also have an interest in it, not to mention some gentlemen from the US.

In The Hanging Tree many loose ends from the previous novels come together. The name of the book comes from The Tyburn Tree.

The Furthest Station

Published: 2017

This book features a shorter story set in the world of the Rivers of London, but not really influencing the stories of the other books. Peter's cousin Abigail is one of the major characters of the story.

The Folly is called for help because of very frequent sightings of ghosts in underground trains. They seem to have some kind of agenda and it is Peter's and Abigail's task to find out what that may be. Some kind of a problem seems to exist somewhere up the line.

A Magical Guide to London

The Rivers of London does a wonderful job of describing the goings on at the London Metropolitan Police, with all the involved bureaucracy, paperwork and visits to the pub. The characters are likeable and authentic and the stories are told with much humour, sometimes with Peter's remarks getting quite sarcastic. There are also a few pop-culture references, but you can enjoy the books without getting all of them. Diversity is also a big topic in Rivers of London as Peter himself is of mixed race and many of the characters have some kind of immigration background or are gay. Peter often comments on people's inconsiderate, racist remarks.

While magic and magical beings are a main part of every story the descriptions never seem over-exaggerated or unbelievable. Magic is not something that comes easy to everybody, it requires much work and all things come at a price - if things go bad you fry your brain. Everything seems to make perfect sense within the parameters of this alternative version of London. The city itself is also a major aspect of each story. Detailed descriptions and a great knowledge about history and legends of the different places of the city root each book in reality and add to the credibility of this world. You can definitely learn new things about London while reading these books - especially as a foreigner.

Peter Grant is depicted as a perfectly ordinary guy with perfectly ordinary problems everybody can relate to. He seems to accept being unexpectedly thrown into this new world of magic quite as easily as Arthur Dent - he just wears a leather jacket and Doc Martens instead of a dressing gown. He makes this new world his own, trying to understand it, but doesn't seem to be too surprised by anything he finds.

The covers of the UK edition of the Rivers of London series all show different parts of an artwork called 'The Island' by Stephen Walter. It consists of a more or less accurate map of London which is filled with doodles, place names and associations connected to the different areas. Important streets, public transport lines and the Thames are depicted rather accurately while in other cases importance defines the size of buildings and symbols. The US-version of the books originally had different covers but were also changed to this version after a controversy about the covers not showing the skin colour of the protagonist.

If you want to read the Rivers of London series be sure to read the books in the published order; although the different crimes in the books are usually not connected, many secondary plots are part of a larger story. Apart from the UK and US versions of the books there are translations to quite a few European languages as well as Japanese. There is also a series of graphic novels as well as short stories based on Rivers of London. Audio book versions are also available.

1Aaronovitch wrote 'Remembrance of the Daleks' (1988) and 'Battlefield' (1989). The former was one of the most popular episodes ever, with Aaronvitch's novelisation being chosen out of over 80 Seventh Doctor novels to represent the Seventh Doctor for the 50th Anniversary collection.2Fairies, but not the tiny kind with wings.

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