When pressed, I’ll tell people I don’t like fantasy. This claim is usually followed by a list of exceptions. I like Neil Gaiman. I like Harry Potter. I also like the Rivers of London-series by Ben Aaronovitch. The rest of the genre is, as they say, not my cup of tea. No offense to you fantasy lovers, but it just doesn’t do much for me. The suspension of disbelief required is, apparently, too big a leap. One of the reasons I do like these books, though, is that Aaronovitch is very good at making the incredible, credible.
Lies Sleeping is the seventh novel in a series that focuses on Peter Grant, an officer in London’s Metropolitan Police, who has been assigned to a special branch of the police force tasked with handling magic. Each novel has its own baddie, though one character named The Faceless Man reappears in each installment, and here, he is the main antagonist, supported by Peter’s erstwhile friend and partner Lesley. The Faceless Man is plotting something major, and it’s Peter’s job to figure out what it is before he has the chance to pull through. This is made all the more complicated by The Faceless Man’s ability to plot and plan for every contingency, and to provide endless fake leads.
What this series does well is mix fantasy and detective slash police procedural. For one, it ratchets up the tension: criminals are plotting and the heroes have to stop them. Another advantage is that it makes the story sound so much more credible, especially if you know the city of London well enough. Aaronovitch paints London as it is: he doesn’t superimpose the magical elements, but takes urban myths and gives them a new interpretation. Auxiliary characters who are aware of magic but don’t practice it themselves show the kind of reluctance I often feel when confronted with fantasy, so that’s nice.
The other thing I really like about the series is the characterisation. Peter’s a likable, funny guy with a wry sense of humour and a vast repository of knowledge of the sort that you would have if you hail from immigrant parents and grow up in a major metropole. As the series progresses, he grows more competent; learning magic, as it turns out, is mostly just a lot of practice. His relationship with his frenemy Lesley, meanwhile, is painfully realistic: he is hurt by her betrayal yet misses her terribly. Lesley herself is interesting, too, clever and duplicitous; while she has joined the dark side, she still has a soft spot for Peter, protecting him at her own detriment and hurt by his anger and refusal to consider her motives. When they meet, their conversation quickly slips into its old familiar banter, but their mutual resentment comes through too. It’s intriguing and entirely believable.
Some of the novel’s characters are little more than caricatures, from the gruff Northerner police commander to the squirrely half-faery informant. Still, I didn’t mind so much; this is not high literature, and they serve their purposes.
My only major issue with these novel is that they have a tone problem. Most of the time, they are light-hearted and merrily skip along from lead to lead, right up until the point where babies are flung out the window and innocent bystanders’ heads explode. It’s as if the author is afraid his audience will bail if he makes things too serious. It seems to get better in later installments, but it’s never completely gone.
Nevertheless, though, I really enjoy this series and the deft way in which Aaronovitch captures the proverbial spirit of the city into literal spirits. If, like me, you’re not a big fan of the fantasy genre but you’re willing to step outside of your comfort zone, please take the plunge. You won’t regret it.