20 April 2011

2011 Books Update 1: Blue Lamp, Black Arts

Right. I've repeatedly promised you book reviews, and despite the manifold distractions in my life at present, I am -- or at least, I strive to be -- a man of my word[1].

As it turns out, it's going to take several instalments. So here's the first...

First, Rivers of London by Doctor Who novel alumnus (and my one-time fellow contributor to this volume), Ben Aaronovitch. It's an urban fantasy with a strong narrator -- PC Peter Grant, a young policeman of mixed English and African heritage who's recruited to the minuscule division of the Metropolitan Police which deals with magical crime. It's a lovely mix of police procedural with magic -- not in itself unique, but the firm grounding in a contemporary London setting gives it a quite different flavour from, say, Terry Pratchett's City Watch novels.

Aaronovitch's love for his setting is very evident, based in historical events dating back to the Roman founding of the city, but embracing its present in its full multicultural glory. One particularly refreshing aspect is that none of the senior figures in the Met express the usual tedious scepticism about the phenomena Peter and his boss deal with -- to them, it's just one more jurisdictional turf war. The villain's identity is a very clever choice, and the mayhem sown by them is often graphically horrific.

If I have a reservation, it's that the prose -- narrated by the clear-headed and down-to-earth Peter -- reads like a superior quality bestseller. It's a canny commercial choice, but I do miss the more refined "literary SF" style of Ben's previous novels. Nevertheless, I'm looking forward keenly to reading the sequel, which turned up on my doormat yesterday.

I wasn't expecting, when I read Rivers of London, to be almost immediately reading another London-based fantasy involving the magical division of the Met, but then I started Kraken by China Miéville [WARNING: Link contains radical politics which may disorient and confuse]. Here the police are not uncomplicated heroes, or indeed the viewpoint characters, although they're not unsympathetic either.

The main character, though, is... well, it's complicated. It involves the Natural History Museum, taxidermy, giant squid cults, various supernatural custodians of London's cultural heritage, in vitro fertilisation and the power of throwaway banter to change the world. The world he moves through is enormously more complex still, although cults and magic of various inventive kinds play a substantial role. The book's relentlessly inventive -- it feels like Miéville's let everything fantastical which came into his head during the writing of the highly disciplined The City and the City spill over into this volume, and the results are pyrotechnic.

Miéville's perennial habit of mashing together radical politics with fantasy tropes here becomes hilarious. My favourite weird concept -- although there are many worth mentioning, including some unexpected twists to the works of WH Hodgson and HH Munro -- is Wati, the Ancient Egyptian shabti figurine who led a proletarian revolt in the Duat and now organises a union of golems, familiars and other magical assistants.

Miéville's style is distinctly literary, so much so as to be difficult at times. In my current sleep- and energy-deprived state[2] I found it a challenge, but I like a challenge. His dialogue, in particular, is startling in the vividness with which he portrays completely different speech-patterns, slang styles and idiolects. (The main police character is, once again, a young PC and magic-user, female this time -- but a novel narrated by this one would make for an extremely tough read.) Yet again I'm looking forward to the author's next novel with keen anticipation.

Reviews of books not featuring magic policemen will follow shortly.
[1] Admittedly my word is "lenticular", but I do the best I can with it.
[2] R. is well over a year and a half old now. I was, to be honest, expecting parenthood to have got just a little less intense by this point.

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