Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Riotously Fun

Midnight Riot

by Ben Aaronovitch

Published by Del Rey

3 1/2 Out of 5 Stars

Peter Grant is a Probationary Constable in London who, despite his dreams of being a detective, possesses a propensity for detail and a knack for paperwork that makes him the perfect candidate for the Case Progression Unit (a department that does the endless paperwork on behalf of "real" detectives). Before he's doomed to a pallid indoor office complexion and a life of carpal tunnel syndrome, he receives a breakthrough in a significant case. Only one problem: it's from a ghost. And thus begins Peter Grant's introduction to the world of Detective Chief Inspector (and wizard) Thomas Nightingale, sole investigator of the mystical and magical threats to the Queen's peace in London, and the Folly, headquarters for the study of the unknown. Suddenly, Peter's tendency to be distracted by seemingly insignificant details at a scene (on one memorable occasion he was distracted during a New Year's Eve celebration at Trafalgar Square, ignoring drunken fights while reading the plaque on the bum end of a statue lion) serves a relevant purpose. He's more sensitive to the vestigia, or magical residue, left behind by the supernatural, and this makes him the perfect candidate to apprentice with Nightingale.

Midnight Riot is riotously fun to read. It's treading on familiar territory (a super secret agency entrusted with explaining the unexplainable to those in power, but keeping it hush-hush from ordinary people), but Aaronovitch creates a world that is engaging if not entirely original. As a protagonist, Peter Grant is both naïve and a charming smart ass, with emphasis on charming--a concept that a lot of authors in this genre have difficulty pulling off without the character becoming insufferably smug and more interested in firing off one-liners in the heat of battle than kicking ass (Harry *cough* Dresden *cough*). It's also refreshing to have a protagonist with a diverse racial heritage as his background and family situation bring a little more to the table than one normally expects in this type of novel.

So why only 3 stars? Well, it's really more of a 3 1/2 star read. Midnight Riot is entertaining in a quickly forgettable way, which is all it purports to be. And, in that, it almost entirely succeeds. However, despite an inventive premise for the supernatural killer (which is hinted at pretty broadly on the U.K. cover of the novel, but I won't reveal anything here as mum's the word on the cover and blurb of the U.S. edition), some of the pieces don't quite fit together smoothly and there are some pretty giant leaps in Peter's logic that allows him to connect events. Also, there are really two intertwining narratives: the supernatural serial killer and a territorial dispute between the Mother Thames and Father Thames, water deities with no love for one another. Because Aaronovitch has to jump between these two narratives, neither really gets the full exploration it deserves. His concept of the water deities and the hierarchy involved is fascinating enough for a novel all its own.

It also bothered me how quickly Peter could forget that which should have been important. In the end (no spoilers, promise), his friend Leslie is in grave danger and yet Peter seems to rather nonchalantly walk away from the situation and returns to his parents' home. That plus a rather awkward segue into a brief story about vampires certainly leads to some hiccups in the narrative flow.

These, however, are rather minor irritants in a light novel that, because of the strength of its characters, I thoroughly enjoyed. It's because of these characters (Peter Grant in particular) that I look forward to reading Moon Over Soho.

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