Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The New Cop in Ghost Possessed London

Ben Aaronovitch, Midnight Riot
Free fifty page preview on Suvudu or full novel available for $7.99 at Amazon.

Midnight Riot by Ben Aaronovitch is a fun, fast-paced urban fantasy. The main character Peter Grant is a probationary constable in the London police who awakes to the magic and fantastical denizens around him in the first pages of the novel. Following Grant as he discovers the fantastical side of his city lends an authentic pace to the reader’s discovery of that same world.

The plot of Midnight Riot follows two diverse paths. Grant meets a ghost while protecting a crime scene and as a result of a fortuitous encounter with Detective Nightingale who turns out to be the head (and only member) of the paranormal section of the London police, is saved from a career of paperwork to instead begin learning magic and otherwise training as Nightingale’s apprentice. While Grant is training, he and Nightingale are trying to track down a serial killer who appears to be provoking murderous encounters around London by possessing his victims. Grant is also tasked with solving a budding turf war between two of the resident gods of London, Mother and Father Thames.

In addition to the natural way in which he introduces the world, there are several things that Aaronovitch does particularly well in Midnight Riot. First, characterization of Mother and Father Thames and their clans is fascinating. The rivers, creeks and cisterns of London are each embodied by a god. Each takes on the characteristics and name of its body of water in an interesting manner. The two clans of gods are culturally and historically intriguing. Aaronovitch’s descriptions of the clans and their members are evocative and endearing. I was left wanting to know much more about the clans and the London mythology which Aaronvitch drew upon in creating them.

Second, the dialog in Midnight Riot is excellent. The back and forth between Grant and the rest of the characters, particularly his friend Leslie May, Nightingale and Mother Thames and her clan sounds natural to the ear, but is also witty and does an excellent job of establishing the characters for the reader. For instance, when Grant, who is the child of an Anglo and an African parent, thinks he is going to be stuck on paperwork for the rest of his career, May suggests:

“You could always go to the States; I bet the FBI would have you.”

“Why would the FBI have me?” I asked.

“They could use you as an Obama decoy,” she said.

Good dialogue is hard under any circumstances and often gets ignored in a first novel introducing a new fantasy world. Aaronovitch does an excellent job.

As a result, I flew through Midnight Riot and enjoyed it. If you are looking for quick, fun urban fantasy, I would recommend Midnight Riot.

Midnight Run, and particularly its plotting, do not hold up nearly so well on second reflection. As I said, there are two plots: serial killer and turf war. They essentially have nothing to do with one another, though Grant does get some clues serial killer from Mother and Father Thames’ clans, but that was not integral to either plot. By including both plots, I think Aaronovitch ended up neglecting parts of each, particularly the Mother and Father Thames plot. In that plot, Father Thames and his clan, who had abandoned London proper years before had begun to make sorties back into the city. Mother Thames, who had claimed the city in his absence want these advances stopped. Grant, as the magic police representative, is tasked with preventing a conflict. The plot develops in fits and starts as Grant visits both sides in the lulls during the serial killer investigation. The reasons for the conflict are simply told to the reader and are not well developed. The solution that Grant brokers frankly does not make sense given the way the conflict developed. Sadly none of these problems are endemic to the plot, but rather I think they are the result of Aaronovitch trying to develop and resolve two independent plots in a single book. The Mother and Father Thames plot (and the characters that populate it) is the more interesting one and deserved a stronger focus.

In the main plot, there are consistency issues with the idea of possession. Aaronovitch chooses to place magic in what is otherwise the world we know. The police in Midnight Riot act just as we have seen police act in thousands of procedural TV shows and mystery movies. They follow the evidence to the culprit. Following that evidence is half the fun of the mystery genre. Given that sensibility, it does not really matter what rules you set on the world, but those rules need to be applied consistently so that the evidence means something. If the magic you put into the world constantly changes its characteristics, then following evidence is worthless because it only has momentary meaning. Aaronovitch generally does a good job with constructing the fantastical. His magic system is very restrained and comprehensible.

However, possession, and the ability of ghosts to possess is not so well applied. It is initially suggested that an entity can possess another, but the effects of that possession are stark and the person possessed does not behave in a normal manner. Later in the story, it is revealed that a character the reader has gotten to know and who other characters think is acting perfectly naturally has actually been possessed for most of the book. In addition, a key scene in the story involves a mass possession which raises significant questions about how it is possible that the perpetrator who wields such power could ever be caught. I think that it is always difficult to strike the balance between sufficiently fantastic powers to make a plot work and too much power such that a character becomes invincible. Often the scope of powers fluctuate without explanation to fit the plot. I think that happens in the main plot in Midnight Riot and it undermines the balance of the story.

So overall, I would say that I liked the characters and dialog in Midnight Riot, but that the plotting was thin and rushed, possibly because the two essentially independent plots were too much for a single novel.

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