If you like your urban fiction to have flavors of modern-day London and you like your London stories to have London-specific historical accounts popping up every so often, then look no further. This book could fill that void in your reading reservoir (river pun intended).
Peter Grant, a young officer in training, is done with his interim year, though his prospects for an exciting career in law enforcement are not bright. Then a chance encounter at the scene of a crime reveals that he has an innate sense of the paranormal. This leads him down a path to the weird(er) side of law enforcement—magic.
Peter becomes an officer and an apprentice to a wizard named Nightingale and moves into Nightingale's huge Victorian estate—it's all very English, you see. After settling into the narration, I somehow developed an English-accented reading voice inside my head that lasted for the duration of the book. If I stay very quiet, I can still hear it.
Peter's journey into magic takes time, effort, and practice. Many exploding apples later he's able to perform a single levitation spell on command. He's not an overnight success. As a matter of fact, he can barely manage a spell on his own by the end of the book.
What I like most about this approach is that Aaronovitch ties real-world science and history into otherworldly magic to create a encompassing, believable world full of wonder and mystery and chaos. Since he's just a regular guy with some magical inclination, Peter is no genius. Both science and magic are hard for him, so his training starts with very basic physics and chemistry to explain the nature of magic and how it works in our world. The reader learns more about the inner-workings of science and magic as Peter learns—and stumbles and flails and destroys cell phones. Aaronovitch doesn't get into biology or species origins much in this book, but I suspect he's saving them for later books (because you can't introduce a host of creatures and not delve further into their origin mythology).
In terms of content, I don't think Aaronovitch is shaking up the urban fantasy genre much with this book. What he does well, though, is tell a relatively familiar story in his own way. You get a strong sense of London, magic, creatures, and especially Peter Grant. He's special in the most ordinary, economical, pragmatic, solid kind of way, and he's special because he's (street)smart, calculating, and doesn't take things for granted. A sensible kind of smart that evolves as the character evolves.
Aaronovitch's writing is so much better than what I'm used to seeing in this genre. He makes subtle, yet poignant commentary about racial identity, racial tensions, race relations, and ties them to Peter's life. It's evident when an author understands the depths of the character he's created and the real-world problems that such a character would face if he were alive today. I think Aaronovitch has done this exceptionally well.
I'll wrap up this review on a lighthearted note. The narration and dialogue are great. I love how it moves events along at an even pace while throwing in a hilarious quip here and there when you least expect it. Many of my favorite lines caught me off guard during the first read through.
Peter and Nightingale off to interview a possible witness:
"I'm just going to have a chat with this troll," said Nightingale. "Sir," I said, "I think we're supposed to call them rough sleepers." "Not this one we don't," said Nightingale. "He's a troll."
After Peter and Nightingale blew up a vampire den:
Concerned neighbours rushed out to see what was happening to their property values, but Nightingale showed them his warrant card.
Peter concerned for a possible witness... and himself:
I actually used the word "goovy" and she didn't even flinch, which was worrying on so many levels.
The moment Peter and I connected on a spiritual~ level:
Not that [Mum] ever beat me, a deficiency that she later blamed for my failure to pass my A levels. Numerous university-bound cousins were held up as shining examples of discipline through physical violence.
I have never liked a first book in a series enough to give it 5-stars, so this is a first because this book really deserves the highest rating. Here's to hoping that this series gets better with each book.
Since Peter Grant is biracial and the main character, there's some controversy regarding the US Midnight Riot cover art. While I agree that intentionally obscuring the model's face with a silhouette is suspicious, I still prefer the UK cover art because it fits more with the tone of the book and Peter's personality.
Aside from hiding his racial identity, the US cover art also markets Peter as a trigger-happy, take-charge ass-kicker, and that's just false advertisement. He doesn't care for firearms and doesn't like to intrude on other people unless he's making an arrest. Clearly not the qualities of ass-kicker—well, not in this book anyway.