Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Book Review: Broken Homes

Review by John Popham


Broken Homes, the fourth in the Rivers of London (AKA Peter Grant) series by Ben Aaronovitch, has all the hallmarks of a ‘reset’ novel.  

If you haven’t noticed, the modern genre fiction market is obsessed with series.  It’s no longer enough to write a good Science Fiction or Fantasy novel. Part of the pitch to an agent or publisher has to be the novel’s potential as a series. 

A one-off success is nice, to be sure, but after its initial blush of financial success it will rapidly fade from a revenue standpoint. A series, on the other hand, is the gift that keeps on giving.  The audience that loved the first book will likely return to buy the second. And then the third, and so on. Readers who discover the series mid-run are likely to go back and buy the earlier installments, boosting sales of the author's back-list. So, the next installment of a successful series is much lower risk proposition for the publisher than a completely new story, and is a cheerfully reliable income stream for the author.  

Consequently, it’s not unusual to see a stand-alone first novel subtitled: ‘Book one in the [insert franchise name here] series’, and left with major plot threads dangling for the folow-on book in the series to take up. 
 
Happily, in Rivers of London (Midnight Riot in the US, as Rivers of London was apparently thought too gentle a title for adrenalin-addled American sensibilities), Ben Aaronovitch delivered a novel that stands easily on its own, managing to avoid the look and feel of a series set-up.  Rivers introduced us to newly minted Police Constable Peter Grant, and follows his first encounters with the ghosts, mystical creatures and Newtonian magics that exist just beyond the public's sight in contemporary London.  In London, of course, even things that go bump in the night are subject to the Queen’s peace, and the Metropolitan Police has the job of dealing with breaches of said peace; even when they involve malevolent spirits and river goddesses.  What follows is an excellent bash-up of Urban Fantasy and police procedural, populated by an engaging cast of well-drawn characters. 

Aaronovitch followed  Rivers of London with Moon over Soho, and  Whispers Under Gound, each of which was as witty as the first, deftly fleshing out and extending Aaronovitch's characters and the London they inhabit, while introducing the reader to London’s jazz vampires, ‘ethically challenged’ wizards, subterranean ‘quiet folk’, goblin markets, demon traps, and a pale lady with a …discomforting MO for murder. 

Broken Homes features the return of the Faceless Man, an evil (or ethically challenged, as Peter Grant would say) wizard introduced in Moon Over Soho. The Faceless Man is, at least for the moment, the series' primary antagonist, though his appearance in Soho is brief and he exists primarily as an undercurrent in Whispers. In Broken Homes he's back and hatching ethically challenged plans that, as the plot thickens, seem to center around Highgarden Estate.  Highgarden, an eccentric high-rise designed by an even more eccentric German architect, and possibly incorporating the principles of industrial scale magic, may be housing more than a colorful collection of aging protesters and low-income cranks.

Broken Homes lacks the easy charm of the first three books in the Rivers of London series.  It has a somewhat distracted quality, the story never quite able to get its footing and momentum until it builds toward its climax.  Each of the previous books has revolved around the revealing of a new facet of London's mystical underground; The genius loci of Rivers, the jazz vampires of Soho, and the quiet folk of Whispers.  In Broken Homes Aaronovitch stands pat with the status quo, allowing the search for the Faceless Man to be the focus of the story and otherwise occupying himself with re-arranging the exiting furniture and adding a few new pieces. 

Aaronovitch introduces us to a number of new characters who seem peripheral for Broken Homes, but I assume will play a larger role going forward. Peter Grant and his Sierra Leonean mother abruptly begin speaking Krio with each other, with no hint given as to why they've never done so in any of the previous books. A nurse from Whispers is promoted in Homes from a bland secondary character to a lead role as the dynamic and exceedingly dangerous Varvara Sidorovna, a Russian witch and magical assassin. The book's most significant change would amount to a spoiler and so cannot be mentioned here. Suffice it to say that we leave Broken Homes with the field of play very much changed and 'To Be Continued' writ large in the skies over Perter Grant's London.

I suspect this is due, at least in part, to the fourth book having to pull double duty.  Homes must attend to its own story while laying groundwork for future books and resetting certain aspects of the Rivers of London series back-story.  I would venture this is occurring for the happy reason that Aaronovitch didn't anticipate how successful the Peter Grant series would be.  With Rivers apparently settling in for a long run, Aaronovitch likely needed to make changes in order to avoid being boxed in by the series' first three books.  In such cases sooner is better than later and, with this housekeeping complete, I look forward to a return to form in Aaronovitch's next book.

This is not to say that Broken Homes isn't worth the readers time and money.  While it doesn't cohere as well as its predecessors it is an entertaining read. However, it is not a good introduction to Peter Grant and the denizens of his London.  It does not stand on its own as did its predecessors, and those unfamiliar with the series will want to introduce themselves through its earlier books. Which, as homework assignments go, is a very pleasant one. PC Grant and company are acquaintances well worth making.

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