Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Book Review: Foxglove Summer by Ben Aaronovitch

Reviewed by J. D. Popham

Until now the Rivers of London series has kept Police Constable and apprentice wizard Peter Grant close to home and followed his 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, jazz vampires and river goddesses.  

Foxglove Summer, the fifth book in the series, takes PC Grant out of his beloved London and deep into the English countryside; to Herefordshire, to be precise.  There, two eleven year-old girls have gone missing and the search for them has captured the attention of the 24-hour news machine and thus the British public. What with the disturbing connection between the blood of innocents and the more ethically challenged magics, Grant is dispatched by Inspector Nightingale to check in on an elderly wizard, long retired to the area, in order to confirm that he is not somehow involved in the girl's disappearance. 

Before long both Peter Grant and the urban river goddess Beverly Brook, are drawn into the search proper. What follows is a very pleasant collision between urban Fantasy and the rustic/rural wellspring of the tales and folklore that form much of modern fantasy's foundation.  At the same time Foxglove Summer's police procedural elements get the opportunity to rub shoulders with British police/detective fiction's countryside tradition. 
The urban/rural divide in English crime fiction is one of long standing.  Sherlock Holmes famously opined in Silver Blaze that "the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside".  Happily, Aaronovitch avoids reaching for the threadbare tropes about the city cop out of his element in the sticks.  PC Grant is as good humored as he is tough and clever, and his view of the countryside and its denizens is pragmatic and even-handed.  Besides, between his duties as a copper in the ongoing search for the missing girls, magical doings afoot, and a river goddess to act as his liaison with the local genius loci, boredom is the least of Peter Grant's worries.  

London has been central to the Rivers series so far, and setting Foxglove Summer in the English countryside makes evident the degree to which the city drives the tempo and energy of Aaronovitch's Peter Grant stories. The little town of Rushpool lacks the kinetic charge of London, and not even the frantic search for the girls and the accompanying news media feeding frenzy is going to change that.

This, however, is where Aaronovitch shows his skill as a story-teller. He never fights his setting or attempts to press Rushpool or its denizens into behaving out of character as a means of injecting energy into Foxglove Summer.  Rather, he lets the story move at a pace appropriate to the setting, allowing Peter Grant's narrative voice, his observations of and interactions with the town, and with the emerging evidence of the fantastic that lies beneath, provide the book's rhythm and tempo.

Some of Aaronovitch's more impatient readers have grumbled that the Rivers story arc featuring the Faceless Man, the series' primary antagonist, gets little attention in this outing. Over at Tor.com Liz Bourke has gone so far as to dismiss Foxglove Summer as a 'placeholder novel', which it is certainly not.  Given that in Broken Homes Peter's fellow constable and apprentice Leslie May betrayed Peter, Nightingale and the Metropolitan Police, joining the Faceless Man on the ethically challenged side of both magic and the law, they can be forgiven for feeling a bit let down.  However, anyone paying attention to the pacing of the Rivers series to date will have expected the sound and fury of the Faceless subplot to recede to the background in Foxglove Summer.

Aaronovitch tends to avoid spending his story's dramatic tension all at once. He leaves the Faceless Man subplot largely behind periodically, knowing the reader will be all the hungrier for it when he returns.  However, to call Foxglove Summer a mere placeholder is to imply that its central story is throw-away and that the book contributes nothing of value to the larger story arc, neither of which is the case.  Foxglove merely changes the larger story's tempo, creating a bit of narrative elbow room before foreshadowing the storm to come.    

By doing so, Aaronovitch allows himself the space and literary tempo needed to extend Peter Grant's character at something less than a gallop.  It also allows the author to develop Beverly Brook, who has been consigned to cameo appearances since her introduction in Rivers of London, and to give their heretofore slow-approach relationship room to breathe and unfold naturally.  He uses Foxglove to expand the back-story of Molly, Nightingale's otherworldly housekeeper, of Ettenberg where the flower of English wizardry was broken, and to hint at what is walled away in the basement of the Folly behind sheets of battleship steel.  And we learn that that the Genius Loci of the rivers of London are reaching out and establishing their own entente with their peers in the countryside.

Foxglove Summer is worth your hard-earned shekels, and I recommend it.  Fans of the Aaronovitch's earlier works will enjoy it (provided they can school themselves to patience) and readers who wish make Peter Grant's acquaintance without reading the series from its beginning will find Foxglove a good place to jump in.

Alas for our American readers, while released in the UK in November, Foxglove Summer will not be sold by US retailers until January. The Infinite Reach will reference this review again when the book is released in the US, lest you forget.

1 comment:

  1. Thankfully, I was able to order Foxglove online and have it delivered (free) to my Aunt in the UK. She brought it with her when she came to Canada for Christmas.