An Introduction to the Rivers of London Series

We take a closer look at the supernatural book series by Doctor Who writer Ben Aaronovitch in the lead up to the latest book's release.

Lies Sleeping,the seventh book in the Rivers of London, a series that’s wildly-popular in its hometown setting of London, releases on November 20, 2018. Beginning with Midnight Riot (titled Rivers of London in England) in 2011, the Rivers of London series follows Probationary Constable Peter Grant in his journey to detective-hood—with a serious side of magic.

Read Lies Sleeping by Ben Aaronovitch

Peter is a sarcastic and entertaining narrator, and he’s an excellent guide through a world where London isn’t just the setting, but a character itself. If you’ve not yet read any of the books leading up to Lies Sleeping, it’s a good idea to start at the beginning… but even if you leap into the series with both feet, there’s a solid likelihood you’ll want to return to the beginning to see how it all happened.

Hearing ghosts—and rivers…

As the series begins, PC Peter Grant is worried he’ll be shunted off to a department of the Metropolitan Police Force where the most dangerous thing he’ll have to worry about is a papercut. But when he interviews a witness to a crime—and realizes that the witness is actually dead and he’s talking to a ghost—he becomes inducted the weird world of London’s magic.

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Detective Chief Inspector Thomas Nightingale, who is also the last officially registered wizard in England, takes Peter under his wing, both as a police officer and as a magical apprentice. Peter becomes deeply embroiled with the magical world—called the Demi-monde—interacting with fae, the gods and goddesses of London’s rivers, and other magic users, some of whom don’t have Nightingale’s scruples.

Further reading: The Best New Fantasy Books

Magic impacts Peter and his partner, PC Lesley May, as early as the first book—May, in working their first case in Midnight Riot, suffers a serious magical injury that haunts her through the rest of the series. In the second novel, as Peter investigates the deaths of jazz musicians, he first encounters the magical player who become a deep threat in the series: The Faceless Man, whose fae or demon minions are the causes of great violence, and whose terrorist attacks make him the most dangerous adversary of the Folly, the magical branch of the Met.

A diversity of characters…

Aaronovitch starts out the series with a narrator from two ethnic traditions: his father is an Anglo-British jazz musician, and his mother is a Fula from Sierra Leone. Peter, as African British, makes a unique narrator in urban fantasy mysteries. The identities of both his parents, and how his upbringing impacted his world-view, gives him an interesting lens through which he presents magical London.

Peter is also the kind of well-read SF lover to whom readers of SFF will immediately gravitate: from a jest about the nearly impenetrable (yet award-winning) The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro to an immediate recognition of runic tattoos as Tolkien’s dwarvish script (but the film version, not the original), it’s clear that Grant is the kind of reader and SF fan that his own readers will know and identify with. The intersectionality of the character works beautifully to offer both an underrepresented viewpoint and a worldview that easily resonates with genre readers.

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Aaronovitch also surrounds Grant with characters from underrepresented backgrounds: in Moon Over Soho, Grant first encounters Sahra Guleed, who later becomes his partner. Guleed, who has referred to herself as “Muslim Ninja,” doesn’t practice magic, but she does study with Michael Cheung in Chinatown, who is improving her nearly-magical martial arts abilities.

While Thomas Nightingale is a quintessential British mentor figure, who always wears suits and sometimes carries a cane, the forensic team for the Folly includes Dr. Abdul Haqq Walid (who, despite the clues from his name, is a Scotsman with red hair), and Dr. Jennifer Vaughan, a female scientist inventing new ways to classify the residents of the Demi-monde (because the old ways just won’t do).

The delightful result of the characters presented here is that there’s no easy assumption of what each new character introduced looks like. The characters are a cross-section of modern London, with the variety of ethnicities and backgrounds that make up a huge cosmopolitan area. And that’s without considering the river goddesses (one of whom is Peter’s girlfriend) and fae that make up an additional level of diversity.

Books, comics, audio—and possibly television…

Aaronovitch is no stranger to a multitude of formats. Part of the reason that Peter’s SFF references play so well is that Aaronovitch has been working in science fiction since his work on Doctor Who (he wrote the “Remembrance of the Daleks” arc).

With the “Rivers of London” series, he’s not only produced seven novels, but a series of comics, and an audio-only short story (available for free on Audible). For readers who enjoy branching out beyond a core series, there are additional novellas and stories to experience. For readers looking for an easier jumping-on point than the first novel in the series, Rivers of London: Detective Stories is a comics mini-series that offers four separate cases, and an insight into several of the characters of the series, portrayed in a visual format. (Aaronovitch offers a fantastic chronology on his blog to make it easy to see how all the pieces fit together.)

For American readers, Aaronovitch recommends the audio experience, “then you can hear when he’s being sarcastic!” he told Simon Brew in a Den of Geek interview. “A lot of non-English as a first language speakers can’t quite tell when Peter Grant is being ironic, so the audio helps.”

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But whether you’re ready to dive into the rivers with the novels (be wary of doing so without asking permission) or would rather wade a bit with comics or audio, all those entry points are open to new readers. And once you start, you’ll find a London that’s just dying to be explored.

Read the Rivers of London Series by Ben Aaronovitch

Alana Joli Abbott writes about books for Den of Geek. Read more of her work here.