Friday, 8 June 2012

Review: Whispers Under Ground by Ben Aaronovitch

Peter Grant is learning magic fast. And its just as well - he's already had run ins with the deadly supernatural children of the Thames and a terrifying killer in Soho. Progression in the Police Force is less easy. Especially when you work in a department of two. A department that doesn't even officially exist. A department that if you did describe it to most people would get you laughed at. And then there's his love life. The last person he fell for ended up seriously dead. It wasn't his fault, but still.

Now something horrible is happening in the labyrinth of tunnels that make up the tube system that honeycombs the ancient foundations of London. And delays on the Northern line is the very least of it. Time to call in the Met's Economic and Specialist Crime Unit 9, aka 'The Folly'. Time to call in PC Peter Grant, Britain's Last Wizard.

Ah, the luxury of being on half term holidays when a book like this arrives. These days, whenever I read a book written for the adult market I feel more than a twinge of guilt, especially when I look over at my TBR pile and see all the children's and YA books stacking up. Not in half term though, when I can get through a few more books that I normally would in a week, although I have been looking forward to reading Whispers Under Ground by Ben Aaronovitch for so long I would probably have dropped everything to read it, even if I had been in the middle of the busiest term in my career.

I think a lot of people, and probably more men than women, hear the phrase 'urban fantasy' and immediately assume that the story will involve vampires/werewolves/mythical creature du jour and huge amounts of romance.  This is not entirely surprising, given the number of urban fantasy books that are churned out with cheesily awful book covers, although thankfully this is not as prevalent in the UK as it is in the US. However, there really are some superb urban fantasy stories and the Ben Aaronovitch's series that started with Rivers of London is one of the very best. It also has the potential for crossover appeal as Mr Aaronovitch is also proving with these books that he is up there with the best of UK crime writers.

I wonder whether Whispers Under Ground might be my favourite book in the series so far. I loved Rivers of London and Moon Over Soho, both of them ranking amongst some of my favourite reads of 2012, but this one was an absolute joy to read. I'm not sure I can really put my finger on exactly why I loved it even more than its predecessors, but I think it might be because of the humour that the author has so skilfully woven into his story. This was evident in the other two books, but the darkness of the plot often overshadowed it. Not so in Whispers Under Ground - the darkness takes more of a back seat and allows the fun that the author obviously had writing the story to really shine through. Last year I managed to get over to an event that Mr Aaronovitch was doing as part of the Lewisham Literary Festival where he came across as a very humorous speaker. This is now more evident in his work that previously - there were many scenes where I felt a smile creeping onto my face, and even a handful of moments where I laughed out loud.

Whispers Under Ground also sees the return of PC Lesley May, who spent much of the previous book living in Brightlingsea with her parents whilst she recuperated from the disfiguring injuries she sustained in Rivers of London. The banter between Lesley and Peter Grant was an element I really enjoyed in that first book, and it is great to have her back and taking a fully active part in the plot, especially given the magical bombshell she dropped on Peter at the end of Moon Over Soho. Lesley is now a fully fledged member of The Folly, and is making great progress with her studies under the tutelage of Nightingale, and the dialogue between her and Peter is as good as ever.

As well as the detailed look at police procedure we have come to expect from the author, brilliant plotting, dialogue to die for and scintillating humour, Ben Aaronovitch also delivers yet another fascinating look at the history of London. As readers we are getting a history lesson without even realising it, another reason why, as something of a Londonphile, I love these books so much - I had no idea that there was a street in London which had a pair of buildings with fake facades. Made to look like the rest of the Georgian townhouses in the terrace, the frontages actually hide part of the underground line that runs though, left open to the air to allow steam to be vented back in the day.

Whether you are a lover of intelligent fantasy in a modern urban setting, British crime writing, or the history of London, this book, and its predecessors, will hold something for you, and will most likely keep you gripped from first page to last. Initially we were promised three books in the series, but given its success I am expecting to be reading more about Peter Grant, Lesley May et al in the future. Ben's wikipedia page lists the next book in the series as being titled Broken Homes, due out in 2013. My thanks go to jon Weir at Gollancz for sending me a copy of Whispers Under Ground to read/review.