I recently read, back to back, Ben Aaranovitch’s Rivers of London and Joe Abercrombie’s The Blade Itself, the latter a long overdue read for me as a fantasy author.
It was because of their similarities that I’m writing about (and recommending them) together.
Both books have an easy, warm prose, perfectly suited for the stories they’re telling, full also of some very dry wit. What makes them special is that the worlds they’ve crafted are woven in equally subtly, dribbled into the stories at just the right pace. Aaranovitch clearly has a passion for London and its history, it captures a London as much Hugh Grant’s Notting Hill as it is Eastenders as it is an ancient and storied locum of English history. Within this he overlays a wonderfully natural magic system, tying it into the folk/cultural history of the capital exquisitely well.
The book starts with DC Peter Grant, a bit of a useless policeman with a crush on his career driven colleague Lesley May. At the scene of a murder, he soon realises that he’s interviewing a ghost rather than a tramp, and from that point on he finds himself off down the rabbit hole, shortly popping up as an apprentice wizard working for a secret branch of the police, investigating the murders as they pile up and piecing together the force behind them.
It’s in bringing us from the one reality into the other that Aaranovitch succeeds so well, and as an apprentice, Grant is the perfect guide for the reader, discovering this secret London with us and for us. His initiation into magic, how he tries, initially, to will into being a small magical light, is surprisingly plausible, it somehow feels right, while Grant himself, having an unorthodox but solidly grounded sense of the world, immediately tries to think about the physics of it. The system Aaranovitch has worked out riffs off a more mundane materialist backdrop well. As it’s introduced to Grant, so it’s introduced to us, but again, it’s done in a way that doesn’t weight the plot down. Given it’s a supernatural murder mystery, and a cleverly conceived one with some twists and turns, it’s quite a page turner, reminding me of how effortlessly China Mieville also managed to twist a fairly conventional genre trope with his City and the City.
The Blade Itself is much more purely ‘sff’. At first I thought Abercrombie’s world was a bit shallow, but it was simply my expectation that fantasy world-building generally comes on a bit thick. As a reader I seem to have gotten used to being plunged into a different world with a very small paddle and a strong current. He introduces his ensemble of misfits methodically, giving each their own space, story and context to breathe and develop, before the novel gradually pulls them together through the machinations of a mage called Bayaz, whose mission is barely hinted at, the backbone of a trilogy no doubt. As the book carries through, the sense of place grows with surety, and as with Rivers of London, I think the carefully measured approach to planting the world along with the story works well for a wider audience. My recommendation for both novels is cemented because of this, they remain perfectly accessible to any casual reader looking for a fantastic yarn, not just the hardcore genre fans looking for great characters.
The Blade Itself is a bigger novel, and has more work to do to establish the ensemble. Each character is in some way obviously flawed, some more likeable than others for it, but all with that nugget of good in them, whether it’s the increasingly self aware noble Jezal and his crush on a hard drinking and beautiful commoner, the stoic crippled torturer Glokta unwillingly uncovering a conspiracy or the uncouth but gentle Logen just trying to stay alive. It’s refreshing to see the main characters get into scrapes and feel like they’re not going to get out of them without taking a beating, without having paid for them in some way. This gives them an important vulnerability that’s key to their likeability.
There are some dark moments in the book, (in particular a scene with siblings later on), and for all that it has a wit about it, it isn’t remotely Pratchett. I enjoyed the book having these teeth and hope to see more of them bared in the sequel. The ‘grimdark’ was the more effective for it being lodged in a world where the author hasn’t held your face against the banal horror of existence for five hundred pages. Equally, the ending of Rivers of London contains something of a surprise, not quite playing out as I’d expected.
There are more in either series, so while you can’t go wrong with these unshowy, well told stories, you can jump deeper in.