(2020) Ben Aaronovitch, Gollancz, £18.99, hrdbk, 407pp, ISBN 978-1-473-20785-1
This is the latest in the series of humorous novels known as the 'Rivers of London'; there are also graphic novels in the same series. As with the others they feature Peter Grant, a young wizard who works for the Special Assessment Unit (also known as the Folly), a little-known department of the police. Doubtless if I had read the earlier stories I would already know the regular characters but I did not feel disadvantaged; everything I needed to know was slipped nicely into the tale and it reads as a standalone novel.
For reasons the story does not dwell on, Peter has been dismissed from the police and has just started work amongst the security staff of the Serious Cybernetics Corporation. The company’s owner, Terrence Skinner, is a great fan of the The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy; he even wears the T-shirt. With sayings like ‘Ask me about my poetry’ on the wall, Security being known as the Vogons by the normal workers (aka mice), and areas of the offices with names like Betelgeuse and Bambelweeny, Skinner’s love of Hitchhiker’s is obvious. The theme continues into the writing and, yes, for those working in Security lunchtime is an illusion. At first I thought that all these references to Hitchhiker’s, funny though they are, meant that the story would be something of rip-off of the original but I was wrong, it is simply colour to the story (and nicely done).
A little while back, travelling showman Henry Collins had suffered a break-in and one of the music books had been stolen from his Gavioli organ. The interesting point is that the music book was entitled ‘The Enchantress of Numbers’, a reference to Ada Lovelace, and is for an organ with 137 keys - and no-one has ever built such an organ. Examining the crime scene, Peter felt a trace of vestigia - someone had used magic to force the lock. He identified the suspect as being one Jacob Astor and tracked him down, though he escaped after throwing a couple of spells. Peter then nearly got himself killed by a very nasty, magic booby trap left for the occupant when searching Astor’s flat.
A little later on the Folly became very interested in Terrence Skinner and whatever was going on at the Serious Cybernetics Corporation. They needed a man on the inside. And so Peter was ‘encouraged to resign’ and, in need of gainful employment, the ex-copper ‘found’ himself employed as a Security officer. Tyrell Johnson, his new boss and himself once a cop, explains to him that his first job is to sniff out a rat; something is not quite right but he cannot figure out what, but maybe Peter, being younger and geekier, can do it. On only his third day who should he come across, acting suspiciously, than Jacob Astor, or Stephen Higgins as his badge says. Rather than get into another fight, they agree to co-operate as it turns out that Stephen is also investigating Terrence Skinner.
Over a pint in a nearby watering hole, Stephen explains that he is a Librarian, that is to say he is a member of the group of magicians based in New York, in the Main Branch (on Fifth Avenue) of the public library. They believe that Skinner has a Mary Engine (a mechanical device akin to Babbage’s difference engine, magically powered by a Rose Jar containing a trapped ghost) - and that spells trouble (so to speak). Certainly something is going on behind the high security doors of the top two floors of Betelgeuse so perhaps working with Stephen will help Peter, seeing as to how they both seem to be on the same case. A little later Skinner reveals to Peter that the secret project is none other than Deep Thought, a truly conscious artificial intelligence (AI).
But is Deep Thought a truly conscious AI or is it something powered by a Mary Engine, he asks himself (and his boss, DCI Thomas Nightingale). And if there is a Mary Engine, exactly what is powering it? Who’s ghost? Or worse? Furthermore, there are other players, the ones who nearly killed him at Astor’s flat and who make a few more attempts on both his and Stephens’s lives. Who are they?
Despite the tribulations of the case, Peter tries to get some downtime at home, where his expectant girlfriend Beverley Brook would rather like to see more of him. She is very understanding, which is not surprising as she is a goddess, in particular the goddess of the nearby waterway, the Beverley Brook. As a local goddess, she has her own responsibilities and she would be rather glad if Peter would help her with them from time to time.
And so the plot thickens. There is magic and there is a lot of humour, the story being light-hearted and fun. There are many characters I have not mentioned but who add to both the story and the feeling that it is all well fleshed out. It is not a gripping page turner of a thriller but rather a delightful entertainment that fills the pages nicely with a story that eventually explains it all. Maybe it was the way I read it but I did feel at times that a bit of revision and editing would have helped as something might be mentioned early on as possible tag for later but, when that later happened, it did not fit in quite the same way. In particular, a character called Victor is described as a “short, round white woman” and “she” when first introduced but forever afterward as “he”. Apart from such mild confusions, I found the book a good read and would happily read more of the series.
As a bonus, my copy has the limited first edition Glow In The Dark cover - and it does. It was a touch unusual to wake up in the middle of the night and see, glowing at me from my bedside table, the words ‘Ben Aaronovitch’. Mind you, if I was feeling that a few pages of light reading might help me get back to sleep, I knew where to find a good book!
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