Fiction Reviews

Winter's Gifts

(2023) Ben Aaronovitch, Gollancz, £14.99, hrdbk, 211pp, ISBN 978-1-473-22437-7


This is the next instalment in the 'Rivers of London' series - though it is set in North Wisconsin and involves no rivers. It is, however, set in exactly the same world of magic powers and not-exactly-routine policing. The dust jacket describes it as a novella but I would say it was a novel, though not a long one. (SFWA (the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Association) define a novella as having less than 40,000 words and I estimate this has getting on for 60,000.) I suspect that, with books getting thicker and thicker, the publishers regard anything this ‘slim’ (a mere 211 pages) as not being thick enough for a novel. (‘Back in the day’ most novels only amounted to around 180 pages.)

For the benefit of those familiar with the series, I will say now that this is a typical example. If you like the series, you will like this one, if not, probably not.

The story opens when the FBI receives a call from Patrick Henderson, a retired agent, declaring an 'X-Ray Sierra India' incident in his home town of Eloise, North Wisconsin. It is an old code word and nobody these days knows what it stands for but they do know that something very unusual must be going on. The case gets handed to Special Agent Kimberley Reynolds of the Investigative and Operations Support Section of the Critical Incident Response Group; the caller asked for an ‘assessment right away’ and that is exactly what she will have to go to Eloise and do. It is mid-winter so she will need her cold weather gear!

With the road behind her closed by a freak blizzard, Kimberley arrives in town to discover that it has been hit by a tornado (in winter?, she thinks) and the Police Department’s building is no more than a pile of rubble. Moving on to Patrick Henderson’s house she finds it has been broken into and he is missing, with tracks in the snow suggesting he has been abducted by a group of some sort, though not necessarily human. The neighbour tells of her strange dream in which she heard a commotion followed by him being dragged through the snow by creatures with antlers and muzzles; to Kimberley this tale says magical influence. Before long she has teamed up with William Boyd, the local meteorologist, and Police Deputy Patricia Larson, as well as few other locals, as they try to deal with almost impossibly strange winter weather whilst investigating both Henderson’s disappearance and other strange goings-on. She comes across Sadie Clarkson, the town librarian, who is fairly new to the area and seems to know quite a lot about magic, animal spirits, and the like. There is also the mysterious Mr. Bunker, who has gone missing from the hotel down by the lakeshore. Also at the hotel is Scott Walker of the Office of Trust Services of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and it turns out that he too knows quite a lot about animal and tribal spirits.

The strange events and the strange weather continue to pile up and both are escalating. Could it all have something to do with an expedition that disappeared in 1843, lead by Captain William Marsh of the Virginia Gentlemen’s Company? Especially as they were what we might call wizards? Accompanied by a helpful local tribesman they had set out over the frozen lake and not one of them was ever seen again.

As with the other books that I have read in this series, I found it a very enjoyable read. The story is not taxing but it carries along nicely, it is lightly written with a degree of humour, and it stays interesting up to the end.

Peter Tyers


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