Fiction Reviews

The Hanging Tree

(2016) Ben Aaronovitch, Gollancz, £14.99, hrdbk, 387pp, ISBN 978-0-575-13255-9


The Hanging Tree is the latest in Ben Aaronovitch’s highly entertaining 'Rivers of London' series. It is comic urban fantasy with a body count but not too much in the way of horror or unpleasantness. The basic series premise is that alongside all us normal folk, London is home to a number of supernatural entities, and magic (to a limited degree) works. The rivers themselves are real, and manifest themselves with human-seeking avatars (more than that: the flesh and blood rivers are the rivers, and so are the flowing water versions. Maybe this was explained fully in the first book – certainly not here – maybe it doesn’t matter).

Anyhow. People start dying. There is an expensive flat in One Park Lane where an exclusive party leads to an extravagant murder. The daughter of Lady Ty (aka the River Tyburn) was there and is clearly a key witness but is being evasive. Supernatural detective Peter Grant is on the case, supported/undermined by his river-goddess girlfriend Beverley (also the sister of Lady Ty).

More people die. Americans turn up. There is a hunt for a magical work by Sir Isaac Newton. Wizards and other unpredictable weird people pop in and out. And then the series nemesis The Faceless Man turns up, at the centre of the plot orchestrating all sorts of nastiness.

This book is very funny. Aaranovitch imbues his characters with great voices and great personalities. They are cynical, sarcastic, duplicitous, unpredictable and irrational. It is the sixth in the series and you would expect that by now the characters and the plots would become stale, but Aaranovitch clearly has not lost enthusiasm for his charges and as readers neither do we. It’s a fantasy/detective story mash-up, and it works very well. More than a hint of Pratchett in the approach, but I am most minded of China Mieville’s Kraken or Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere. Both these novels talk of hidden, magical Londons and both are full of offbeat rogues (both the good guys and the bad guys). All have magical detective agencies too (in the Rivers series Grant works for the Folly where people who can do magic hunt for people – and other creatures – who do bad things with magic. So despite its quirks The Hanging Tree could be accused of being short on originality. But then, so was Harry Potter and look where that ended up.

As a standalone this book works because the backstory is deftly recapped, and once you buy into the setting and overall scenario the action pleasantly bumps along. But as the book reaches its denouement it’s clear that more context is needed. The nemesis, The Faceless Man, is not well developed here – all his story and the build-up of his evil ways takes place in earlier stories – and the needs of series writing dictate that the inevitable sequel is not just trailed but required. In other words, this novel ends with a pause and not a proper ending.

The book is tightly plotted, like most detective stories, but its fantasy elements rob it of the rigour and grit of a true police procedural. It is hardly noir and it will not readers you to bed with nightmares, but it’s funny and well plotted with enough tension, suspense, twists and turns to make for an engaging read. Recommended.

Mark Bilsborough

See also Ian's take on The Hanging Tree.

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