In November of 2019, Chaosium announced they were producing an RPG for Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London urban fantasy series. The series sounded familiar to me and sure enough, I had the first book, Midnight Riot in my Kindle and Audible libraries, Unread, alas. (Note – Midnight Riot is the US name of the work – in the UK it goes by Rivers of London – being a yank I’ll go with the American title.
The protagonist of Midnight Riot is Peter Grant. Peter’s father, Richard, was a Jazz trumpeter whose career was fizzled by his heroin addiction. Richard is a functional addict, receiving his heroin legally. His mother, unnamed in the first book, is from Sierra Leone and immigrated to the UK and was his primary caregiver. Grant suspects she is related to approximately half of North Africa given the people she stays in touch with.
Peter is completing his probationary period as a London police officer, along with Lesley May, whom he is close friends with – and who he wishes he was more than friends with. She is a better police officer than Grant – pointing out how easily distracted Grant can be. For example, failing to notice he was about to get into a fight with a bunch of drunks at Trafalgar Square because he was busy reading an inscription that interested him.
Rounding out the main protagonists is Thomas Nightingale. Nightingale is a police detective – and a wizard. So is Grant as it turns out…
When the book opens Grant is about to be assigned a desk job while May has been assigned a far more desirable position. However, Grant managed to avoid this. Shortly before his assignment he was, with May, at the scene of a murder and encountered a ghost who witnessed the crime. Only Grant met the ghost – May was grabbing some coffee. Later on, Grant returns to the scene of the crime, trying to find the ghost again. Detective Nightingale is there this time and when he asks what Grant is doing there, Grant answers truthfully, though not expecting to be believed – effectively, “I’m trying to find the ghost I talked to the other night….”
That gets Nightingale’s attention – he pulls some strings to get Grant assigned to him. Seeing that Grant has a gift for magic, as evidenced by his encountering a ghost, he takes Grant on as an apprentice. He tells Grant that he is effectively the one-person magic division of the London police. Other higher-ups are aware of this and, for the most part, believe it, even if they aren’t particularly crazy about it, They basically leave Nightingale to do his own thing.
As the book progresses, there are three parallel plot threads. First is Grant’s apprenticeship. It proceeds slowly, allowing us, the readers, to learn about the magical world, along with Grant. Nightingale, by his own admission, needs to relearn the fundamentals behind a lot of magic – it has been decades since he learned magic. Grant is extremely curious as to the “why” aspect of magic. Why, for example, does his phone short out when he uses magic? Is that what is powering the magic? If not, what is? This leads Grant to go own his own investigations as to the nature of magic. While lacking a college education, Grant is too inquisitive and has enough grounding in science to let things be.
The second plot thread is a series of murders taking place in London, centered around apparently ordinary people giving into supernatural levels of rage.
The final plot thread is a conflict brewing between Mama Thames and Papa Thames. Papa Thames is the personification of the Thames upstream of London (technically upstream of Teddington Lock). Mama Thames is the personification of the river downstream. Mama Thames has daughters and Papa Thames has sons – all of them personifications of tributaries of the Thames (many of the London tributaries actually being underground).
Though these plot threads initially seem to be distinct from one another, as the novel progresses the various plots all come together.
So what’s the book like? In addition to being the primary protagonist, Grant is also the narrator. He makes a good narrator. We get the impression of a fairly bright guy, a bit geeky, not super-educated but not ignorant – and who made the most of the education he received. Grant’s not perfect – it takes him a while to succeed in his first spell – but he is persistent and extremely difficult to stop once he puts his mind to something. The character being easily distracted makes his narration into bits of trivia quite believable – I absolutely believe a conversation with Grant could take you on some very interesting tangents. Grant clearly loves being a Londoner, with all the history behind that city.
The series that comes to mind as a point of comparison would be Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files. While I’ve read all of those books, I’ve only read the first of the Rivers of London series, so I can’t make a perfect comparison. Based on this start, I find the two series quite different, to the detriment of neither. When we are introduced to Harry Dresden he is a fully trained wizard but also on the outs with the wizard community. Peter Grant is just learning about magic and he’s a lot better at de-escalating scenarios than Harry Dresden. Dresden has a tendency to bring about chaos where Grant seems to be more a force for order – for example, his efforts to bring about some peace between Mama and Papa Thames.
Overall, I liked the book a great deal. I had a few moments where I had to stop and pause to review everything going on. I found myself liking Peter Grant and the other protagonists a great deal – I want to learn more about them and see more of them.
As far as an RPG goes, I could definitely see how the setting would work great for an RPG. I’m looking forward to it. In the meantime, I guess I’ll need to work through the rest of the series.
~ Daniel Stack
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