072 – Midnight Riot by Ben Aaronovitch


Probationary Constable Peter Grant dreams of being a detective in London’s Metropolitan Police. Too bad his superior plans to assign him to the Case Progression Unit, where the biggest threat he’ll face is a paper cut. But Peter’s prospects change in the aftermath of a puzzling murder, when he gains exclusive information from an eyewitness who happens to be a ghost. Peter’s ability to speak with the lingering dead brings him to the attention of Detective Chief Inspector Thomas Nightingale, who investigates crimes involving magic and other manifestations of the uncanny. Now, as a wave of brutal and bizarre murders engulfs the city, Peter is plunged into a world where gods and goddesses mingle with mortals and a long-dead evil is making a comeback on a rising tide of magic.
sigh

Goddammit. I wanted to like this one. I really, really, really did. It has a lot going for it. Midnight Riot, also known as Rivers of London across the pond, has, while not the most original premise, certainly an engaging voice. It’s got that dry British humor going on, an initially likable hero, an intriguing world and diverse cast, a science(ish)-based magic system, and a POC protagonist who doesn’t read like a white guy with a paint job. It was close, SO CLOSE, to enjoyable.

Unfortunately, it’s first and foremost a blatant male wish-fulfillment fantasy, which I could have endured, if the female characters hadn’t ended up a casualty of the male-centric plot. Midnight Riot is heavy on the sexism: sometimes subtle, sometimes…not so much, but present and grating enough to make it a problem for me.

Sigh.

But let’s talk about the good things first for once, eh?

Four Things I Liked About Midnight Riot:


1. It’s Funny

Aaronovitch knows his stuff. Midnight Riot tends towards dry and subversive humor, and Aaronovitch is very good at using characters and archetypes familiar to the genre in funny and unexpected ways. The dialog is, for the most part, sharp and conversations have the sort of timing you’d expect from someone with a history of penning witty television shows. Riot and its world and its characters have the feel of a slightly wacky, weekly supernatural police procedural, and I could easily see it working as one.

Not every joke works, of course, but more than anything else the deadpan tone of the novel kept me reading and interested, even through two seriously meandering, disconnected plots, and an often history-heavy narrative.

2. It Has a Truly Diverse Cast

Midnight Riot was one of the few books with a POC protagonist where I feel like the author didn’t just label a white protagonist black or Asian or Native American and been done with it. Peter’s race actively impacts his life and his experiences – the way people react to him on the subway, or during a riot, or even in his job, he is aware of how his skin color makes a difference. It’s not heavy-handed or preachy or the point of the story, it’s just an aspect of Peter’s life, and I think Aaronovitch handled that aspect quite well.

There’s also a higher-than-average number of characters of color, in general. Dr. Walid, the coroner, is Scottish Muslim, and Peter’s mother, of course, is an immigrant from Sierra Leon. His love interest, Beverly Brook, the powerful Mama Thames, and the majority of the rivers of London are African women. They all seem to largely avoid stereotypes, though I find the success of Bev and Mama Thames’ portrayal a little sketchier – but that has more to do with the treatment of their genders than their race.

3. The Magic System is Really, Really Cool

I’m not one to give a shit about this sort of thing, usually, but Midnight Riot‘s science-based magic system caught my fancy. Peter is actually surprisingly inquisitive after he’s chosen to begin training as a wizard, and doesn’t let the revelation of magic and monsters and ghosts shake his confidence in the laws of science and nature that make up his understanding of the world. Like a hero after my own heart, Peter doesn’t just accept that magic works “because magic”. Instead, he immediately begins applying the laws of physics to them.

Peter questions. He experiments. He formulates theories, and then he tests them, and through his reasoning, we get a basic understanding of how magic works, in more scientific terms than usual. Magical spells are discussed in terms of joules and newtons; conservation of mass, energy, the laws of thermodynamics – they all apply. It’s not all hand-waving and mystical force – the magic has consequences.

One memorable example is when Peter runs a series of experiments to discover why casting spells results in the destruction of nearby electronics – including his cell phone. After a series of tests, he is not only able to give a reasonable explanation as for why, but also figures out how far the sphere of damage extends, and how to avoid it all together. It’s neat stuff.

Granted, SCIENCE! can only go so far in explaining supernatural phenomenon, and there comes a time when both Peter and his teacher have to admit that they just don’t know how some magic works, scientifically, but there was enough detail that I didn’t really mind when we got to that point. What I liked was that the magic was limited; it has rules, it requires repeated practice and study and patience, so Peter can’t just whip out a wand and deus ex machina his way through the book with some random badass spell ten levels above his proficiency (though, of course, this doesn’t prevent other magical deities from deus ex-ing to their heart’s content).

The point is, the system more firmly grounds Peter Grant’s world in reality than most any other urban fantasy series I’ve come across. It’s well thought-out and detailed, and I appreciate that.

4. Peter Grant Has the Potential to be a Cool Character

I’m of two minds about Peter. On the one hand, I wanted to like him. He’s not a dick-head Alpha male convinced he knows better than everyone else. He’s actually got an underdog feel: he’s not quite attentive enough to be a good police officer, he’s best friends with a woman he desperately wants to date, and he’s destined for a life of paperwork, until the ghost shows up. He commits to studying magic, but he’s still got to practice like anyone else, and he makes plenty of dumb mistakes on the long road to solving the book’s mystery. He’s just kind of an average guy.

So what’s the problem? Well, I mean, did you read that last paragraph? Every last bit of that makes Peter a perfect nerd wish-fulfilment insert. He’s the meek, ignored, everyday beta-male who is chosen by fate to become the hero, who gets the super-sweet magician’s apprentice gig instead of the mundane paper-pushing desk job he dreaded, who saves the day and gets the hot girlfriend and shows all those doubters what’s what.

One Thing that Utterly Killed Midnight Riot  for Me


Misogyny!

Given the over-saturation of male wish-fulfillment characters in the general media, this kind of story isn’t for everyone, but I really could have gotten past that, if, if, the women hadn’t been so completely filtered through this lens. Like, how so much of Peter’s story seemed designed to pointedly get the one-up on his dastardly friendzoning female counterpart, Lesley.

Lesley and Peter’s careers run parallel throughout the story. They start as Probationary Constables together (which I gather are basically police interns?), and when the story begins, are about to be set on their relatively permanent career paths. Lesley is a far better copper than Peter. As previously mentioned, he’s got a short attention span and tends to overlook things and take the easy route, where as Lesley is sharp and smart and determined and hard-working. She’s on the fast track for a relatively exciting position on a major case squad, and Peter is looking forward to a life of paperwork. I thought that was really cool, for a moment there. It’s incredibly rare for an author to let their character – especially a male character – be outshone by a woman at anything. It was looking to be a very promising potential dynamic, until, y’know, magic.

Suddenly, Peter is the newest member of this super-exclusive and male-dominated underground line of wizards, who work for the police to keep magical crime under control. He moves into a super-swanky old-style mansion (complete with female housemaid), has an easy-going, capable mentor, starts investigating exciting crimes and learning magic and driving his boss’ Jag, and hanging out with sexy river goddesses, and generally living out his fantasy. In the meantime, what is Lesley doing? Grunt work. Turns out being the junior member of a major crime squad means she has to pay her dues with out a lot of boring paperwork and legwork, while Peter is out there having car chases with river monsters.

This whole plot element, with Peter and Lesley’s careers, feels like comeuppance to me. Like Lesley is being put in her place for daring to aspire to have a better career than her male counterpart, even though she deserved it, even though he wasn’t really cut out for it. Peter is rewarded for happening to be special, while Lesley’s hard work is devalued.

I felt like most of the prominent female characters in this story were there to fill one male-fantasy role or another. If they aren’t being put in their place, they’re there to give Peter a boner, to shove their boobs in his face. Every one of them is objectified, some actively using their sexuality to arouse and tease Peter, others doing so accidentally by proximity, while being “kind enough not to say anything”. Except for the women who are there to look stupid, or be ridiculed, or are just – GASP – ugly. For example:

The voice belonged to a plump round-faced woman of the sort that develops a good personality because the alternative is suicide.
Hahahahaha, but no really, fuck off, Aaronovitch. You know, it’s lines like that that make me think the author might not have the most enlightened view of women. She’s just so UNATTRACTIVE TO MEN, you see, and since her life has NO OTHER VALUE, she must have NOTHING TO LIVE FOR. LOL RIGHT.

And hey, how ’bout the sole lesbian in the book, described thusly:

A DS from the Murder Team arrived and took charge. She was a squat, angry-faced middle-aged woman with lank brown hair who looked like she fought Rottweilers for a hobby. This was the legendary Detective Sergeant Miriam Stephanopoulos, Seawoll’s right-hand woman and terrifying lesbian.
Hahaha, a butch stereotype, you say? What’s that? And man, that ~terrifying lesbian~ part is totally relevant, yeah?

I give up

So yeah, it was right around that time I just gave in to the sinking suspicion of misogyny. It’s a shame, too, because I could potentially get to like some of these female characters if they weren’t there for Peter’s pleasure, or seen through his juvenile filter. Beverly, a river goddess and the primary love interest, seemed like she could be a cool in a differently-focused book, but here she was essentially Peter’s Manic Pixie Dream Girl reward for enduring years of sexless cuddling with Lesley. While she had neat powers and a fun, confident personality, all of that felt wasted in this role. I’d love to see her as the lead of her own story.

The same goes for Lesley. Again, I really thought that the Lesley-Peter dynamic, the “better copper” and magician’s apprentice, would make the two of them equals in this, would bring something new to the story. But while there were a few nice moments where the two worked together, getting in over their heads like some junior detective duo, they were overshadowed by the ultimate direction of the book.

Because, you see, Lesley was never Peter’s partner or equal – she was an unwitting victim and villain all along. She was possessed by the ghost of the bad guy, a dead actor who played the “role” of Lesley so well that even Peter had to congratulate him for it at the end. Through almost the entirety of the book, neither her body nor her actions were under her control. In the end, despite her competence and skill, Lesley was reduced to a damsel, a puppet, a hostage that Peter had to defeat the bad guy to save. And as if that weren’t punishment enough, that conflict still ends with her face being permanently maimed and mangled for the experience.

So yeah, that whole thread and twist can just fuck right the fuck off, thank you very much.

I don’t even know what to say about Molly, the “Japanese-looking” mute semi-vampiric housemaid whose one personality trait is that she is ashamed of her monstrous mouth. She’s there to cook and clean and be a wacky domesticated house monster, and provide plot-convenience powers when they become necessary. The epilogue would have us believe that she – or someone who looks a lot like her – goes out looking to get raped so that her vaginal teeth can bite the penis off her attacker. I don’t know if that’s a thread they’re going to pick up in the next book or what, but it’s some very poorly handled random shit tucked on to the end of this book. Aside from the incredibly offensive implications about rape victims, the dry, humorous tone of the narrative is a severe misfire here. It reads almost vaguely sympathetic to the rapist, as if he’d just been some kind involved in a trifling youthful offense, who’d bitten off more than he could chew. No disgusting pun intended.

fuck it

Moving on.

There were a few issues with the prose and plot as well, of course. Aaronovitch is very fond of his city, it seems, because the book is rife with the history of London: its streets, its buildings, its institutions. Most descriptions of new locations start with something like this:

University College Hospital takes up two whole blocks between Tottenham Court Road and Gower Street. Founded in the nineteenth century, its main claim to fame was as the teaching hospital for the University College of London and the birthplace of one Peter Grant, apprentice wizard. Since that momentous day in the mid-1980s, half the site had been redeveloped into a gleaming blue and white tower that looked as if a bit of Brasilia had crash-landed in the middle of Victorian London.
There’s enough wit to keep it from becoming too tedious, but you get to the point to where you can predictably skim the first couple of paragraphs with an intro like this, because it’s largely irrelevant history until Peter brings the narration back around to the subject at hand.

The plot is er, well, divided. One thread follows Peter in his quest to foster peace between the scuffling followers of Mama and Papa Thames, which facilitates his relationship with Beverly and explores the more magical side of the world. The other is the one on the flap summary, the bizarre murders and random acts of violence, perpetrated by some unknown supernatural force. The problem is that the two plots don’t ever really come together, and stall around the middle. We flip from one conflict to the other, exploring, yes, but also wasting pages until it’s time for the climax.

That really didn’t bother me much, though. The book was always engaging, if not quite compelling, and never a chore to read, which is part of what makes Midnight Riot such a real disappointment. It could have been something really grand, you know? It had so much going for it, but oh man. There are a lot of things I can look past, okay, but reducing female characters with real potential to props in a male power fantasy will ruin the enjoyment of any story for me very quickly.

two stars


 

7 Responses

  1. Shannon

    October 2, 2012 11:42 am, Reply

    Hi! I see you’re swamped with books right now, but I thought you (and your readers) might be interested to know that my new urban fantasy novel, The Millennial Sword, will be free to download from Amazon between now and Friday, Oct. 5. I hope you’ll take a look–no misogyny, I promise 🙂 Thanks very much!

    http://www.amazon.com/dp/B009JW9K4M/

  2. Carolee Croft

    November 13, 2016 9:38 pm, Reply

    Yes, you really nailed it with this review. I couldn’t even finish the book because I didn’t like the way things were going with the women’s roles. The nerdy magic stuff wasn’t my cup of tea anyway.

  3. dragonslayingprincess

    January 4, 2017 8:33 am, Reply

    Heh, it’s really interesting read your thoughts on this. Usually you and Fangs are on the same page, but you both have opposite views on this. I’m in the middle.

    I am Londoner, and after being stuck with the nine billionth novel set in rural America (sorry I really grow weary of the setting and as an outsider find the romanticism of the South quite perplexing), where America is the only place that seems to matter, this was wonderful. I loved his portrayal of Grant and POC and Lady Tyburn was fantastic. I like how well researched the police role seemed to be. I like Stephanopolous because she felt real and was likable (as this type of butch lesbian usually is IRL).

    I hated Beverley’s sexualisation and something about the fact he was 19 and he in his mid twenties made me raise eyebrows. Now, there are plenty of age difference relationships (always with an older male), but at these ages I remember how big a difference that age gap was to me when i was 18 (compared to say, a 39 and 44 year old), plus having this hot. perky teenager for Grant to drool over felt so much like male wish fulfillment. I think it might be how it was written, but she was so male fantasy material rather than an agent and it felt skeevy.

    You also nailed it with Lesley. God, I hated that so much. I hated when she becomes a magic user in the later book, because of course that means she’s essentially a side kick and one step behind Grant. Why couldn’t she have her independence and be their contact in the Mainstream police?

    Gah- mixed feelings about this series.

  4. Carolee Croft

    March 4, 2017 1:57 pm, Reply

    Strangely enough, this book was recommended to me by a female friend. I really couldn’t get past the sexism, and actually I didn’t like the magic or the way it was portrayed either. It rather bored me.

    • dragonslayingprincess

      June 2, 2017 2:37 pm, Reply

      Ikr me too. With magic I always prefer it to be something big and incredible- and when it’s in a story set in the modern world I need it to be something that isn’t completely eclipsed by technology.

      The magic just felt a bit too… understated for my tastes.

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