Book Review

Midnight Riot by Ben Aaronovich

First, a note: this is more of a review of the series, but the books therein need to be read in order so I shall start here. Second, I will avoid spoilers as much as possible, focusing mostly on what I like, what I find bothersome, and whether I recommend the book and the series. The grade above is both for this book and the series as a whole – lucky for me they line up, which doesn’t always happen.

As I mentioned in a recent Whatcha Reading post, both my husband Adam and I are reading these books one after the other.

Well, he’s reading one after the other. I take breaks every two to read another book in a different series. If I don’t, the pattern of the writing becomes to distracting. I think because my brain loves to pick out a pattern, glomming one author or one series for too long is detrimental to my enjoyment. I notice the writerly tics and they smother some of my interest. I also read very quickly, so even with reading other novels in between, we are keeping about the same pace as far as plot twists and character developments. A number of our dinner conversations have begun with, “Where are you in…?”

In Midnight Riot, London police officer Peter Grant is working when a ghost starts talking to him. As you do. This leads to his involvement in The Folly, a somewhat secretive and very old branch of the police department specializing in magic, or, as it’s referred to in the series, “weird bollocks.” Peter becomes the first apprentice wizard in a long ass time, working with Nightingale, the last remaining wizard/police officer.

Each successive book after Midnight Riot (the UK title is Rivers of London) builds on the larger magical world and the (many) problems therein, while also solving an individual case. There are mystery elements, various relationships and characters that appear and recede, and a whole bunch of different individuals, including goddesses, fae, wildlife that may be more conversant with humanity than one would suspect, and more weird bollocks.

Black Mould graphic novel cover with Guleed and Grant in full body hazmat suits

I’m immensely enjoying this series, even though there are a number of things I find a little frustrating.

Also, I have skipped the graphic novels because I’ve discovered that the illustrated version of the characters was so at odds with my own mental image, I was irritated when I tried to read them. (I know, my brain can be very diva-like.)

What I like about this series:

  1. Language is a character – I couldn’t ask for a more enjoyable piece of catnip for my nerdery interests. Just as in some books the setting can be a character, in this series, the slang and colloquial language define individual people, signal a multitude of elements about each person (among them class because whoadamn do multiple systems of class play a role in this world), and create a linguistic environment that’s almost as much of a puzzle as the plot. It’s a good thing I’m reading this on my Kindle because I stop and look things up constantly. (I’ve also heard that the audiobooks are terrific for the same reason, so I might start listening to them after I’m done.) The language is so much fun for me.
  2. Women have to explain things to Peter All The Time – Peter is intelligent, and has a scientific way of looking at the magical world he’s learning about, but there are several secondary characters, Lesley May and Sahra Guleed among them, who have to explain things to Peter that he missed entirely. Peter is not the most special of all the wizards, and is pretty regularly undone by his own bad habits (which can be frustrating and satisfying).
  3. Random delightful references to all manner of fun stuff – I don’t think there has been a narrative from which Adam and I have texted one another more quotes. There was a Phineas and Ferb reference that delighted me for days. The random pop culture bits are delightful, and ground the world in a contemporary reality that makes the magical “weird bollocks” (yup, I really like saying that) seem plausible as well. And I feel pretty pleased with myself when I catch one. I also enjoy Peter’s internal nerdy monologues about architecture, which is one of his secret passions, one he’s deeply opinionated about.
  4. Casual inclusion, casual prejudice – Peter is a character of mixed race, and the stories are told from his point of view. This means that he mentions the race of every character, partly because he’s a police officer who by training learns to catalog such things, and partly because he’s not operating in a worldview of white default. There are characters of different classes and backgrounds, all casually inclusive in a way that makes this world seem very, very real. (Reality! It’s awesome.) There are also so many moments of casual racism directed at or around Peter, and there’s a repeated, powerful contrast between his mental tally of who said what and at which time, and his outward absence of reaction.
  5. Women’s power is relentlessly underestimated – I’m just at a point in the series where the fact that the power of the women around Peter and Nightingale has been misunderstood and dismissed might be about to rise up and chomp them both in the butt, and I’m pretty excited about that. It’s past due.

Things that bug me:

  1. Plot, plot, procedural development, plot, OH MY GOD IT IS THE END WHAT THE HELL JUST HAPPENED – The development of the story takes place bit by bit, which I like because instead of getting information in heaping teaspoon-sized helpings, sometimes I get 1/8th of a teaspoon, and sometimes it’s one grain of salt at a time. But when the Solid Waste Connects With the Air Circulating Device my gosh does it splatter everywhere fast. When there is action of any kind, it mostly happens in the last few chapters, sometimes the last few pages, and I have to go back and re-read. And you can count on all sorts of shit going down in the last few chapters as much as you could count on a purple prose sex scene within 10 pages of the cardboard insert in an old Zebra romance. To quote Horse eBooks, everything happens so much. And each time, at the end, it can be too much, especially when several books in a row follow this pattern.
  2. Women have to explain things to Peter All The Time – There are times when I’d much rather follow characters like Guleed or Beverley or Abigail much more than I would Peter. His character can become so boring and repetitive, while they are interesting and complex in ways he isn’t. This perspective may be because I am so used to romance that having interesting women not at the center of the story can make me surly and impatient, and because Peter is narrating the story so of course I get overly-familiar with his POV. I suspect there are millions of bytes worth of fanfic focused on Beverley, Molly, and every other character – Toby! Toby fanfic! – because I can’t be the only reader who wants to follow them home.
  3. Peter can be obtuse to screamingly obvious degrees – There are a few incidents where something weird happens, and despite weird being his literal business, Peter shrugs and is like, “Oh, well, whatever.” It’s not just Chekhov’s gun he’s walking past. He ambles blithely by Chekhov’s howitzer mounted on a Gustav spray painted hot pink. Maybe it’s a thing that the women both in the story and reading the story are sometimes more aware than Peter?
  4. Women sometimes rest on the fringes of the fridge – Bad shit happens to some of the women closest to Peter, which is boring and predictable. How those women respond (if they aren’t dead) is fascinating, but it’s still a giant let down for women to be constantly harmed while the multitude of dudes Peter counts as allies and colleagues seem to end up perfectly fine.

This series has been a terrific brain reset for me. Jumping back and forth between this series and Ilona Andrews’ Hidden Legacy series has been fascinating as an exercise in comparison and contrast in terms of world building, romantic plot elements, and character development. I haven’t finished either series, but the way in which the respective magical worlds are built and power is managed mean I have a lot to think about while I read. Thinky brain is happy brain.

As for whether I recommend this series for romance fans, I do, though obviously you have to suspend all genre expectations at the door. As a reader who loves immersive deep dives into different aspects of various cultures, and who loves puzzles and language, this is a lot of my catnip. Reading it concurrently with Adam is also part of what makes it fun on a personal level, but it’s a series and world that comes with a lot to talk about, too. If you’re looking for a blend of mystery and magic and like snarky deadpan narration, there’s a lot here you’ll enjoy, too.

Have you read this series? What do you think? Are you keeping up with it? 

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Midnight Riot by Ben Aaronovitch

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  1. Gillian B says:

    But … but … but what about the most gorgeous, mysterious, well dressed, well-spoken awesome character of all???? WHAT ABOUT NIGHTINGALE?????

  2. Antipodean Shenanigans says:

    I read the first one, and while it wasn’t my thing, I did enjoy it in the end. It’s basically Law and Order: Special Magic Unit. The writing is absolutely spot on.

  3. SB Sarah says:

    @Gillian: OH MY GOSH. He’s probably the subject of the most fanfic after Molly, right?

  4. Carla Newenglander says:

    I just finished the sixth book, The Hanging Tree, and am now at the frustrating “I have to wait HOW long for the next one?!” stage. I completely agree with your comments especially wanting more from the female characters (I love Guleed!).

    I highly recommend listening to the audiobooks. They are read by Kobna Holdbrook-Smith, who is simply brilliant. His repertoire of accents, character voices, and attention to nuance and rhythm/pace is masterful. My public library had the first five audiobooks in this series (via Overdrive) but not the sixth, so I made the leap and joined Audible just so I could listen to it!

    I don’t consider Peter to be boring, but my perception probably has a lot to do with Kobna’s performance.

    By the way, there is a free story in the Rivers of London on Audible called “A Rare Book of Cunning Device.” The most recent novella “The Furthest Station” is not yet available in audiobok form, to my immense disappointment.

    P.S. I am a longtime lurker (and podcast listener) but almost never comment. Thank you to you and the rest of the Bitchery for all that you do!

  5. SB Sarah says:

    Hi Carla! You’re so right about Kobna Holdbrook-Smith. We listened to the free short story, “A Rare Book of Cunning Device,” and it was brilliantly done. I think I may restart the series on audiobook and listen while I walk the dogs. And thank you for commenting, and for the compliments!!

  6. Gillian B says:

    SB – absolutely. In fact, I really must write that Nightingale/Sherlock/Laundry Series crossover fic that’s been calling me for far too long. Once I finish with the Crossdressing Earl first draft…

  7. Shaheen says:

    I tried to read this when Rivers of London first came out (Christmas with English relatives who recommended it strongly) but didn’t get far. Then I got it on sale from Audible. Kobna makes all those little writerly ticks irrelevant. He is so good. Different accents, voices, everything.
    I love the way Peter describes every single character by their race. As a person of mixed race myself, this is one of those micro-aggressions that took me a while to notice, but then really bugged me: that most writers, across genres, will describe or signal characters of color, but assume white is the default. For me this got to the point that when an author did not put big flags of COLOR HERE on her POC characters, I assumed they were all white, which really shames me now (Coincidentally, Illona Andrew’s Kate Daniel series. I read it thinking Atlanta can’t be so white, then on rereading realized Oh it isn’t :facepalm:) . Aaronovitch goes the other direction by labelling EVERYBODY.
    The other thing I like is that London is one of the main characters in this book. Obscure bits of history and locations are lovingly researched and described. In print I would probably glaze over this, but Kobna makes it really interesting.

  8. Jane Ashford says:

    Love these books!

  9. SB Sarah says:

    @Shaheen: Yes, I completely agree – on both counts. I also think that the descriptions of London that show up in tense or action-filled moments are almost like defense or coping mechanisms for Peter’s brain. This building has been here for x-hundred years, and his brain fills in all the details, then back to the action. Initially I found it baffling, but once I got used to it, I took it as part of his character.

  10. Nicole says:

    Oh man, if you’re enjoying the series, you’ll like the most recent novella- The Furthest Station. The story includes Abigail and her goals, and she is fucking awesome.

    I agree, though- the women in this series are often MUCH more interesting than Peter. I’d love to spend more time with them. Guleed and Stephanopoulous are my personal faves.

  11. Rebecca says:

    Rivers of London is one of my favorite series ever. Peter is so droll and his dry wit just grabs me. I’ve reread the whole series numerous times just for the fun of the language. The descriptions of London’s neighborhoods and histories are fascinating. Peter is clueless many times but I kinda like it b/c there are SO many stories where the protagonist is THE CHOSEN ONE with EXACT skill/power/trait to save the world. Having Peter bumble around and have to ask for help is somewhat refreshing.

    My library doesn’t have the audio versions but I might need to get them!

  12. Lara says:

    @Gillian and Sarah–The author was/is involved with Dr. Who, and somewhere in an interview mentioned that he kind of saw Paul McGann (the 8th Doctor) as Nightingale. Yes, please and thank you!

    I adore this series, they’re day-one purchases whenever a new one comes out. I agree with all the quibbles, and will add one more. Peter has *almost* caught a Major Villain, or figured out a major plot point *not quite* in time, far too often at this point in the series. I understand this happens in long-running series, but it’s becoming very noticeable. He needs to have an unqualified victory sometime soon, or he’ll decide he’s a bad copper and quit.

  13. Rikki says:

    I like Peter’s POV because it’s not really one that I’ve seen before. I want to see more from the other characters but I like Peter’s perspective. Like a lot of y’all I love that he always notes the race of other characters. Honestly, I was a little surprised that the author was white.

  14. Elizabeth says:

    I love these books and their portrayal of a magical, diverse London and environs.The hidden rivers are a fascinating subject in their own right (there was a show on PBS some time ago that touched on this;I’d love to see a full documentary.) My only real criticism of the series is that I can’t follow the passage of time clearly – I think I’m reading a scene set in, e.g. the evening, and all of a sudden it’s morning or afternoon or what have you. It can be very confusing.

  15. Kelsey says:

    I’ve been listening to the audiobooks, which really are worth trying as Kobna Holbrook-Smith does an amazing job. I just finished the 6th book and although I’d been plowing through the previous books, I struggled with this one. I too only read, or rather listened to, the 6 novels. Through book five the story flows pretty seamlessly from book to book, but the 6th one, especially in the beginning, had references to adventures I didn’t know (one had to do with Guleed and magic cars?) and interactions between characters that didn’t make sense with where they had left off in the previous book. It felt like I missed a book. Perhaps it was covered in a graphic novel or novella, but I couldn’t determine that from the blurbs on those stories and I’ll admit I will still feel a bit cheated if it was. I’m hoping this is a blip though and I do plan to check out the next book and maybe read the novellas in the meantime.

  16. kkw says:

    I read the first three or four, and I read them all together, because I liked them so much, but then I stopped enjoying them – because I read them all together. I got sick of the patterns, which is a thing that always happens when I binge read an author, and yet I do it all the time.
    So I know it’s entirely on me that I had to break up with the series, and yet, I confess persist in resenting the books. It really seemed like Peter was becoming routinely TSTL because Plot required it, and then it was always a woman who paid the price.

  17. Kate says:

    I love these books! As a Londonophile AND a British history AND an architecture nerd, they are a giant ball of catnip for me, but it does help that I have a wait between books as they come out so I don’t overdose on the chaos.

  18. ReneeG says:

    I’ve just started the series, and am picking up #6 tomorrow from the library (I’ve been buying the books for Kindle on sale – need more sales!). I’ve enjoyed them all, with quibbles. Some of the best things: Nightingale’s past (everything Nightingale, really), Peter’s way of including others (his work with Abigail, his idea of getting the WWII wizards together from #5), his work to combine science and magic, all the architectural tidbits.

    So, if #6 isn’t the end of the series, will it take another 2.5 years to get another book? Yikes!

  19. Caitlin says:

    I pretty much adore these but it’s hard AF for me to get them because my library doesn’t have them, and none of the libraries in the damn system have them, and wtf. So I order the trade paperbacks, slowly, which tears at my soul, because I hate paperbacks. Hardcovers ftw, but when one is broke one must make tragic concessions.

  20. DonnaMarie says:

    I just finished Midnight Riot yesterday, having finally given in to all the recs I kept seeing. I foresee whiling my way through autumn with the rest of the series.

  21. Good Vittles says:

    I really like these books, but it might be worth noting that there is some *extremely* gruesome violence sometimes.

    One of the things I liked most, and found really interesting, was the attention paid to Peter’s experiences of race and his own cultural background. That said, I was kind of thrown when I find out that the author was white, and as a result his descriptions of Peter’s experiences don’t come from first-hand experiences on his part. Since I’ve read a lot of books where the characters are supposed to be from my cultural background but the presentation does not ring true to me, I’d really like to know what British people who are black or biracial think of the books.

    On the subject of describing every character’s race, the first time I came across that was reading The Enthusiast (by Josh Fruhlinger, who also runs The Comics Curmudgeon). It was a little jarring at first, and then I realized it was jarring because I’d never come across it before, and then I realized how strange that was. (I recommend that book in general, incidentally, and while it’s not a romance the main character’s love life is definitely part of the plot and gets wrapped up in a satisfying way.)

  22. chacha1 says:

    I love all the Rivers of London books. Have not read the comics because they won’t render legibly on my Kindle. The recent novella had a lot of catnip in it.

    I agree with pretty much all the pluses and minuses noted above, and would like to see sort of a retrenchment for Peter – getting back to focus on the Big Bad, and settle that once and for all. Not a fan of never-ending Nemesis storylines, especially ones that require 1) my hero to fail 2) innocent bystanders to get shredded.

    And I’d also like to see the author do a little straightforward summing-up in which is noted how much time is meant to have passed during the ongoing story to date. Because it seems, IIRC, very little time for the characters, and I think pulling that forward would help me and perhaps others not want to smack Peter for being a slow learner (he really hasn’t been at this very long, and was not a decades-experienced officer when it all started).

  23. @Good Vittles I had some of those same questions, but after some digging a few years ago (I’m a librarian, it’s what I do), I think that Aaronovitch based Peter in part on his son–he doesn’t talk about his family online much, but iirc his wife is of West African descent.

  24. Gloriamarie says:

    I was hoping all the names of the volumes would be listed but no!!! Now I gotta work to find out!!! Oh the hardship!!

  25. Gloriamarie says:

    Hmmm… My public library has the first volume in the series and the most recent on pre-order and skipped all the others. I requested that the order the ones in between.

  26. Melissandre says:

    I started reading the first one while finishing up a vacation to the UK. I must say, after spending 2 hours listening to the Met Police snark at/scold/lecture the crowd assembled for the changing of the guard, Aaronovich nails that “voice.”

  27. Megan M. says:

    @Caitlin, how good is your library system at making purchase requests? At the library I used to work at customers could fill out purchase request cards for materials that we didn’t have that they wanted, and they almost always got it and it didn’t take a very long time, maybe a month or so? It might be worth asking about.

  28. Caitlin says:

    Megan, that would be great except for what’s going on in it. I’m actually a librarian in my system, and our budget has been beyond slashed. We essentially can’t purchase books. It’s hit particularly hard in nonfiction (my area) but has also hit fiction. It’s kinda devastating.

  29. Codename V says:

    @Caitlin, does your library have an Amazon wishlist for donations? I’d love to donate items you all are looking to add to your collection.

  30. marjorie says:

    I loved the first book and have kept reading, but am not utterly smitten. There’s SO MUCH to like (funny, weird, so much interesting detail about police procedure), but I have issues with pacing (sometimes glacial, sometimes EVERYTHING HAPPENS AT LIGHTNING SPEED). I am with you on loving the female characters and wanting more of them. I don’t understand why Peter’s mother’s voice (or rather, the writing of her strong accent) changed so utterly in the third book — has that been discussed?

    I also haven’t found any villainy to be as CREEPY as the first book’s. But I only have book 6 to go, and you’re damn right I have a hold on it at the library.

  31. Ellie says:

    Voice of dissent here. I read Whispers Underground. It was pretty meh to me. Maybe because I started at book 3 instead of book one, but I don’t really think so. I have inadvertently started some of my favorite series well towards the back and still loved them. Of course, it has been so long ago since I read it that I can’t really tell you what I was underwhelmed by.

  32. Monittude says:

    @ Ellie, I love love love this series but I also remember thinking that Whispers Underground wasn’t great when I read it, whereas the first two (I thought) were brilliant. It’s one of the weaker books, Midnight Riot is definitely more interesting and engaging.

  33. Good Vittles says:

    Floating Lush, thanks for the information – that’s pretty interesting and somewhat reassuring.
    In general Aaronovitch seems like a mensch about race stuff; I looked around some online and saw some interviews where people asked how he decided to add multiracial characters or have a biracial lead, and his answer was basically ‘of course it’s multiracial, it’s London.’

  34. HL says:

    I also highly recommend the audio. It adds another dimension to the story – he’s that good. I also read for those times when the plot picks up and I’m like : wait, what? I’m on book 3 and for those times a place or name is mentioned from a previous book I refer to:
    Maybe it’s just me but I get a little lost sometimes in all the quick mentions.

  35. My husband and I have been reading this series for years. I agree with most of your points, but have to dissent on Peter being boring. I actually love his occasional obtuseness and even his bumbling from time to time for these reasons (1) I read him as having ADHD, he is prone to distraction, and that’s not something I find in most fictional characters. (2) I’m tired of mega talented protagonists. With Peter, it’s his dogged persistence and hard work that gets him to win the day, and to me, that makes hm all the more heroic. (3) How refreshing to read a series where the female characters (Gulleed is my favorite) are so competent by contrast. I doubt you would enjoy them so much if they didn’t best Peter as they often do. (4) What appeals to me most about Peter is hiis human decency and caring. I doubt these qualities would stand out as much if he was also amazing at his job.

    On a completely different point, I’m surprised nobody has mentioned that the books without the Faceless Man tend to work better than the ones where he features as the main villain. If I could rid this series of one character, it would be the Faceless Man. I hated what happened with Leslie in book five, but I can’t think of a way to rant about it without spoilers.

  36. Megan M. says:

    @Caitlin – Oh no! I’m so sorry. May your library system be blessed with a donor with deep pockets.

  37. I love this series SO VERY MUCH. And Kobna Holdbrook-Smith–O.M.G. (swoon)

    Re the comics, I would ask that you give them a chance, for a couple of reasons.

    1) I get the impression that the comics are things that wouldn’t fit in the books–that the previous book took so long because he had to excise all the bits that didn’t *quite* fit. So there is really good stuff there. (Like Molly sneaking to use Peter’s computer, and the Adventures of Toby.)

    2) One of the things I’ve noticed about the characters is that Peter and Nightingale are drawn ridiculously skinny, while the women are all shapes and sizes. This feels to me like turning the way women and men in comics are usually drawn on their heads. It took me a couple of volumes to realize it, but I really like it.

    3) Ben Aaronovitch wrote for TV, so the comics (IMO) are really well done. I read them initially on the Kindle, but the paper versions made a huge difference to how much I appreciated the story and the flow of the panels. (I rarely read comics I love on the kindle, because the experience is just … off.)

    Re other complaints, I love that Peter is often slow to pick things up. It makes him all the more real to me, and fits in with how the character was initially presented: He wants to be a superhero but is much better at the slog. He’s also a science geek, which makes him M more than Bond.

    And Guleed is also a favorite–she plays a much larger part in the comics, so there is something else to recommend them. 😉

  38. CK says:

    Thirding or fourthing listening to these books on audio! Kobna Holdbrook-Smith is a joy to listen to; he brought to life characters that would’ve slipped by me as simple support characters otherwise (Seawoll and Miriam Stephanapolous). I always stop and rewind “It’s the jazz police!” and Mother Thames’ monologues – he does them so well!

    Although I like being in Peter’s head (not getting the screamingly obvious makes him sadly very relatable to me) I hear you on wanting more from some of the women characters. I’m pretty satisfied with how Lesley is set up but would love to see more from Abigail and Sahra.

  39. Curly says:

    The first half audio short story “A Rare Book of Cunning Device” is basically a British Library porn. It seems like the author convinced someone to give him a tour and wrote a paean to it.

  40. JennyOH says:

    I’m about four books in and I have a lot of the same feelings about the series. Women are knowledgeable and active parts of the story, but Peter is dumb as a box of hair at times and needs things explained to him pretty often yet “gets to be” the main character. I almost never read series straight through because little quibbles can add up that way, and I have a feeling I would like this series a lot less if I didn’t take breaks with other books in between.

    That said, this is one of my favorite genres to read so I have a LOT of recommendations for fans. “London Falling” by Paul Cornell has the most similar feel, down to the author being another TV writer, which I think you can tell with both. Kate Griffin’s Matthew Swift series has a lot of the same love for the hidden spirit and history of London, BUT one quibble I have is the super high death rate of secondary, mostly female, characters.

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