Before I started reading „Rivers of London“ by Ben Aaronovitch I had often heard about people describing it as „Harry Potter for adults“ (which sounds really wrong to me because why wouldn’t the Harry Potter series itself already be for adults?) and while this had definitely made me more curious about the book it was never my main motivation to read it. I was primarily excited for the first book in the Peter Grant series because of two reasons: a) because it is a crime novel set in London (which is my favorite city of all those I’ve visited so far) and b) because it is a crime novel with MAGIC. I found the idea of a British policeman who is not only a wizard (or in this case a wizard’s apprentice) but also investigating crimes not in some made-up fantasy world but in the London of today pretty intriguing and had high hopes for a creative and original murder mystery with a magical touch.
A murder mystery with a wizard policeman? Bring it on!
Unfortunately „Rivers of London“ in my opinion failed on both the crime and the magic level. Let’s start with the crime aspect: I had at no point expected a super sophisticated mystery from this book and was prepared for a rather light-hearted case that would focus more on British humor than on the British talent for good crime stories. That’s why I was surprised by the quite violent beginning of this book which starts with a man being decapitated in the heart of London – now don’t get too excited and hope for bloody descriptions and lots of gore but I have to admit that the murder that was supposed to be the kick-off of this police investigation was crueler than I had expected and definitely attracted my attention and curiosity. Sadly Ben Aaronovitch didn’t really manage to keep me hooked to the case which was mostly to blame on the very chaotic plot that often seemed completely random to me and I all too often had the impression that clues fell from the sky just to keep the investigation going. I appreciated how the author tried to make the police work look realistic for example by bringing together different divisions of the police force but I was pretty disappointed by how little suspense there actually was.
Where’s the magic?
Another thing that failed to live up to my expectations was the magic part. I was never hoping for a story where wizards in odd cloaks and with old-looking wands would fight each other in the streets of London but overall I was really surprised by how little magical this book felt. On the one hand I liked that Aaronovitch didn’t turn this book into a full fantasy novel and tried to keep the magic aspect as realistic as something like that could possibly be but the result of this strategy was a magic system that felt completely boring to me. I hadn’t expected the main character to be a natural-born wizard but pretty much all Peter Grant got to do in this story was trying to create shapes in his hands and practice them over and over again without actually being able to use them for anything that was even remotely cool or impressive. But it wasn’t just the use of magic in this book that felt pretty underwhelming to me, I also didn’t find the whole magical world very convincing. As I already mentioned above this story was set in today’s London and not in some kind of Hogwarts for police wizards or whatever, which meant that the magical world was more or less hidden in plain sight. But I never fully understood if it was supposed to actually remain a secret because on the one hand the people who knew about the magic „underworld“ seemed to try to keep quiet about it but on the other hand I often had the impression that a) EVERYONE already knew or b) non-wizards didn’t really seem surprised when being confronted with magic and it was inconsistencies like this that made the worldbuilding appear rather poor and flat.
Police Constable Peter Grant a.k.a. Mr. Boring
Flat is a word that could also be assigned to the protagonist, police constable Peter Grant. Ben Aaronovitch made him a rather average police cop whose career seemed to be full of boring paperwork until Grant stumbled upon a ghost witness which eventually got him the ticket to the wizard world and while I appreciate the concept of a main character that isn’t a super hero but a „normal“ person I couldn’t help finding Peter Grant just as boring as the case he had to investigate. I can’t even say I didn’t like him because he seemed to be a nice guy and his clumsiness made for some amusing moments but overall I couldn’t really get myself to care about him. Also he often seemed a bit immature which resulted in a few funny scenes but could have also been annoying for example when Peter Grant was frequently thinking about getting into the pants of his female colleague and that sometimes seemed to be more important than solving the case.
However there was one thing about „Rivers of London“ that I really liked and where Ben Aaronovitch didn’t disappoint and that was the setting – and I mean the real setting, not the rather underwhelming magical world. The author did a pretty good job at describing the city of London and visiting all these familiar streets and places gave me quite a warm feeling and made me want to visit this amazing city again. If you’ve ever been to London and love the city just as much as I do than „Rivers of London“ will easily make you feel home.
A very mediocre novel with a mediocre plot and mediocre characters
When it comes to the rest of the book though it just felt like a lot of good ideas were poorly executed. The murder mystery was off to an exciting start but then completely lost my interest, the main character was likable but just too average to be interesting, the idea of a magical police force in London sounded great but turned out rather lame due to a lack of actual magic and while there were some amusing moments I didn’t find the book as funny and entertaining as it was probably supposed to be. In case this not very enthusiastic review still makes you want to read the book please take my advice and don’t even think about picturing it as „Harry Potter for adults“ in any way – believe me when I say that the only things that „Rivers of London“ and Harry Potter have in common are the England setting and the existence of magic, NOTHING ELSE. In fact I sometimes rather had the impression of being trapped in a Percy Jackson novel, especially when Peter Grant met with supernatural creatures such as river spirits. So overall Ben Aaronovitch’s novel sadly couldn’t live up to my expectations and I’m not sure yet if „Rivers of London“ gave me enough to make me want to continue this series, even though I still find the idea of a magical London quite tempting to be honest.