Review: Whispers Under Ground by Ben Aaronovitch

Whispers Under GroundThis book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

(Description nicked from B&N.com.)

“It begins with a dead body at the far end of Baker Street tube station, all that remains of American exchange student James Gallagher—and the victim’s wealthy, politically powerful family is understandably eager to get to the bottom of the gruesome murder. The trouble is, the bottom—if it exists at all—is deeper and more unnatural than anyone suspects . . . except, that is, for London constable and sorcerer’s apprentice Peter Grant. With Inspector Nightingale, the last registered wizard in England, tied up in the hunt for the rogue magician known as ‘the Faceless Man,’ it’s up to Peter to plumb the haunted depths of the oldest, largest, and—as of now—deadliest subway system in the world.

At least he won’t be alone. No, the FBI has sent over a crack agent to help. She’s young, ambitious, beautiful . . . and a born-again Christian apt to view any magic as the work of the devil. Oh yeah—that’s going to go well.”

What a change—an urban fantasy that doesn’t put all of its time and energy into a romance subplot!  While Grant certainly has his share of female companionship, it doesn’t dominate the page count.  Instead, there’s much more attention given to his friendship and professional partnership with Leslie, a woman whose face was terribly disfigured in an earlier book.  As this book progresses, she becomes more comfortable with letting Grant see her without her protective mask.  There’s something tentative and almost bittersweet about their relationship—it’s not one that I think will turn into a romance, but there’s a definite bond there, and it’s refreshing to see.

Keeping the focus off of Grant’s amorous activities allows the plot to stay firmly in touch with its main function: it’s a supernatural police procedural.  Grant is an old-school style detective, following clues and researching possible leads in a way that could come off as boring, but here it doesn’t.  The mundane aspects of police work aren’t ignored, but neither are they made to be uninteresting.

What I absolutely love about this series is how Grant continuously tries to quantify magic by applying the scientific method to his studies.  He’s always trying to measure force or deduce how a certain spell could follow natural laws.  This often leads to explosions, and it’s hell on anything mechanical or electrical, but it provides a grounding for something that is usually not explainable.  Not that Aaronovitch is attempting to explain magic (or have Grant do so)—rather, he’s simply letting his characters have time to futz around with the power and see what comes of it.  It reminds me of when I was a kid and thought that if I could just find the right object or a secret doorway, I could do magic too.

The other thing that I love is how London has its own personality.  It’s quite literal—the rivers have their own guardian spirits.  But on top of that, this series established very quickly that London is an ancient city with a long and tumultuous history.  The river spirits, the ghosts, even the older buildings, all contribute to the personality that is Aaronovitch’s magical London.  Grant and his mentor Nightingale constantly battle to make this vast conglomeration of elements behave itself, so it really is as if the city is one of the story’s characters.

I rank the Peter Grant books right up there with Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files and the “City Watch” subset of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books.  And if you like those series, you’ll love this one.  Whispers Under Ground is a breath of fresh air in a genre populated with too many cookie-cutter stories.