Broken Homes by Ben Aaronovitch
This a difficult book to review. I don’t want to spoil either Broken Homes itself or the previous three books in the series. Which isn’t usually a major problem, as there are always interesting things to talk about even avoiding spoilers. But the only thing I want to talk about with Broken Homes is the absolute stone-cold, copper-bottomed bastard of an ending, which kind of overshadows everything that went before it.
So. Let’s outline things. Broken Homes is the fourth in the Rivers of London series, tracking the adventures of DC Peter Grant, his colleague Lesley May, and their “guv’nor”, DCI Nightingale, as their small department (the Folly) fights crime in and around London. Oh, also, Nightingale is the last qualified wizard in the UK, with Peter and Lesley as his apprentices.
Peter began finding his feet investigating rogue Punch & Judy operatives and jazz vampires, but then a rogue wizard showed his face in London. Or rather, he showed everything but his face, because each time Peter has come face-to-face with him, this chap has been running a spell to stop Peter actually being able to see his face. Hence he’s dubbed The Faceless Man, which is one of the best villain names in existence (we’ll ignore that the Song of Ice & Fire series has a whole religion called the Faceless Men).
Broken Homes opens with Peter investigating a series of potentially mundane crimes, which it soon becomes apparent are very much magical, and somehow linked to the Faceless Man, revolving around the work of an architect called Erik Stromberg, and particularly one of the (fictional) tower blocks he designed in London. It’s interesting that for the vast majority of the book, Peter, Lesley and Nightingale have next to no clue about what is actually going on, and in fact even by the end they all remain somewhat clueless. The “what” becomes clear, but the “why” behind it remains almost as obscured as the Faceless Man’s identity.
Actually, all in all, the plot is probably a little bit of a step back for the series. It feeds in very well to the overarching series plot, but as a self-contained book the plot feels a little unsatisfying. The reveal of what’s going on is nicely handled, and ties in well with some seeming non sequiturs from earlier in the book, but there isn’t much in the way of closure (quite the opposite in fact). That being said, the process of the plot is consistently entertaining, as the story is pushed forward by Peter’s investigations with various parts of the police, the public and the magical beings of London. Any time Peter is actively doing police work is inevitably a highlight, as Aaronovitch takes a bizarre delight in the minutiae of policing, not only giving serious details of the bureaucratic procedures of policing, but also happily poking as much fun their way as possible.
Anyway, quibbles about the plot aren’t enough to stop Broken Homes being a great read (and all quibbles about the plot fall away when you get to the twist at the finale). It’s consistently funny, not just from its peculiar viewpoint on modern policing, but also from Peter Grant just being a constantly entertaining character. Beyond regularly throwing in endearingly geeky references into his observations (he suspects a victim who took a shotgun blast to the face may have been a suspected zombie; his test to find evidence of magic is the “Voight-Kampf test”; Nightingale’s old school is referred to as Hogwarts), he’s just a fun person to be around, in part because while he’s a smart, savvy, streetwise copper, he’s also gloriously immature. Observe:
Nightingale: I was only twelve at the time, and easily distracted.
Peter: Easily distracted by what?
That might be the funniest line I’ve read all year.
Rising above Peter’s jokes, Nightingale continues to be fantastic. In Aaronovitch’s world, magic has a habit of destroying any nearby technology. Combined with Nightingale’s age, described as “old enough to be Watson and Crick’s father” (he’s not particularly old or decrepit; he’s now aging backwards for as-yet-undefined reasons), his near-total ignorance of technology and Peter’s love of all things gadgets, there’s an extremely entertaining dynamic any time Peter, Nightingale and technology have to do business.
We also get to see something we’ve not seen before: Nightingale unleashed in battle. We’ve always known that Nightingale was a very powerful wizard, but we’ve not actually really seen the extent of it until now, and it’s pretty damn impressive. A hopefully-inevitable showdown between Nightingale and Faceless Man should be fantastic.
The third member of the crew, Lesley May, sits somewhere in between Peter and Nightingale: sometime ally to Peter, playing straight man to his irreverence; sometime ally to Nightingale’s seriousness; and clearly the best modern policewoman of the three, combining as she does Nightingale’s actual reliable police work (Peter has skill in police work, but little in the way of reliability) with Peter’s knowledge of any technology not obsolete since about 1945.
The team works well together, and the supporting cast is pretty strong, and constantly getting further fleshed out. There’s still bucketloads of mystery surrounding many of them, particularly the immortal gods and goddesses of the rivers of London. It’s quite noticeable that at no point does any river goddess do anything wildly ridiculous just to annoy Peter. I missed that a bit.
Overall, Broken Homes is a moderately strong addition to the Rivers of London series, but not as strong as the best in the series (that’d be Moon Under Soho for my money). The fact that it’s so intrinsically tied to the next book in the series thanks to the twist at the conclusion means it doesn’t work quite so well as a standalone as the previous three in the series.
Also, there’s still been no fucking explanation for that goddamn fox at the end of Whispers Under Ground either.
Why you should read it: If you’ve ever wondered what a brilliantly immature adult version of Harry Potter would be like as a policeman, this is the book for you. But apart from that, it’s exciting, it’s funny, it’s got good characters, and it’s got a great twist at the end.
Why you shouldn’t read it: if you’re going to read a series about a wizard detective, The Dresden Files is better.
Up next: Small Favor by Jim Butcher