Sunday, 3 November 2013

Ben Aaronovitch: Whispers Under Ground

Let us all give thanks for e-books, and the way in which they let me catch up with someone's back catalogue without cluttering the house up. I have grumbled in the past about buying up a wedge of books only to discover that I didn't like the first one and won't be reading the others; somehow e-books are making it more straightforward for me to put my toe in the water and then come back and catch up if I like something. So a friend recommended Rivers of London, and that was good enough that I went on to read Moon Over Soho, which in turn was good enough that here I am, having finished Whispers Under Ground, all in under a month.

Whispers Under Ground feels like a book that's marking time, noodling about with a plot which isn't pulling the master plot further forward, but instead throwing out tantalising hints of other, bigger plots which are coming down the road. For example, there are Chinese magicians, though no-one seems to know much about them and they walk on a for a few minutes and then stroll back off, leaving us none the wiser. I kind of agree with the approach, since it gives a picture of a much bigger world which is as puzzling to the characters as their world is to the reader. What I'm less convinced about is the way that the series big bad - and major villain of the previous book - stays off the radar through most of this book; in TV terms, Aaronovitch doesn't quite handle the balance between his monster of the week and his mythology. The foreground case doesn't feel big and threatening enough to justify the way in which the major threat introduced in Moon Over Soho fades into the background.

Quite why this doesn't work properly, I'm not sure. The foreground problem - a previously unknown culture living in the London Underground - is cleverly put together and subtly subverts a lot of the magical tosh which you'd expect in a more conventional piece of work. But despite the cleverness, it somehow doesn't spark. 

Still, the things I like are all still there; the constant asides about how things ought to work, and the sense of a sprawling clan of investigators living on the edges of things and gradually linking together. Three books in, I still want to know what Grant and Nightingale and May are going to get up to next. And the magic-ification of May is nicely explained without the use of anvils; it's not that she's naturally magical, but that the magical carnage wreaked on her in the first book has contaminated her somehow. That's clever, and gets us away from the vague misgivings I had at the end of the second book. 

And I have to admit I liked the way that Ireland is covered; Aaronovitch obviously had a good chat in a pub some evening with a Celtic Tiger survivor and caught the way not just that we feel about the collapse, but the way we talk about it. That's a good ear.

This isn't great art, but it's entertaining, and I will probably be writing something about Broken Homes whenever it gets cheap enough to be added to the stack of things in my iPad.

No comments: