Review: Broken Homes (Rivers of London 4), By Ben Aaronovitch

Magic is like gravity, even in Southwark

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The Independent Culture

So here's the big problem for an author writing about magic: if your main character can sort out world hunger/ Voldemort/ longer eyelashes, simply by using his powers of witchcraft, why wouldn't he just do it? There has to be a cost to the overuse of enchantment, or the story'll be over by page 10-ish.

Ben Aaronovitch's series, whose latest is Broken Homes, solves the problem beautifully – proposing a totally convincing Sorcerer's Modern Apprenticeship. Focusing on the career of magically-gifted Constable Peter Grant of the Metropolitan Police, Aaronovitch breathes vivid life into a London where old-fashioned hocus-pocus happens, but where wizard cops may also require the very real firepower of the Tactical Support Unit.

In Broken Homes, a spell-tainted car crash leads PC Grant to wonder if he is back on the trail of the evil wizard overlord called the "Faceless Man", a troublemaker in previous outings. London's ugliest housing estate, the Skygarden in Elephant & Castle, becomes the focus of Grant's investigation as he begins to wonder why this particular high-rise is attracting quite such a lot of supernatural interest.

Not just supernatural interest, either. Southwark Council want to demolish the whole miserable spot, but weird forces seem to be working against it. It is this conjunction of local government planning departments, shady security firms, and willowy tree spirits that makes the Peter Grant concept so enjoyable. One minute Aaronovitch is describing the deployment of Major Incident Procedure, the next describing how the gods and goddesses of London's rivers have divided up their territory.

Aaronovitch's elegant solution to the problem of magic is that it exists in a field all around us; a bit like gravity, but riskier for your expensive mobile phone. And any aspiring practitioner will: a) need natural talent in the black arts; b) require 10,000 hours of grind à la Malcolm Gladwell to get good at it; and c) get knackered out if they do it too much. (A bit like actual work, then.)

Peter Grant as a hero nicely represents modern London – his father a white jazz player, his mum a serial over-doer of food preparation from Sierra Leone – and the books deliver a charming, witty and exciting romp through a magical world not all that far from our own, offering a delightfully escapist sidetrack for summer holiday reading.