Killing Me Slowly

A leopardess who learned how to dance. And read.
Midnight Riot - Ben Aaronovitch
sigh


Goddammit. I wanted to like this one. I really, really, really did. It has a lot going for it. Midnight Riot, also known as Rivers of London across the pond, has, while not the most original premise, certainly an engaging voice. It's got that dry British humor going on, an initially likable hero, an intriguing world and diverse cast, a science(ish)-based magic system, and a POC protagonist who doesn't read like a white guy with a paint job. It was close, SO CLOSE, to enjoyable.

Unfortunately, it's first and foremost a blatant male wish-fulfillment fantasy, which I could have endured, if the female characters hadn't ended up a casualty of the male-centric plot. Midnight Riot is heavy on the sexism: sometimes subtle, sometimes...not so much, but present and grating enough to make it a problem for me.

Sigh.

But let's talk about the good things first for once, eh?

Four Things I Liked About Midnight Riot:

1. It's Funny
Aaronovitch knows his stuff. Midnight Riot tends towards dry and subversive humor, and Aaronovitch is very good at using characters and archetypes familiar to the genre in funny and unexpected ways. The dialog is, for the most part, sharp and conversations have the sort of timing you'd expect from someone with a history of penning witty television shows. Riot and its world and its characters have the feel of a slightly wacky, weekly supernatural police procedural, and I could easily see it working as one.

Not every joke works, of course, but more than anything else the deadpan tone of the novel kept me reading and interested, even through two seriously meandering, disconnected plots, and an often history-heavy narrative.

2. It Has a Truly Diverse Cast
Midnight Riot was one of the few books with a POC protagonist where I feel like the author didn't just label a white protagonist black or Asian or Native American and been done with it. Peter's race actively impacts his life and his experiences - the way people react to him on the subway, or during a riot, or even in his job, he is aware of how his skin color makes a difference. It's not heavy-handed or preachy or the point of the story, it's just an aspect of Peter's life, and I think Aaronovitch handled that aspect quite well.

There's also a higher-than-average number of characters of color, in general. Dr. Walid, the coroner, is Scottish Muslim, and Peter's mother, of course, is an immigrant from Sierra Leon. His love interest, Beverly Brook, the powerful Mama Thames, and the majority of the rivers of London are African women. They all seem to largely avoid stereotypes, though I find the success of Bev and Mama Thames' portrayal a little sketchier - but that has more to do with the treatment of their genders than their race.

3. The Magic System is Really, Really Cool
I'm not one to give a shit about this sort of thing, usually, but Midnight Riot's science-based magic system caught my fancy. Peter is actually surprisingly inquisitive after he's chosen to begin training as a wizard, and doesn't let the revelation of magic and monsters and ghosts shake his confidence in the laws of science and nature that make up his understanding of the world. Like a hero after my own heart, Peter doesn't just accept that magic works "because magic". Instead, he immediately begins applying the laws of physics to them.

Peter questions. He experiments. He formulates theories, and then he tests them, and through his reasoning, we get a basic understanding of how magic works, in more scientific terms than usual. Magical spells are discussed in terms of joules and newtons; conservation of mass, energy, the laws of thermodynamics - they all apply. It's not all hand-waving and mystical force - the magic has consequences.

One memorable example is when Peter runs a series of experiments to discover why casting spells results in the destruction of nearby electronics - including his cell phone. After a series of tests, he is not only able to give a reasonable explanation as for why, but also figures out how far the sphere of damage extends, and how to avoid it all together. It's neat stuff.

Granted, SCIENCE! can only go so far in explaining supernatural phenomenon, and there comes a time when both Peter and his teacher have to admit that they just don't know how some magic works, scientifically, but there was enough detail that I didn't really mind when we got to that point. What I liked was that the magic was limited; it has rules, it requires repeated practice and study and patience, so Peter can't just whip out a wand and deus ex machina his way through the book with some random badass spell ten levels above his proficiency (though, of course, this doesn't prevent other magical deities from deus ex-ing to their heart's content).

The point is, the system more firmly grounds Peter Grant's world in reality than most any other urban fantasy series I've come across. It's well thought-out and detailed, and I appreciate that.

4. Peter Grant Has the Potential to be a Cool Character
I'm of two minds about Peter. On the one hand, I wanted to like him. He's not a dick-head Alpha male convinced he knows better than everyone else. He's actually got an underdog feel: he's not quite attentive enough to be a good police officer, he's best friends with a woman he desperately wants to date, and he's destined for a life of paperwork, until the ghost shows up. He commits to studying magic, but he's still got to practice like anyone else, and he makes plenty of dumb mistakes on the long road to solving the book's mystery. He's just kind of an average guy.

So what's the problem? Well, I mean, did you read that last paragraph? Every last bit of that makes Peter a perfect nerd wish-fulfilment insert. He's the meek, ignored, everyday beta-male who is chosen by fate to become the hero, who gets the super-sweet magician's apprentice gig instead of the mundane paper-pushing desk job he dreaded, who saves the day and gets the hot girlfriend and shows all those doubters what's what.

One Thing that Utterly Killed Midnight Riot for Me

Misogyny!
Given the over-saturation of male wish-fulfillment characters in the general media, this kind of story isn't for everyone, but I really could have gotten past that, if, if, the women hadn't been so completely filtered through this lens. Like, how so much of Peter's story seemed designed to pointedly get the one-up on his dastardly friendzoning female counterpart, Lesley...

Read full review at You're Killing.Us.

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