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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

my reads: Rivers of London and London Falling

I’ve been meaning to write about these two series for a while, and the time has now arrived (for reasons that I will clarify in another post it has to do with my Loncon 3 Worldcon schedule).


Here’s one good reason to follow authors you like on Twitter: because they will tell you when their books are on sale. Paul Cornell tweeting that his London Falling could be snapped up for the Kindle for 89p was what prompted me to finally buy it. (Amazon makes these offers, so the authors still get their usual cut of a book’s regular price, which means I didn’t take money from Cornell’s pocket by taking advantage of the sale.) The book is back to its regular price [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon Canada] [Amazon U.K.], and it is worth every penny and then some.

The first big chunk of the book offers no indication that anything supernaturally untoward is going on: it reads like a tough, gritty police procedural focusing on two London cops, DS Tony Costain and DC Kevin Sefton, who’ve been undercover for years working for an organized crime boss that they just can’t seem to get anything solid on, and their Met boss, DI James Quill, who is pushing for a resolution to the case now. It’s all instantly gripping just as straight action drama… but then comes the weird shit. I will leave you to discover how it pans out, but basically, the cops — including others in Quill’s team — discover that there’s a London sitting beside the London that is open to the limited awareness of us muggles, a realm of really dark magic and unpleasantly powerful people that the cops can suddenly see, thanks to accidental exposure to that magic. And now their police work extends into another dimension, literally.

It’s pretty clear that Harry Potter had a hand in inspiring London Falling — even the cops are starting to wonder in the just-released sequel, The Severed Streets [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon Canada] [Amazon U.K.], whether J.K. Rowling perhaps didn’t entirely invent her fictional world, if maybe she knows more than she’s letting on. But Cornell’s series, which is going by Shadow Police, is weighed down by a gruesome grimness that even at her darkest Rowling never approached. Truly, properly horrific things happen here, and Cornell presents them in a way that never strays into the twee. This is right at the bleeding edge of speculative fantasy urban horror in that it barely feels fantastical at all — it carries with it not only the long, bloody, nasty history that inevitably has accrued around a city like London but also the sometimes nasty, always thrilling mess it is today, too.

(I’ve just started reading The Severed Streets. I could not wait for a sale and downloaded it at full price it the day it was released, and I’m not sorry: it is already even better than the first book.)

As I was reading London Falling, I kept thinking: This would be a great TV show. I could already see it on TV. And then, in the Acknowledgements at the back of the book, Cornell reveals this:

Decades ago, these characters were first created for a television series pitch overseen by the tremendous talents of Steven Moffat and Beryl and Sue Vertue. The story has changed out of all recognition since those days…

*mind blown*

But wait. It gets better.


As soon as I finished London Falling, I jumped right into Rivers of London, by Ben Aaronovitch [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon Canada] [Amazon U.K.]. And damned it there wasn’t something downright eerie going on. For here we have a young London cop, PC Peter Grant, who discovers that there is magic to be found in every nook and corner of a city as storied and haunted as London is. Grant is taken on as an apprentice by the only wizard working in the Metropolitan Police (and one of the few left in England), DCI Thomas Nightingale, has a fling with the goddess of one of London’s many rivers, and begins hunting down a dark wizard who is wreaking supernatural havoc.

I want to be perfectly clear that the incredibly surface similarities between the two series in no way hampered my immense enjoyment of either. (Rivers is up to four books now, all of which I’ve devoured: Nos 2, 3, and 4 are, respectively, Moon Over Soho, Whispers Under Ground, and Broken Homes, and the fifth — Foxglove Summer — will be out in September, which cannot come quickly enough.) Some fairly terrible things happen in Aaronovitch’s books, but the tone is much lighter — chipper, even — and much closer in attitude to Harry Potter, though they could in no way be considered children’s or young-adult books. (Too much sexy stuff, for one… though poor Peter would say there isn’t anywhere near enough.)

I have no evidence but speculation to support this, but I cannot help but imagine that Aaronovitch was also in on those TV pitches with Moffat and the Vertues, and when the show fell apart, the two writers ran with the same idea and took it in different directions. (One big tipoff for me, though, again, any actual connection between the two book series is pure speculation on my part: these two white writers cast their novels with black protagonists. Well, Peter Grant is mixed race, but Costain and Sefton are both black. I don’t think there’s anything particularly odd about writers creating characters of a different race from themselves, but I think in the case of these series, it might be one coincidence too far. Another tipoff: Aaronovitch and Cornell are both Doctor Who writers, and so would surely have both been on Moffat’s radar.)

If it is the case that London Falling and Rivers of London both sprang from the same source — and even if it isn’t the case! — it’s completely fascinating on a level apart from the sheer entertainment value of these stories to see how different writers can take the same basic idea and invent two wildly divergent tales out if it.

Oh, and I want to see a Rivers of London TV show now, too.

Rivers of London and London Falling were both initially recommended to me by my pal Katy Wheatley, who writes a hilarious blog that is ostensibly about being a stay-at-home mom but is wise and funny about life, the universe, and everything. You should read it if you need some laughs about the ordinary bullshit and joy of everyday living.

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  • That’s very kind of you, but it’s not the case that the books of Ben and I share a common origin. We only became aware from each others’ Facebook posts that we were writing similar things. My TV show never got to the point of approaching other writers. Thanks again for your kind words, though.

  • Danielm80

    Damn. London Falling sounds like exactly the sort of book I need to read, but I’m currently reading ten other books, several of which are more than 500 pages long. Coincidentally, one of the books I’m reading is the Rogues anthology edited by George R.R. Martin:


    It includes a story by Cornell and a Neverwhere story by Neil Gaiman.

    Neverwhere, along with Un Lun Dun by China Mieville (and, in a way, the Harry Potter series), suggests that there’s now a whole subgenre of books about alternative versions of London. I’m very glad to live in a world where this is true. I’m also glad that all of the books are so different from each other.

  • Bluejay

    Might be useful for your US readers to know that Rivers of London is being sold as Midnight Riot in the US. Was puzzled that Amazon didn’t directly carry it, nor did the local libraries, before I figured it out. :-)

  • So glad that you’re so into both these series; I have likewise devoured both of them. London Falling contains one of my very favourite plot twists.

    How do these series engage or inflame your feminist critical gaze? Both have male protagonists, Rivers of London has a female sidekick/girlfriend and supernatural characters and London Falling has a female sidekick, a female villain (with an interesting female empowerment backstory) and a mystery female boss.

  • It’s *Rivers of London* on Amazon US. Hmmm.

  • Neither rang any particular bells for me. Not *every* story needs to have a female protagonist. *London Falling* is more an ensemble, anyway, and Ross is certainly an intriguing character.

    But finding complex female characters, central or otherwise, is not a problem in written fiction.

  • Bluejay

    It is, but only through third-party sellers selling the British edition.

    Wikipedia says it’s Midnight Riot in the US, and Amazon carries it (including paperback and Kindle formats) here.

  • bronxbee

    having read both series, and starting your second book — as well as reading another sort of supernatural, apocalyptic, London is full of weird stuff book called Dream London — nowhere near as good but still out there, i can only imagine there is something in the Zeitgeist that is calling to writers. perhaps it’s all the destruction of the old and the construction of the new (such as completely destroying historic area Bermondsey and that new blight on the landscape, the Shard) going on while there are still pockets of ancient layers of London to be found everywhere. in any event, i can’t wait to get into the Severed Streets. and of course, Foxglove Summer is on my pre-order list.

  • bronxbee

    yeah — that ticked me off. i had already read the available ROL series (ordered through amazon.uk) and thought it was a new series by the same author. you gotta read the descriptions carefully — those marketing engineers are tricksy.

  • Nope, the the US Amazon Kindle edition is definitely called *RIvers of London.*

    I wish publishers wouldn’t do this.

  • Bluejay

    Weird! Are you seeing the US site differently, viewing from the UK? I’m looking at the Kindle edition, and it’s definitely Midnight Riot. A general book search for “Rivers of London” just gives me a page selling the British edition through third parties, and if I search for “Rivers of London” specifically on the Kindle Store, I get Midnight Riot.

  • To double check, I looked at amazon.com (the US site) with a US IP address, and I *still* get *Rivers of London* when I search the Kindle store.

    If I search on “Midnight Riot,” I get a page listing the Peter Grant books… but only the *Rivers of London* version of Book 1! I don’t see *Midnight Riot* for the Kindle at all.

    Very strange.

  • Danielm80

    That would make a great fantasy story: A book whose name changes depending on who’s reading it. Maybe I’ll write that.

  • Bluejay

    Wow, we’re just seeing completely different things.

    What do you see when you click this link? I see the Kindle edition of Midnight Riot. You?

  • Bluejay

    Now I’m paranoid. Am I even seeing the same comments as other people? Are you actually cussing me out right now and defending Men’s Rights and I have no idea you’re doing it?

    Am I even reading the same website? Maybe on UK computers MaryAnn actually likes Under the Skin and hates The Princess Bride. Maybe she loves Avatar: The Last Airbender!

  • dotandimet

    In his blog, Ben Aaronovitch explained that some parts of Rivers of London started life in the shape of an aborted TV pitch. I haven’t read Paul Cornell’s books, but I’m guessing that convergent details (diverse cast, Harry Potter references) would arise from that simple commonality – the TV medium, the urban fantasy/police procedural genre, and the modern London setting.

  • LaSargenta

    I see Midnight Riot.

  • Danielm80

    The obvious joke would be: That’s the version of the book published in London Below.

    I am not too proud to make the obvious joke.

  • Indeed, there’s loads of material to mine. Thanks very much for your interest.

  • RogerBW

    Does 1996 count as “decades ago”? Because I could easily believe that
    both writers thought “I could do something vaguely in the style of
    Neverwhere but designed for TV rather than adapted
    from a book”.

  • LaSargenta

    I thought that, too. Except Neverwhere was written for TV then turned into a book. I thought it was better as a book.

  • RogerBW

    Yeah, fair point; I think Gaiman works better when scripting comics (no SFX budget limitations) than on TV.

  • althea

    Just for the sake of nothing in particular, when I search Aaronovitch’s name at the Dallas Public Library, I get 4 titles: Midnight Riot, Moon Over Soho, Whispers Underground, and Broken Homes – (wait for it!) – A Rivers of London Novel.

    Search Rivers of London and you get nada.

  • bronxbee

    i see that too.

  • Danielm80

    These books make me want to visit London, so I can find out what it is about the city that inspires so many people to write fantasy novels. I can’t think of any other place that’s inspired so many writers to create alternate versions of the city. Even New York doesn’t quite compete, although it gets points for inspiring both Metropolis and Gotham City.

  • LaSargenta

    Buenos Aires. Inspired pretty much everything of Borges’. But, these weren’t so much ‘alternate’ as doors into his Occulted Buenos Aires.

    Also, I don’t read Czech, but I recall being told of several different authors’ works of a hidden, fantastic Prague (aside from Der Golem…which, obviously, wasn’t in Czech, but, clearly was inspired by Prague).

  • Tonio Kruger

    For that matter, there’s also Baghdad, which not only inspired most of 1001 Arabian Nights and similar fantasies but also author Matt Ruff’s novel Mirage — which, btw, also includes an interesting alternative version of NYC.

  • Tonio Kruger

    For that matter, there’s also Baghdad, which not only inspired most of 1001 Arabian Nights and similar fantasies but also author Matt Ruff’s novel Mirage — which, btw, also includes an interesting alternative version of NYC.

  • Beowulf

    Okay, just ordered London Falling from Amazon for my Kindle. You understand the pressure I’m putting on you for guiding me to this novel. It had damn well better be good! (I kid, I kid….)

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