Recently, I raced through a four book series in less than a week, slamming down over 1500 pages with a compulsion that surprised me.
The series was Ben Aaronovitch‘s Rivers of London series (four books and counting). The books are part police procedural, part urban fantasy, part on-the-knees worship of the City of London.
The series strongly resembles China Mieville‘s Kraken, in that it is a lovingly detailed picture of modern London, with the supernatural bubbling just below the surface, being both membership of standard London subcultures, as well as having their own distinct social scene.
Whereas Mieville’s work is (typically) a dark and cynical take on humanity and inequality, Aaronovitch takes his tone primarily from The Bill and arguably Life on Mars. Criminals are criminals, but they’re also people who have rational motivations and are empathetic enough to those they consider friends. The main protagonist and voice of the series, Peter Grant, is a London bobby, and enmeshed in the culture of The Met. Due to a chance encounter with a ghost, he becomes attached to a tiny branch of the police force delegated with keeping the Queen’s peace amongst the supernatural community, in whom the biggest players are the demi-gods of the various rivers that run through the city.
Unlike some similar works, where a badge entitles the holder to storm about and grown menacingly at potential miscreants, the world of the Rivers of London is policing by consent, using the very English ideals of compromise and informal “arrangements” to keep order. Therefore the heavy jackboot of the law is leavened with a lot of careful negotiation and boring information-gathering legwork.
The “procedural” part of the series is taken seriously, with Police methods and jargon being deployed liberally, with crime-scene etiquette, police equipment and organisational politics shown in well-researched detail. A lot of things are deployed liberally, to be honest. London historical minutiae are fired off at the reader regularly, as are diversions about architecture and a massive slew of pop culture references, from Aliens to Doctor Who (Aaronovitch is a former writer) to Harry Potter to Star Wars to The Sweeney.
All this would be feel stuffed into the story and over-egged exposition, save for one key factor, which is that the narrator is a massive geek with a cocker-spaniel’s attention span and a magpie’s eye for interesting detail. The character is still socially skilled, enjoys his pints and football (soccer) and enjoys a pretty good strike rate with the opposite sex, but this identification (and self-identification) allows for all manner of arcana (pun intended) to be sprinkled throughout the text in a way that would feel deeply unnatural with a less introspective or more hard-bitten hero.
This is where the audience targetting comes in. I am a massive geek. A decent proportion of the Speculative Fiction community also has similar common cultural referents. It’s the ability to share a sideways grin with the author that provides a considerable amount of the enjoyment whilst reading. This is an important way in which Aaronovitch builds a bridge to his readers, giving the readers a strong sense of solidarity with the main character, especially when other characters don’t get the reference. Giving the reader a shared world with the main character which is not shared with the other characters in your story is also used extensively in children’s fiction, where adults are strange creatures who just don’t understand the world of their children and don’t even seem to speak the same language.
This is canny writing in several ways, not least of which is marketability. If you feel a sense of personal ownership of a book, you’re far more likely to recommend it to friends, inviting them to join your private club, where the grownups aren’t allowed. If you’re already a paid-up member of the Nerd Kingdom, it provides reinforcement of your sense of group solidarity to have a hero “of your tribe”. This is where your market research comes in. What are the expectations of your genre (or subgenre)? What are the main features and touchstones within the “typical” work? Have you catered to those needs? Is your work identifiable as being part of a larger field?
This isn’t to say that you abandon the story you’re trying to write, or that you forswear originality in favour of meeting the needs of a conservative, inflexible fanbase. Some do, of course, and have successful careers on that basis. What I am saying is that readers seek the familiar as much as they seek the novel (once again, pun entirely intended), and that knowing and featuring those familiar elements can lead to readers investing more heavily in your book, and in falling prey to that Stockholm syndrome we all prize as a reader experience.
This is not to say that Rivers of London doesn’t stand on its own feet in terms of plot and character. Each book has its standalone elements, but it’s clear from book two that Aaaronovitch is playing a long game, leaving plot elements entirely unresolved by book’s end, only to pop up in unexpected ways a couple of books later, along with characters being introduced in one book, to become an off-page player in another, to reappear in a cameo later on. The sprawling mass of characters and plots is well handled, and the characters are drawn distinctively enough that even if they don’t feature in a book, their presence hovers over proceedings, woven into the very fabric of the setting.
I’d slightly hesitate to recommend this to a general audience, just because I’m not 100% sure how well the humour in the series plays if you’re not steeped in sci-fi and fantasy references. But if you’ve a liking for the “New Weird” but want something a little more accessible, or if you’ve a passionate interest in London history and architecture, bang up alongside the finest in fictionalised British Law Enforcement, then I heartily recommend you give this series a go.