False Value by Ben Aaronovitch
It is hard to believe that we have reached the eighth book in Ben Aaronovitch‘s inimitable RIVERS OF LONDON series. Back with characteristic aplomb, Peter Grant returns in a somewhat unlikely position: he is interviewing for a job. He has, he explains to his new prospective employer, been suspended and is no longer working for the London Metropolitan Police. Given his previous track record of obliterating electronics, it might be surprising that Peter accepts a job at the Serious Cybernetics Corporation. But things are, as readers of the series are bound to anticipate, not quite as they seem.
The Folly, the building in which the state-sanctioned British magical institution resides, is under construction so Peter is staying at his girlfriend’s. Beverly Brook is not only a river goddess, she is also pregnant. With twins. What False Value (2020) lacks in the absence of the Folly and its curious inhabitants, Aaronovitch makes up for by giving readers an insight into Peter and Bev’s relationship. Who knew a hormonal river goddess and a dismissed wizard-in-training could be so entertaining.
At his new job at the SCC in the heart of Old Street, London’s ‘Silicon Roundabout,’ Peter must try and uncover a rat at the tech corporation. Things take a turn for the uncanny when he discovers a fellow magic practitioner trying to break into a restricted area of the company building, and get even more complicated when an attempt is on the life of the company’s founder, Terrence Skinner.
False Value is another rollicking addition to an already pacey and hilarious series. Of course, the reason why most readers will keep returning is Peter Grant himself, the book’s narrator. With his characteristic blend of sarcasm and sincerity, his narrative voice will keep those pages turning; in fact, chances are Aaronovitch’s leading man could make a computer manual sound entertaining, so funny and readable is the character of Peter Grant.
But as has been the case with some of the previous novels in the series, where Peter’s character stands out, the plot can sometimes fall short. Interestingly, Aaronovitch has given this volume a bit of a 21st century reboot in its dealings with the world of technology and its ethical exploration of Artificial Intelligence, but that doesn’t quite prevent the plot from stalling. With sometimes overcomplicated and nebulous twists and turns (Russian intelligence is involved at one point, never to fully materialise in the novel’s culmination), the mystery is never that ah-ha moment that some books have. Readers might find themselves wondering just exactly what happened, and having to settle for the fact that answers won’t be forthcoming.
Equally frustrating is the lack of insight into the character of Nightingale we’re given — another problem that previous volumes of the series have had. Peter’s boss is only ever at the sidelines of the story, appearing only when Peter needs saving in a magical showdown. When you think of the other great wizarding mentors (Dumbledore or Gandalf, anyone?), this feels like a bit of a let-down.
These quibbles with False Value aside, any RIVERS OF LONDON novel is going to be an enjoyable read, purely on the merit of Peter Grant alone. Always hilarious, sometimes touching and insightful, this character’s entertainment value knows no bounds. It doesn’t really matter what Aaronovitch’s long game with this series is: as long as Peter’s there, readers will be in for the ride.
Serious Cybernetics Corporation hey! Douglas Adams me thinks.
I adore Ben Aaronovich’s works and am delighted to see a new one despite the caveats.