A promising jazz drummer is found dead of a heart attack shortly after playing a gig in London. At first, the only odd circumstance surrounding his death is the fact that Peter Grant, apprentice wizard and police constable, faintly hears the notes of the jazz standard “Body and Soul” rising from the corpse, indicating that magic was somehow involved in the musician’s death. However, when further research reveals that several jazz musicians have died in similar circumstances over the years, it suddenly becomes much more urgent for Peter and his supervisor Thomas Nightingale to find out what’s really going on…
So begins Moon over Soho (2011), the second book in the Peter Grant series by Ben Aaronovitch. Let’s get the most important news out of the way first: if you enjoyed Midnight Riot (or Rivers of London, as it’s called outside of the US), you’ll love Moon over Soho. The new novel does just about everything its predecessor did so well, but a little better and with enough new twists to make you wish the third book in the series was already on the shelves.
One of the reasons Moon over Soho is an even more fun read than the first book is the fact that it doesn’t have to spend as much time setting things up for the reader. We already know who police constable and apprentice wizard Peter Grant is, we know about Thomas Nightingale and his secret magical department in the London police force, we have some background about how magic works, we know about the Folly. Thanks to all of this, Ben Aaronovitch can kick the story into high gear right from the beginning, with Peter’s investigation into the jazz drummer’s death (and into another seemingly unrelated but much more gruesome incident) quickly setting up a few side-plots and new characters. At the same time, there’s space in the story to fill the reader in on things like Thomas Nightingale’s past and the history of magic in England, and to throw in hilarious side-bars such as the goofy way of determining the strength of residual magic by measuring how loud Toby the dog barks (“0.5 milliyaps”).
The cover’s catchphrase is “Magic and murder to a jazz beat”, which is surprisingly appropriate in several ways. Jazz is a running theme throughout the novel, from the drummer who is found dead in the opening chapter to Peter’s father, a famous jazz musician in his day, who plays a more important role in Moon over Soho than in the first book. There’s a comical group of side-characters called “the irregulars” who are all jazzmen (or at least wannabe jazzmen) and who will hopefully appear in future novels. Several chapters bear the title of famous jazz songs or albums. And finally, this may be a stretch but the book is written in what I’d pretentiously like to call a highly propulsive style. That’s probably not a real jazz term at all, but nevertheless, the fact that the story rarely slows down (and when it does, it’s for a good reason) makes Moon over Soho hard to put down and never boring. It’s like one of those songs you can’t help but tap your foot along to.
Going back to that cover for a moment: Neth Space has an excellent article up about the noticeable difference between the US and UK covers. It’s painfully obvious they’re different, and while the term “white-washing” is not entirely appropriate (given that the model’s actually turned into a black silhouette), it’s still hard to imagine why Del Rey felt the need to change these covers in this day and age.
Regardless, Ben Aaronovitch delivers another winner with Moon over Soho, a realistic modern day police procedural (aside from all the magic, of course) populated by increasingly solid characters and written in the same consistently witty style as the first Peter Grant novel. It features a gripping mystery plot with some truly creepy, borderline horror elements and a few incredibly tense action scenes. Moon over Soho is one of the most entertaining books I’ve read in a long time, and really made me look forward to the next installment in the Peter Grant series. Check it out, even if (like me) you usually don’t enjoy urban fantasy.
This second book in the Peter Grant series finds Grant’s life getting more complicated, and introduces a long-term villain — yet preserves the quick pacing and the fun of a plot that blurs mystery with magic.
Readers be aware: This review may contain spoilers for the previous book, Rivers of London (titled Midnight Riot in the US).
Readers may recall the end of Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London, in which we left Detective Constable Peter Grant puzzling over the case of a dismembered victim. Said victim’s member had been bitten off, although not by a set of teeth on the perpetrator’s face. (Gulp.) Anyway, Grant is back along with Chief Inspector Thomas Nightingale and Lesley May, Peter’s co-worker, not to mention the return of the elusive creature with teeth in orifices that there should never be teeth, in another London crime tale that promises as many laughs and capers as the first instalment.
Peter is one of the only characters who came out of the last book unscathed. The vengeful spirit from Rivers of London (titled Midnight Riot in the US) left Nightingale weak and vulnerable, and Lesley with her face completely disfigured, so it’s largely up to Peter to take on the cases in Moon Over Soho. The first is that of Cyrus Wilkinson, a saxophonist who died shortly after playing a jazz set. What at first seems like a sudden but natural death gets increasingly suspicious the more Peter investigates. He soon discovers a string of other deaths — all talented young jazz musicians dying unexpectedly. Of course Peter realises there can only be one conclusion: jazz vampires. Meanwhile, the vagina dentata killer is still at large, and after a journalist is found dead at the Groucho Club, Peter is on the case.
Meanwhile, on the domestic side of things, Peter is getting intimate with a woman named Simone Fitzwilliam, a seductive and curvaceous woman who loves cake and cream, which she is constantly either eating or smearing on her face (genuinely). She happens to be Cyrus’s ex-lover (as in, the dead sax player) and may also have some strange links to Peter’s father, who is of course a patron of jazz himself. Ben Aaronovitch weaves enough links between his subplot to have readers on tenterhooks from start to finish.
I have very few gripes with the story, and they’re all pretty minor at that. Nightingale could’ve done with a little more characterisation; the Chief Inspector remains somewhat two-dimensional in his mentor role. Then there’s the question of the magic system. Fantasy heavyweight Brandon Sanderson has stressed the importance of a magic system that makes sense, that has clearly delineated rules, and Moon Over Soho falls short here. Whilst Peter dutifully works through his Latin textbooks and practises his shiny orb trick, there’s no real explanation as to the limits of his power, what he can actually do and the origins of magic in the first place.
Aaronovitch masterfully weaves the mundane and the magical to hilarious effect. It’s all played out against the backdrop of London Town, the city which Aaronovitch so obviously adores. Whilst some may find it annoying that plot threads are left deliberately open-ended, it will no doubt have you reaching for Whispers Underground, the third book in the series.