Jessica's Reviews > Whispers Under Ground

Whispers Under Ground by Ben Aaronovitch
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Sep 21, 12

bookshelves: fantasy, mystery

As I finished Moon Over Soho , I swore to myself that I was only picking up Whispers Under Ground for a minute or two, and that I would put it down in a minute so I could write two separate book reviews, in a good, orderly fashion.

I should have known better. I did know better.

The books are page-turners, and it is next door to impossible to put them down. Something like a house fire might persuade me to do it (though I'd be more likely to run out the door still clutching the book), but nothing much short of that was going to do the job(1).

Such part of my mind that was able to pull free from the basic tug of what's-going-to-happen-next (and it was a very small part), was admiring Aaronovitch's skill in world building. Peter Grant may not know how magic works or how the different agreements, alliances, and arrangements between powers work, but Aaronovitch does, and the result is a detailed, textured world that holds up under scrutiny. There is a real sense of history to his magic, an order and system to it. The moments where things are explained never feel like infodumps. Some of the pieces are relevant to the case at hand, others to Peter's experience as an apprentice who is trying to figure out how a system codified by Isaac Newton fits with twenty-first century science. The portrayal of British police work is similarly orderly and at least appears to be based on the real thing(2). The world is getting wider, too, as the series goes on. Bits of the past are being revealed and there are glimpses of American and Taiwanese practitioners, who have a system that differs from the British in a way Nightingale does not know; his teachers appear to be quite insular. New non-human beings keep turning up, too, and they add to the difficulties.

The characters are also strongly drawn. I am glad Lesley continues to be an important part of the ensemble and has joined in the training at the Folly. While the books are never from her point of view, it's still good to hear what she has to say about matters--and Peter, as a character, is the more appealing because he doesn't hesitate to record her thoughts, even when she's critical of his decisions. Their continued friendship and respect for one another is one of the strengths of the series. The increasing ensemble--new characters keep getting introduced, and some are recurring--adds to the richness of the books as well.

I have only one complaint, and it is not about the book itself: Whoever wrote the blurb on the back of Whispers Under Ground described Agent Reynolds, the FBI agent who joins the case as "young, ambitious, beautiful...and a born-again Christian apt to view any magic as the work of the devil" thus making her sound like a collection of stereotypes and making me briefly consider not bringing the book home at all(3). Reynolds is, like most of the characters, quite distinctive, not a stereotype, and at the time she encounters magic, far too busy trying to stay alive to worry about witch-hunting. Nor, I might add, does she show any inclination to start once the trouble is over (Actually, the non-magical people are remarkably relaxed when they learn about it, all things considered).

"But what are the books about?" you ask plaintively(4). Good question. The series is "about" Peter Grant, police officer and the first (official) apprentice magician in England since World War II as he learns magic, solves mysteries, tries to figure out if they are mysteries, works to satisfy multiple bosses (He is both a member of the police force and answerable to those authorities and apprentice to a master magician and answerable to him), and, in general, tries to balance work and life. They are both police procedural and fantasies, and they balance and intertwine both genres skilfully. Ok--actually, I don't usually read procedurals; I usually stick to straight mystery, but they're close cousins to one another, and whatever the series is doing, it's doing it right.

Each book is self-contained enough that I think it would be possible to read Whispers Under Ground without reading Midnight Riot first. There is a definite, longer-term arc developing, however, plus some character growth, so I would advise starting at the beginning and reading in order. Also, while Midnight Riot was good, Moon Over Soho and Whispers Under Ground are better, so I think they'll be more enjoyable read in order.

Note: These books are dark. Do pick them up if you want an intense read that--see all of the above praise. Don't grab them if you want a comfort read or a nice, quick, light read before bedtime.

Highly recommended 5/5

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(1) I still haven't watched the latest Doctor Who. I was too busy reading.
(2) I'm neither British nor police, so I can't comment on authenticity. I can say, however, that it feels real and that it helps ground the book.
(3) Briefly. Very briefly. Remember, I had only read Midnight Riot at the time. My opinion of Aaronovitch was high, but authors have produced good first books and bad sequels before, and the "unreasonable, evil witch-hunter trying to foil the sensible, virtuous magic-user" trope is one I tired of a long time ago, and the "beautiful, uptight, ambitious woman" is one I was tired of before I ever met it.
(4b) Of course, if the unknown blurb writer had dissuaded me, the effect would only have been temporary. I'd have finished Moon Over Soho, written the review, and then gone and gotten Whispers Under Ground, and this review would have had far fewer footnotes because I would not have stayed up so late reading and would not be slightly loopy as a result. So maybe it would have been a favor. I still think it does the book a disservice.
(5) Or maybe not, at least not plaintively, but it is a reasonable question, all the same.

The above is an attempt to untangle a dual review originally written for The Geek Girl Project
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