Tony Fyler takes a punt.
I’m going to assume that you, like me, have yet to read the books of Ben Aaronovitch’s latest great success, the Rivers of London series. I say ‘yet to’ because if you’re anything like me, you’ll read the comic-book then head to Amazon or Audible, consumed with curiosity. I’ve always been a hard sell on the books, because I’ve looked at them and thought ‘Oh – clever idea, that. Moving on…’ – as sometimes you do when you don’t get the time you’d like to sit with a good book and get lost. For full disclosure, I’m a bit of a hardass when it comes to what I read – I looked at the Harry Potter series, thought ‘Oh, I can see what you’re doing there,’ and then didn’t read them for half a decade. I have yet to read more than a few pages of George R R Martin, because frankly, life is short.
But issue #1 of the comic-book, by Aaronovitch and Andrew Cartmel, with art by Lee Sullivan, is very well pitched to spark interest in the source material. It sells you its world and its characters, without ever particularly feeling like it’s selling you anything at all. You’re just dropping in on another day in the life of Peter Grant, of the Special Assessment Unit of the Metropolitan Police. It has a modern gumshoe style, with enough attitude to be realistic, but without dripping in cool or wow-factor to the point where you suspend disbelief and buy into it as just a comic-book world. That’s probably the hardest of all possible roads to walk down in comic-book fantasy terms – selling the recognizable realism of the world, and just having Weird Shit happening within that world.
As a first case to introduce us to Grant and his colleagues, Body Work feels suitably low-key – eldritch forces from Hell are not about to open portals of ultimate destruction on Page 1. It’s that low-key tone and the hard road of realism that give the issue its gumshoe quality – Grant’s just investigating the suspicious death of a man in a car in the river Thames. The fact that a river nymph has told Grant it’s a suspicious death, and that he detects magic in the engine is just among the Weird Shit that forms the web of his work.
There's an undeniable Who-vibe in all of this, as would perhaps be unavoidable from Aaronovitch and Cartmel, two leading lights of 80s Who: a man investigating what no-one else understands, doing strange things…occasionally blowing up tower blocks or burning down Covent Garden, seemingly unaware that the damage he leaves behind him would strike most other people as a bit peculiar. But that’s one of the things that draw us in as readers; he’s not by any means divorced from the real world, he simply sees it differently – it’s a trick that works with Who, but it also works to some extent with many other great sci-fi or fantasy franchises, like Ghostbusters and Men in Black. The difference in perspective, and being allowed as readers to come along and have our own world expanded for us, is a part of the – unavoidable, regrettable word-choice alert – magic of the thing.
What seems to be going on in Body Work is not exactly new territory. Without spoilering it for you, we’ve seen it in everything from Disney movies to Stephen King books. But it provides a gentle way in to Grant’s world, allows us to see him getting his Potter on, and establishes some of the people with whom he works, and as that sort of introduction to the newbie, it’s a great success.
Aaronovitch has been a breath-of-fresh-air writer for all of his career since he exploded onto most geeks’ radars by writing the best Sylvester McCoy on-screen adventure bar none (Remembrance of the Daleks), doubling down with the best Target novelization of a Who story ever (also Remembrance – seriously, get the recently recorded audio version, narrated by Terry ‘Davros’ Molloy, your inner geek will hug you for it), and then bringing back the Brigadier in a story that expanded the world of Who sideways in time to intertwine it with Arthurian legend, of all things (Battlefield). So that he should write a series of books that blends invention and mythology into something contemporary and exciting is no real surprise. A good job has been done here of condensing the concept into a sequence of easily-digestible pages and panels, while still keeping a sense of mystery, a degree of attitude and a delicious style – I’m not sure whether the idea of the pulp fiction crime shocker panel to explain a suspect’s action came from Aaronovitch, Cartmel or Sullivan, but whichever it was can take extra gold stars for delivering a standout moment. The pacing is more police procedural than high fantasy, and that seems very much the point. Rivers of London has been described ad nauseum in our high-concept world as ‘Harry Potter joins the police.’ No, no, no. This is more grown-up than that, more considered, more frankly enjoyable. If you must give it a high-concept boil-down, it’s more akin to ‘The Sweeney with spells.’
So – worth getting, then? Definitely, yes – it doesn’t grab you by the collar and drag you along against your will, by any means. But it does say ‘Come along if you want to,’ then shrug, and turn, and walk off.
You’re pretty much guaranteed to follow it through page after page and into the next issue. And the next. And the-
Rivers of London #1 is out now. View preview art here.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly
nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who,
Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the
70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By
runs an editing house, largely as an
excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book.
With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk