Binged the entire seven of Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London novels again, ’cos sometimes a girl just wants a black Harry Potter and a Muslim Hermione — even if they are cops.
Let’s get the car out of the way first: PC Grant and The Folly score a Ferrari 288 GTO. Hashtag Merking. (And I’m taking this a poignant homage to Iain Banks’ The Business, also, yes, again, “Brutal.”, also no, I’ll never not “Brutal” if a Ferrari turns up in a skiffy or fantasy novel.)
And, youse who read me regularly all know my pruneface when a cis author attempts a trans woman character, so pruneface, I called it a Trannyphant, ’cos it’s the trans elephant in the room, ’cos none of you authors were doing it 10 years ago and it’s only ‘fashion’ (or ‘trans tipping point’) that you’re doing it now, and fuck me your obsession with genitals and surgery and medicalisation of trans women’s bodies is nasty — and it’s almost always trans women, and playing us for laughs? So, here’s a lesson in how you do it right:
Guleed passed me the completed IID on Caroline Linden-Limmer and pointed out a note which registered that she’d been granted a Gender Recognition Certificate when she was eighteen — changing her legal gender from male to female.
‘So …’ I started, but was cut off by the vast silence emanating from Stephanopoulos behind us.
I looked over at Nightingale, who looked quizzically back, and decided to explain the implications later. Surprisingly, when I did, his reaction was outrage that someone had to apply to a panel to determine what gender they were — he didn’t say it, but I got the strong impression that he felt such panels were intrinsically un-British. Like eugenics legislation, banning the burka and air conditioning.
I thought of the little girl in the blue dress — you can’t get a certificate until you’re 18 — it must have felt like a long wait.
Her mother, when I met her, didn’t strike me as someone who liked to wait.
The tall bit in an earlier section can go either way, and there’s plenty implicit in characters in the scene which doesn’t get conveyed here. But Aaronovitch has already done BAME (Black, Asian, Minority Ethnic — I know, it’s a clunky term, but working with what’s available here) and queer, and Muslim — and all wrapped in Police, and it reads believable to me (and if anyone’s all, “Frances, fam, you’re being taken for a ride there, and not in a 288 GTO.” I’ll own that), and that’s it. A few lines, and we move on with a real person who has a full life and this is one of the least remarkable parts about her.
Meandering elsewhere, Aaronovitch does police acronym soup and gadget geekery with the casual humour of someone who knows a story isn’t the equipment, but loves throwing in a bit anyway. I criticised this in recent Laundry Files novels, where technical paraphernalia overwhelms the story, inducing a fast-forwarding through the pages. So far, Aaronovitch hasn’t fallen into this, though contra that, the pace of his novels, and what he’s set himself up to get through in a novel-length work, leaves some character development or response hanging. Like how PC Grant’s partner, PC Leslie May takes up with the Faceless Man and betrays him. Grant muses it’s because the Faceless Man knows how to repair her destroyed face, but this feels a little unsatisfactory. It may be Aaronovitch is playing a longer game with May here, or that this in fact speaks directly of Grant’s poor emotional and interpersonal development (he did have a junkie for a father) which, along with his habit of getting lost in details instead of focussing on the larger issues, may denote a disconnect between how he sees himself — and the stories are told in first person — and the actual liability he is as both a person and PC.
Or maybe it’s that May is a white woman and like so many of them has little moral compunction in selling out her not-white mates if that gives her a leg-up. Aaronovitch makes it delightfully clear that the Faceless Man, Martin Chorley, is one of those rich, white supremacist types, who thinks British Empire is the natural order, which doesn’t paint May in a good light:
‘So apart from the face,’ I said, ‘Why are you working with this guy?’
Lesley ignored me, but the question obviously irritated Martin Chorley.
‘Because she’s properly British,’ he said.
‘And I’m not?’
‘No, ’ he said, ‘Not that I blame you for it, you understand. Your mother was no doubt enticed over to fill some vacancy in the NHS or to drive a bus, or some other job that the working man was too feckless to do himself.’
‘But Lesley is a proper Brit,’ said Martin Chorley, who I realised had probably been waiting years for an audience. ‘That wonderful blend of Romano-Celt and Anglo-Saxon with a flavouring of Dane and a pinch of Norman French. That happy breed that conquered the world and could again if all their children were kind and natural.’
As the UK stands, on the brink of a racist, white supremacist, elitist-driven Brexit, with 60,000 Nazis gathered in Warsaw yesterday, and every day feeling the tide of the genocide they want to bring rolling further in, I love this simplicity in Aaronovitch’s writing. We’re long past pretending white supremacists are anything more complex. And anyway, all this was known and clear if not in the first Rivers of London novel, then certainly in the second, Moon Over Soho. Aaronovitch has never written anything other than London, the real London.
City boy goes to the country. Country things happen to city boy.
Taking a breather from Ben Aaronovitch’s on-going story of the Faceless Man, and giving PC Peter Grant a break after having his partner, PC Lesley May turn traitor and join with said Faceless Man to drop a brutalist high-rise apartment block — the story of Grant and architecture right there. Off to Herefordshire.
About half-way through Foxglove Summer, I opened Maps and traced the story, based in Leominster, following the River Lugg up to Mortimer’s Cross, up the gorge to Aymestrey, into the parks and forests of Croft Castle and Gatley Park, where the land folds in long, north-east to south-west ridges, all the way to Raymond Erith’s Folly, with its domed roof, full of bees. It took a while, but worth it.
This could almost be read on its own, if you were prepared to let references to past events slide, and characters arrive with little or no establishing scenes. Sometimes I like that, an antidote to the plodding literalism of much genre fiction which has to tell and explain every step. So we have fairies, retired wizards (with granddaughters with said bees), unicorns, Roman roads — and Romans, countryside relationships (even queer ones, ’cos rural doesn’t mean parochial), Beverley Brook, goddess of the same river in London, who arranges for a small stream near the Lugg to be reborn (with help from Peter) kidnapped children and changelings, and the original forest of Britain. Just the kind of diversion he needs — and just the kind of opening up of the series so it doesn’t become one tiresome slog to nail a singular evildoer.
And if I could not like this series more, there’s a quiet love of hoonage throughout, from PC Grant’s Ford ASBO, to Chief Inspector Thomas Nightingale’s Jaguar Mark 2 with the 3.8 litre XK6 engine, to the Utes of Herefordshire, and a Ferrari 288 GTO in the next novel (which I’m taking as a poignant homage to Iain Banks’ The Business, also, yes, “Brutal.”). He’s got my heart here, Muslim ninja cops and hoonage.
Book 4 of Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London series, that I’ve been smashing the last six weeks. This one goes firmly back into the grand narrative of the series, the Faceless Man, the big, tectonic forces moving PC Grant, and goes from the underground of Whispers Under Ground into the council housing towers of South London’s Elephant and Castle.
Spoilers all over here, PC Leslie May turning traitor and working with the Faceless Man was not what I was expecting at all, and still hurts, two novels later. Aaronovitch is dealing with the superstructure of London here, class divisions, the rich using the poor, immigration and racism. It reminds me of straight people’s unwillingness to see or read queer or trans relationships and identities in fiction (“Oh, they’re just good friends, good friends hold hands sometimes.”) — you could get through (almost) all his novels and pretend this is not what it’s about, but if you’re reading from another side, it’s so gloriously obvious. That’s why I’m reading them. Like being in Peckham with Onyx, Carly, and Naretha, and we’re all saying, yeah, this feels like home here, this feels right.
And if it’s not abundantly clear by now, Aaronovitch’s main characters are the rivers of London, the architecture, the underground, what Onyx called density, history layered and compressed on itself, and capriciousness, one day in love with you, the next, ruins. There’s this idea that genre fiction of the sci-fi and fantasy type is about ideas; contrasting that to literature or whatever, ‘nice’ novels, which are about people. This shows an impoverishment in understanding genre, as well as — again — a classist, elitist devaluing. The best sci-fi and fantasy is only about people (not devaluing a different ‘best’ ripping a banging adventure). Sure, people wrapped up in things that don’t happen in the world right now, but stories of people nonetheless, who we come to know across the pages, who we follow as they grow. And when I say people, unlike so often those nice novels, I mean anything which has subjectivity and agency: a ship’s Mind, or the landscape of a planet in Banks’ novels; or the rivers in Aaronvitch’s, all people as well.
So, devouring these novels here and trying to say something worthwhile about each. Read if you liked Harry Potter or Charles Stross’ Laundry Files but wanted more, wanted a London like Peckham.
After reading Moon Over Soho and Rivers of London, books 2 and 1 respectively of Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London series, I ordered the lot (except the latest, it seems), and read them. And I was in London! So I was all, “I love this city!” and felt like I knew it so much because of these novels. What I call “Harry Potter if he was a black cop in London, played by a young Idris Elba, or Stormzy, and Hermione Granger was a Somali Muslim cop on the Murder Squad.”
I slammed the whole series over the last two months, as they arrived, and usually in a couple of days per novel, except when I was on tour — so they’re also firmly bound with the joys of travel and rivers for me now, the Danube and Thames, which is fitting. Whispers Under Ground doesn’t obviously follow the larger story of the Faceless Man, which almost makes these first three stand-alone works. It does introduce a whole pile of characters, locations, peoples, who fill out the world of the series in this and later novels.
I’m probably going to re-binge the whole series in the coming weeks (just need to re-buy Rivers of London first), which tells how much I’m enjoying these. Funny that they’re a series too, ’cos I’m always reluctant to commit, but cheers to Gala for introducing me to this. Best joyous fantasy read of the twenty-tens.
Just as Gala handed off Moon Over Soho to me, so do I hand off Rivers of London. I finish it beside the Danube, just upstream from Ottensheim. It’s been my book for the week I’ve been there. I bought two because I’d mostly finished this, but that’s how much reading time I had. I pass it on to Kali Rose, I say, “I think you might like it,” ’cos as much as we’re all at reading the theory and non-fiction for what we’re up against, part of it is seeing ourselves, or just seeing representation in fiction. It’s a political act to write fiction, and to read it. (Also ’cos I didn’t have room in my bag to bring it back on the plane, which means I’ll have to buy it again.)
I’m way behind on my writing about reading at the moment, so this isn’t going to be a slab of text like I wrote for the Moon Over Soho, Ben Aaronovitch’s second novel in the PC Grant series. Rivers of London is the first, and is probably better. Whether that’s because of the foreshadowing hanging over it because I know where the story is going with face-mangling magic, and what it means for PCs Peter Grant and Leslie May. Equally a lot of the river story and characters in the second novel — which we’re supposed to know what he’s talking about with, ’cos we’ve read the first, eh? — take on their proper form. Still, yes, you can read second before first and it’s solid and stand-alone enough to not feel disappointment and confusion.
The crime story of Rivers of London is perhaps more grandiose — and goes on some real, deliberate trips — than that of Moon Over Soho — possibly because I was crossing the Danube multiple times a night and had only its waters for company, some of which is still in my lungs. Moon Over Soho, on the other hand brings PC Grant’s family into play, and that was what grabbed me so much, though there’s enough of growing up Black and BAME in London in the first novel that if I’d only read that one I’d still be ordering the whole set.
All of them. All seven of them. All large typeface so I can read them while I fall asleep and pretend I don’t need glasses. Better than Harry Potter? Yeah. Better than Charles Stross’ Laundry Files series? Yeah. All I want to do is order the rest and take a week off, shack up on a nice sofa in the autumn sun (in Berlin, Frances?) and read them all. Are you going to read them too? Yeah. Should they be movies? Yeah.
“What’s an Airwave?”
“umm … dunno. What’s the context?”
“‘I bunged a spare airwave in with my backup laptop just to be on the safe side. ’”
“Maybe a portable Wi-Fi hotspot?”
“… something something Hogwarts …”
“Gala, what are you reading?”
“Moon Over Soho, it’s by Ben Aaronovitch. Sort of magical police?”
“Never heard of him. Off to the Wikis, I s’pose?”
“I’ll give it to you when I’m done.”
And my backpack — which I can legit get at least a week of living out of if I don’t take climbing shoes — had just enough room in the front mesh pocket for me to take it on the plane. I began in the airport, stupidly early because I read boarding time as wheels up, kept going that evening, finished it off with peanut butter and jam on toast and accompanying coffee — which is how I want to go out (if I’m denied my, “What happens if I—oops,” moment somewhere high in the Central Asian mountains), because there is nothing better than PB&J, coffee, and a boffo novel.
Moon Over Soho is the second of Aaronovitch’s PC Grant Mystery series, currently numbering seven — but did you know he wrote for Blake’s 7 audio dramas? Blake’s 7! The best sci-fi series ever made. And Doctor Who, and Jupiter Moon (I dunno about that last one either). But his PC Grant series is him doing novels proper. Coincidentally (or not), Gala got me up for us watching Luther, starring Idris Elba as the PTSD’d detective. It was shite. Utter fucking cringe-inducing shite. But Elba would make a brilliant PC Grant, except he’s too old. Second novel, then. Doesn’t matter, I picked up most of the carry-over from the first novel, and it’s self-contained enough to make it enjoyable not knowing all the backstory. Enjoyable enough to order all seven? I reckon.
It reminded me plenty of Charles Stross’ Laundry Files series (and somewhat of Ayize Jama-Everett’s The Liminal People trilogy) — and obviously plays with post-’00s Harry Potter —so much I had to look to see who wrote what when, not convinced at first there wasn’t some heavy borrowing going on. But similarities are unavoidable lately. Everyone’s influenced by Potter in the same way previous generations were by Tolkien; Cthulhu Mythos accounts for a chunk of fantasy, post-Twilight for another, and for police procedurals of the British type, there’s 25 years of The Bill to contend with. So if I’m reminded so much of other novels, why am I all, “Woo! Gonna throw Euros at the whole series!”?
’Cos it’s good. ’Cos it’s the series I wish Stross had listened to. It’s the series for a London where the Mayor is the son of working-class bus driver, whose Muslim family immigrated from India to Pakistan post-partition and then on to South London; a London where Stormzy says, “I’m so London, I’m so South,”; the London of Peter Fryer’s Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain, where centuries of diligent, ceaseless effort could not stop Brown, Black, South Asian, everyone who is ‘not-white’, who was colonised, who came to the UK, becoming British and Londoners and making the place so, so much more and better than it could ever have been without. It’s a London of those clunky words that I still love for what they aspire to: diversity and multiculturalism.
It wasn’t until I read Moon Over Soho that I could articulate what’s been bothering me in Stross — as much as I like his novels, and as much as I’ve already articulated at length on his problems with representation. It’s the difference between describing a character’s skin colour or sexuality or gender, and leaving it at that, having them move through the white world as anyone else who can, and having a character like PC Grant, who goes home to his mother with all that entails as a child of a working-class, jazz musician father, and a Black British Fula mother of a very extended Sierra Leonean family. And there was a series of short scenes, introducing a recurring character, with a very much tough, butch dyke detective as the intermediary:
She clicked her fingers and a couple of Murder Team detectives came padding down the stairs with gloves and evidence bags. Stephanopoulis pointed at the staff door and they dutifully trooped past me to do a more thorough search of the cloakroom. One of them was a young Somali woman in a leather biker jacket and an expensive black silk hijab. She caught me looking and smiled.
“Muslim ninja,” she whispered.
Stephanopoulis lent me the Somali ninja girl whose name was Sahra Guleed and who turned out to be from Gospel Oak, which is just up the road from where I grew up—different school, though. When two ethnic officers meet for the first time the first question you ask can be about anything but the second question you ask is always, “Why did you join?”
“Are you kidding?” said Guleed. “You get to legally rough people up.”
This, I like. I get anxious when I pulled in like this, as with Legend of Korra, or Orphan Black, or quite a few others where the writers are doing necessary work, where they’re explicitly repping. What if they’re not, though? Or what if they fuck up? What if I’ve missed something obvious and it’s actually embarrassing how not good it is? What if it’s appropriation instead of representation? The appearance of ‘diversity’ so they don’t have to do the actual hard work, in art and their lives. What if the — so far — cisgender and hetero and male PC Grant comes to signify an entire world prioritising such characters and perspectives? I expect a shitload of effort once a writer reaches a critical mass of Getting It Right. I’m not saying they’re not allowed to fail, I’m not acting as an infallible arbiter, rather that the consequences for screwing up hurt me more as a reader than for the great wash of bollocks, inconsequential because firmly within the derivative norm. If I care about a novel and the characters and the story, it’s because it means something. I don’t want to trawl through a novel for morsels, scraps, and glimpses of representation, I want that to be the core, ’cos that’s the world, that’s real, it always has been.
I was kinda put off reading Charles Stross’ Laundry Files series after last year’s The Nightmare Stacks and its Trannyphant. I still think his Saturn’s Children series is some of the best space opera out (or at least I remember it impressing me enough to make Neptune’s Brood my Book of the Year in 2013 (along with Iain M. Banks’ The Hydrogen Sonata), and have a long-standing soft-spot for his Merchant Princes series, but I’m getting kinda bored with The Laundry Files.
That boredom’s separate from still thinking he’s suss for the shite playing a trans woman character for laughs in The Nightmare Stacks — plus his editors, publishers, manuscript readers, who all let this version through. There’s way too many white, cis male writers (in all fields from novels to series to film) lately who blab loudly about their feminist and whatever cred yet throw up dodgy. It’s like the noise they spray about being allies gets in the way of their thinking, convinces them they’ve earned the right to be ‘edgy’ or some shite. It’s really, really hard for me to come back to an author after this, like William Gibson in his return to form (finally!) of The Peripheral, or N.K. Jemisin in The Fifth Season, all three I suppose aiming for ‘sensitive representations of trans women’ and — for me anyway — very much not nailing the landing. But with Stross, because I’ve been reading him since my Zürich days, I still buy what he writes, and in this case reading with a little trepidation in case he he was onto a winning idea with trans characters.
I read this a couple of weeks ago and having a lot of difficulty recalling the story. I do remember that it so heavily relies on the throng of characters introduced over the previous seven novels — and chronologically follows on so directly from The Nightmare Stacks as to be Part II — I was resorting to the internet to remind myself of who’s who. Yup, thinking my brain out here and still can’t recall the actual story. Fun to read for sure: I did it in over a weekend, but annoyingly insubstantial. And that’s been my criticism of Stross for a while. He’s more than capable of sophisticated, nuanced ideas and storytelling, but seems to be spinning his wheels throwing out stuff that’s on the flimsy side of late. But most people love it and I know my tastes are demanding. It’s not the one to start the series with either way.
In fact I read Charles Stross’ The Nightmare Stacks way back shortly after it was published, sometime early-July. I haven’t really wanted to blog it because there was a fucking great Trannyphant in the middle.
“What’s a Trannyphant, auntie Frances?”
“Well, dear, it’s what happens when a writer, almost always non-tranny, tries to write a trans woman character into their novel and it causes cringing. It’s an elephant-sized tranny (or tranny-sized elephant, fuck knows which) in the room.”
“What does uncle Ludwig think about this, auntie Frances?”
“He’d probably say, “that ‘there is not a trannyphant in this room’ is not empirically knowable.”
“Are we mixing metaphors here?”
“I’m afraid so. But isn’t it nice?”
“And you just worked a Rocky Horror line into this?”
“Why, yes, I did.”
There’s a lot of writers writing tranny characters lately, jumping on the tranny bandwagon — and by ‘tranny’ I mean trans women, transsexual women, however they self-identify, the ones who specifically have ‘medically transitioned’, an important distinction ’cos there’s a whole lot of unreflective fetishising of these bodies going on in parallel with this. I expected a lot better from Stross. I’ve been reading him since 2005 and some of his works like Glasshouse, Saturn’s Children, much of the Merchant Princes series prove he can write believable women, that he gets gender, identity, sexuality. But there’s also something like a didacticism in his writing, ’cos he’s very capable of writing knowledgeably on subjects, of doing his research — which I mostly enjoy in his work — that can go badly wrong when applied to a subject for all his knowledge and experience on some fundamental level he doesn’t really get.
Him and whoever proofread this. In the acknowledgements, he credits a whole slew of military historian types with providing assistance in writing the final, meticulously detailed (yet kinda boring for me) battle. It’s a pity he either didn’t have such critical eyes for the tranny scene, or they didn’t see how dodgy it is. Being pedantically clear here, there’s all kinds of trannies, all kinds of trans women, and for some it’s not inconceivable this scene would read fine. But just as within military history there’s a broad consensus on how things work, so too is there in this. A different version of this scene would have emerged from either Stross or proofreaders assigned to this scene (even if they loved it) going, “Yeah, I get what you’re trying to do here, and it’s nice you’re writing a trans woman, but within the historical, social, political, medical situation for trans women — generally and within feminist / queer situations — how you’ve written this is problematic and unrealistic because of the following things.”
Instead, what Stross wrote was principally outing a young trans women in a situation she couldn’t easily extract herself from and playing it for Comedy of Errors type laughs.
I’m sure he didn’t mean it like that. I’m sure many if not most people read it as a ‘sensitive portrayal’. I’m sure of a lot of things, like how much of my time I pour into trying to understand whether such bullshittery is genuine or if I’m ‘too sensitive’ and ‘over-reacting’, and how I always have to steel myself when I point out that ‘x’ might be controversial in situation ‘y’ because of historical/social/political ‘z’ because I know there’ll be hard pushback from whoever thinks I’ve just unfairly criticised their ‘ally’ credentials, and how the pit of my stomach drops out when I turn the page and there’s a fucking trannyphant.
I’ve loved Stross in the past, some of my favourite sci-fi/fantasy of all, up there in the triumvirate of Banks and Miéville (though Banks always far above at the apex). I didn’t like this. Irrespective of this scene I wasn’t so impressed, or maybe this scene in itself also makes apparent the problems I find in his writing of late. The trannyphant though, it’s a killer problem for me and who I’ll read.