The Magic of Jazz, the Jazz of Magic, and the Darker Side of London: A Review of Moon Over Soho by Ben Aaronovitch

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London: one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world, a reputation it has held since it rose in status from a backwater town on the Roman frontier to the capital of one of the greatest countries in Europe. An economic, historical, and cultural center, it has been at the heart of or been involved in some of the greatest events of Western history.

In other words, it is a city with character: an indefinable something that shapes the feel of a city and of the people who are born and live in it. It also means that, as the setting for writers to use in their stories, it is one that provides endless possibilities for variation, to the point that London itself becomes a character in its own right. In the hands of a writer like Charles Dickens, for instance, or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, London becomes not just a mere backdrop for Miss Havisham or Sherlock Holmes: it takes on a life of its own, and is as vitally important to the work as the characters and the plot.

In Ben Aaronovitch’s Peter Grant books, this is most certainly the case. Rivers of London, the first book in the series, introduced Aaronovitch’s London of magic, wizards, genii locorum and so much more, as seen through the eyes of Peter Grant, a cop and apprentice wizard who must ensure that the Queen’s Peace is maintained not only in the mundane world, but also – or most especially – in the supernatural world as well. Apprenticed to Thomas Nightingale, Grant becomes the first apprentice wizard since the end of World War II. Rivers of London details how Grant became Nightingale’s apprentice, and how he solves two very big, and very important cases: one is a turf war between the genii locorum of London’s rivers (hence the title); and the other the exorcism of Mr. Punch, the embodiment of the spirit of mayhem and chaos particular to London. However, not everyone emerged unscathed: Nightingale was nearly killed, and Lesley May, Grant’s partner, nearly had her face destroyed by Mr. Punch.

Moon Over Soho picks up where Rivers of London left off. It has been a few months since the end of events in the first book, and everything seems to be going relatively smoothly so far. For instance, Lesley and Nightingale seem to both be recovering fairly well from their injuries (devastating though Lesley’s may have been), and the truce between the rivers of London still holds. However, a new pair of cases has emerged that Grant needs to solve: one is a rash of mysterious deaths of jazz musicians, and the other concerns a young woman who has been killing men by cutting their penises off – a character that made an appearance towards the end of the previous novel, but whose identity will finally be resolved in Moon Over Soho.

This novel has certain interesting aspects to it that were not seen in the previous novel. First would definitely have to be Grant’s family. It is mentioned in Rivers of London that Grant’s father is a jazz musician, but it is only in Moon Over Soho that the reader truly gets to see him and Grant’s mother. As it turns out, Grant’s father is more than just an average musician: he is known in the jazz circles of Soho as “Lord Grant,” a nickname he gained while still a young man, and the nickname by which he is still known – and respected. It turns out that Lord Grant’s jazz career was cut short primarily because of mouth or lip cancer, which has left him unable to play his favorite instrument, the trumpet. However, he is attempting to revive his flagging career by shifting to another instrument, the keyboard. Lord Grant also provides one of the crucial clues that helps Grant solve the mystery regarding the death of several jazz musicians.

And speaking of jazz, I rather enjoyed how important it is in this novel. Many jazz aficionados would approve of the idea that jazz is magical, and it is quite obvious that Aaronovitch tries to make that as true as possible in Moon Over Soho without going overboard – mostly by making Grant have neutral feelings about the genre. He might be the son of a jazz legend, but Grant does not have very strong feelings about it as a whole. He likes it, but is not totally devoted to it. I would have appreciated a playlist of sorts, actually, of the songs that appear in the story, as well as a few more that are in the spirit of the music in the novel. Such a playlist is not necessary to the enjoyment of the novel, of course, but it would have been a nice touch for readers who want to explore the genre.

Another interesting idea put forward in the novel is the idea that it is the force of will that creates magic. If one wishes for something hard enough, for instance, or simply thinks about something hard enough, whatever it is one wishes for or thinks about comes true or comes into being. It is this strength of willpower over the universe that creates the jazz vampires: the entities that are killing the jazz musicians in Soho. They (for there are three of them) are survivors of the bombing of a jazz club during the Blitz, and from that time onwards have been feeding on the energies of jazz musicians, something which keeps them young and beautiful into the twenty-first century. Through the force of their will, they have created themselves into supernatural creatures, and moreover, do not seem to be aware of it – either that, or are capable of ignoring it most of the time. Grant isn’t quite sure which it is. The notion is an intriguing one, and one which will hopefully be explored in later novels.

Moon Over Soho also introduces “the greater enemy”: a coterie of evil wizards, one of whose members is known as the Faceless Man. He is in charge of the Pale Lady, the mysterious young woman whose victims have been left behind without their penises – because, as it turns out, the Pale Lady has what is known as vagina dentata, and she removes her victims’ penises by literally biting them off. The introduction of evil wizards and a “greater enemy” at this point in the series is certainly necessary, because Grant and Nightingale will need a more definite opponent in the coming books, but I cannot help but think it is all a bit too contrived at this stage. It is as if the author is aware that there will be more books forthcoming, and the introduction of the Faceless Man and the mystery of who is behind him seems like a deliberate setup instead of a natural outgrowth of the progress of the story.

I cannot help but wonder: is London experiencing some kind of dearth of supernatural mayhem ever since Mr. Punch was eliminated that the introduction of the evil wizards is necessary? Can there not be some other kind of evil coming Grant and Nightingale’s way, like maybe some mysterious goings-on at Westminster Abbey, for instance? Or what about the Tower? And Oxford seems like a prime setting for trouble of the supernatural kind.

I am also a bit leery about what happens to Lesley at the end of the novel. The novel concludes with Grant paying Lesley a visit, and finding out that she can work magic. He is not quite certain what could have given her that talent, though he speculates it is a result of her possession by Mr. Punch. I found the introduction of that element towards the end a bit contrived as well. Was it truly necessary for Lesley to have magic? Could she not have been another mundane working in the magical world, like Dr. Walid, for instance? I think it would have been better if Lesley’s discovery of her talent came about slowly, while working alongside Grant and Nightingale.

Moon Over Soho is, simply put, not as jaw-dropping as Rivers of London, for reasons I have mentioned above. But despite being weaker than the first novel, it is still a great read. Grant’s voice is still fun, and the narration still has that wry sense of humor that I find endlessly funny and entertaining. Recurring characters are still as interesting as they were in Rivers of London (Nightingale is more human in this one) and new characters are just as intriguing (look out for the “Muslim ninja”). And London, as Aaronovitch depicts it, is still as wonderfully insane as it was in the first book.

For a sequel, it’s not bad at all.

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