Some Plates, Some Trains, Some Pigs, Some Rivers, Some (H.G.) Wells – A Review of Whispers Under Ground by Ben Aaronovitch


There is a lot that might considered a part of “quintessential London.” There are the bridges, and the old buildings like the Tower of London and Westminster Abbey. There are more modern landmarks, such as the London Eye and Big Ben. And then there are the museums, such as the Tate Modern and Natural History Museum. But this is not, of course, the end-all and be-all of London. London, like many cities, is more than just the sum of its tourist landmarks. It’s about it’s residents, it’s culture, it’s history. And when a city is as old as London, and has as rich a culture as London, then it’s easy to see that it’s quite special.

Like many writers before him (and likely many after him), Ben Aaranovitch knows how special London is – special enough that he’s used it as the primary setting for his Peter Grant series. Cities tend to accumulate their own stories, their own mythologies, and it is these stories that Aaronovitch uses for the worlding of his series. Beginning in Rivers of London, the series tells the story of Peter Grant, a police officer who becomes a wizard – or a wizard’s apprentice, at any rate. In the first book, he gets roped into the wizarding business when he has to not only solve a string of mysterious murders, but also mediate between the warring spirits of the Thames and its tributaries. In Rivers of London he comes to accept his role as a wizard apprentice, and begins laying the foundations for his interaction as a man born and educated in the manner of the twenty-first century learning something far older and far more esoteric than anything he’s encountered before.

In the second book, Moon Over Soho, Grant is once more brought in on a mysterious case connected to several jazz artists falling dead, which then leads to an even deadlier enemy: a group of wizards whom he and Nightingale call “the Little Crocodiles,” after the club they were a part of at Oxford. These particular wizards don’t have the same scruples as Nightingale and Grant, and appear to be ready to wreak havoc over all of London without any concern for the people who get caught in the middle. Their worst atrocity is what Grant calls Dr. Moreau’s Strip Club, where the main attractions are people who have been magically melded with animals. The Faceless Man, whom they have pinpointed as the leader of the Little Crocodiles, is still at large, and they need to flush him out of hiding.

And that’s still what they’re trying to do, for the most part, in Whispers Under Ground. This time around, though, they have help from Peter’s friend, Lesley May, who nearly died in the first book when she pretty much lost her face – and nearly her life – and was revealed to be capable of magic spells at the end of Moon Over Soho. It’s Christmas season in London, and in the midst of the mad rush to buy presents and prepare for the holidays, a dead body that turns out to be the son of an American senator is found in the railway underneath Baker Street – yes, that Baker Street – and there’s something highly irregular about it. This leads to Peter and Lesley being brought in, and this in turn leads to a madcap and very frightening adventure in the mysterious underground of London – an underground that contains a secret not even Nightingale was aware existed.

Whispers Under Ground being the third book in a series, it’s hard to expect it to stand on its own. There’s a lot of references to events that have happened in Rivers of London and in Moon Over Soho which play into the events of the novel itself – not least of them being Peter’s association with the Rivers: a class of spirits called genii locorum who represent the Thames itself and its tributaries, and who were central to the events of the first novel. There are also a small handful of minor characters who carry over from the first two: Dr. Walid, for instance, who acts as the primary doctor and medical examiner for the Folly (a term used to describe the branch of police Nightingale, Peter, and now Lesley work for – it’s also their main residence). Other characters include Sahra Guleed, otherwise known as the “Muslim ninja” from Moon Over Soho, who pops up regularly when Peter and Lesley work with the main police force. And then there’s Jaget Kumar, who works with the British Transport Police and is very familiar with the network of tunnels that make up London’s underground.

For the most part, there’s really nothing new to be had in this novel, especially when compared to the previous two. A pattern for the plot has already been established, and while it’s still pretty well-written in the sense that there were a few unexpected twists and turns, but since the second book it’s become clear that the pattern goes something like this: Peter has something bigger on his plate, usually linked to the broader state of the supernatural world, and something which cuts across all the books. A crime – usually a murder – occurs, and Peter is called in because there’s something funky about it. As he attempts to solve the murder he finds out that it’s linked to that broader issue he’s been pursuing, and solving the case brings him one step closer to finding an answer to the bigger question he’s been trying to figure out. In the meantime, a small array of supporting characters is either built upon or introduced, and they will surely be involved, in some greater or lesser degree in future novels.

Now, there is nothing wrong with these novels having a pattern – this is to be expected, as the Peter Grant series are primarily mysteries operating in an urban fantasy world, and mysteries all have one base pattern on which the author creates their own variation. What is more important is that the pattern works, and in Whispers Under Ground, it most certainly does. What distinguishes this novel – and indeed, the rest of the Peter Grant books – from the many, many others like is the world Aaronovitch has built around them: his version of London. And that is where, I think, most of the magic lies.

In this novel the reader is plunged into the dark, mysterious underground of London, which almost seems to be a world separate from the above-ground London where Peter has done most of his work up until this point. But the underground is just as much a part of London as the above-ground, perhaps even more so, because this is where a lot of the things London wants to forget eventually – or inevitably – wind up. And this time around, the novel introduces something that, I think, is one of the most brilliant attempts to include a notable standby of fantasy in an urban fantasy setting.

In the novel The Time Machine, H.G. Wells proposes the concept of a race of humanoids living underground. Called the Morlocks, they are extremely intelligent and extremely vicious, farming the helpless, beautiful, and stupid Eloi on the surface as a source of food. And this idea of a super-intelligent subterranean race makes an appearance in this novel in the form of the Quiet People. To compare them to the Morlocks, however, would be highly inaccurate, for they are a peaceful folk, similar to the Morlocks only in their inability to tolerate bright light, loud sound, and for their extreme intelligence – and their extreme creativity. They are also magical, capable of making unbreakable pottery. Although Peter initially compares them to the Morlocks, he later associates them more with the Dwarves from The Lord of the Rings, primarily because of their subterranean living conditions and their magical craftsmanship. I found them as a group very intriguing, and appropriate: there’s got to be something down in the underground, after all, and it might as well be the Quiet People. It makes sense that they would be there, and I hope to see more of them eventually.

And now that I mention The Lord of the Rings, this novel is chock-full of references to it, and other things besides, including a conversation wherein Dungeons and Dragons gaming mechanics are referenced. Most notable, however, would be the references to Avatar: The Last Airbender, which had me thoroughly tickled – particularly since Peter kept referring to a particular character as an “Earthbender.” Having just come off the first season of Avatar: The Legend of Korra, seeing that reference back to the original series simply made me giggle over and over again. It also says a lot about Peter, Lesley, and Kumar that they use these references in the first place: they are obviously very much up-to-date with current trends in pop culture – even to the point of being sufficiently conversant in the terminology of what might be considered a children’s cartoon.

As for the characters themselves, some change significantly, and a handful don’t. Peter and Nightingale are the same as they were since the second book – this is hardly a surprise, particularly in Nightingale’s case, since he’s not around for a huge portion of the novel. The one who changes the most, however, is Lesley. Given the events of the previous two books, and the fact that she’s now a part of the Folly (albeit unofficially), she’s had a lot to get used to. She is, however, the perfect counterbalance to Peter’s somewhat erratic nature without getting in the way of Peter being Peter, and even better, she manages to stand very well on her own. Jaget Kumar is very amusing and interesting, and I look forward to seeing more of him in the next few books. Sahra Guleed, as well, as intriguing, and she seems to work well enough with Peter and Lesley that I’d like to see more of her and her dynamic with them.

The most uncomfortable fit in this web of characters definitely has to be Kimberley Reynolds, the FBI agent. I suppose it’s because she’s American, and this being told from Peter’s point of view she would most definitely the one person out in all of this, but I wish she had been utilized more effectively. She seemed like a very interesting character, not least because she sees Peter and Nightingale work magic and doesn’t appear to go bonkers. Maybe she will come back at some later date, and I do hope she gets the better end of the characterization deal if and when that does happen.

Overall, Whispers Under Ground is a very fun third installment to what’s already proven to be a very fun series. The cliffhanger is very, very promising (and rather painful, though in a good way), and I’m crossing my fingers for some more action from the Rivers in the next book – especially given the specific nature of the cliffhanger ending and the rather large (in comparison to Moon Over Soho) involvement of the Rivers this time around. The plot is starting to get predictable, but that is easily forgiven, given the world, some of the twists, and all the pop culture references that pop up all over the place. Peter’s humor is as it should be – dry and witty – and there are more characters for the reader to know and maybe love. Once again, I find myself anticipating the fourth novel and the series – and here’s to hoping it will continue to be just as fun as this one and the last two.


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