Caveat: Before I begin, I think it would only be wise to put up a spoiler warning. I don’t know how many people have already read the book, but if the reader has strayed here from someplace else, not entirely aware of the nature of this review, then it’s only right to inform them that there are spoilers in this review, and if one wishes to avoid spoilers, then it would be good to avoid this review until one has read the book.
One last time: spoilers lie ahead, so do not read further than this unless you’re one of a select class of people who are “spoiler-proof,” or you’ve already read the book. This is your last warning.
England—or the United Kingdom as a whole, rather—is not famous for having good weather. Words like “gloomy” and “grey” tend to come to mind, and during my brief visit in 2006 I found no reason to believe otherwise. I was in London and then in St. Albans sometime in May, and though the sun shone, sometimes, in the afternoon, it generally stayed out of sight for most of the day, with occasional drizzles of rain filling in the rest of the daily meteorological schedule. Some days, the sun didn’t come out at all.
Of course that would be the case, some might argue. May, after all, is hardly summer, and one certainly cannot expect a full day of sunshine in springtime. I would, indeed, agree with that argument: I was in England during spring, and I was aware that a full day of sunshine during the season was nigh-on impossible. And while it suited St. Albans quite well, it did no wonders for the concrete sprawl of London.
But I have heard, and read, about English summers. Writers down the years have waxed rhapsodic about it, especially of summer in the country: the quality of the light, the scents in the air, and the way the world seems to exhale, relax, and settle a little deeper into its chair. As the days lengthen time becomes something of an afterthought, days melting one into the other, until one can only mark time according to vaguely-remembered events: a picnic, a trip to the seashore, a kiss.
Reality, however, is never so idyllic—even in a version of reality where magic is real, and wizards and spirits walk amongst ordinary people. And that is most certainly the case in Foxglove Summer, the fifth novel in Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London series.
To say that I was waiting eagerly for this book is something of an understatement. I’ve loved the series ever since Hope threw the first book my way, and we’ve always tried to keep our ears to the ground regarding the release date for the latest one. So when Foxglove Summer finally dropped this year, I got to it as quickly as I possibly could, temporarily sacrificing my progress on Cixin Liu’s Three-Body Problem because I was aware that Foxglove Summer, like the other books in the series, would prove to be a relatively quick read.
And I was right, in that regard: Foxglove Summer did indeed prove to be a quick read, though in my opinion that is both a compliment, and mild criticism.
Foxglove Summer begins some months after the harrowing events of the fourth book, Broken Homes. Still reeling from the betrayal of his friend, Lesley May, Peter finds himself drawn out of the Folly—and from London itself—in order to investigate the case of two missing girls who’ve disappeared from a village in Herefordshire. The Folly has “certain responsibilities”, as Nightingale puts it, when it comes to children, and so off Peter is sent to nose around and see what has happened. This doesn’t make Peter entirely comfortable, as he’s lived in London all his life and has rarely, if at all, left the city, but as both a police officer and a wizard he has his duty, and his duty he must do, wherever it may take him.
Nightingale’s instincts are soon proven right: there is something magical going on in Rushpool, and Peter must now get to the bottom of it before something happens to the two girls. Some things are not that different from how they are in London: the police still aren’t sure about how to deal with Peter and his association with the Folly, and Beverley Brook is still around. But there are new gods to meet, and new kinds of magical beings to discover and interact with, and all this Peter must deal with more or less on his own.
The first notable thing about this novel is its setting. The first four novels have all been set within London itself, but this time Peter goes farther—much farther—afield: a countryside village surrounded mostly by agricultural land. This is about as far from “familiar” as Peter can get, and it’s rather fun reading about his reaction to the whole thing. It isn’t immediately obvious, because Peter tends to hide his discomfort under a (thoroughly amusing) layer of snark and sarcasm, but it’s clear that he’s not a country boy, and while he can understand the draw of the countryside (less traffic, for one), he’s too much of a city boy to find it very appealing. As a matter of fact, I rather agree with him on the matter of the birds: one does not ever experience that much rude racket first thing in the morning when one lives in the city, even in a tropical country like mine. Yes, even when one’s neighbours keep fighting cocks in their backyard.
Along with the expansion of setting, there’s an expansion of the world itself—or at least, the magical world, the one that Peter inhabits as a wizard. There are more genii locorum introduced in this novel, and the whole concept of borders between the powers is reinforced, specifically in the scenes involving Beverley Brook and her interactions with the spirits of the River Teme: a set of sisters who echo the three Weird Sisters of mythology, and, yes, Shakespeare, though true to Aaronovitch’s take on things, they are not in any way “typical” to the myths and legends they appear in. There are unicorns as well, but again since this is Aaronovitch one can be most certain that these unicorns are not quite what the reader imagines them to be. It also proves that whenever Aaronovitch mentions something in one book, it is highly likely he will bring them up in another book further down the line: a quick reread of the series reminded me that unicorns were first mentioned in the third novel, Whispers Under Ground, and here they are, in the flesh (so to speak), in the fifth novel. The reread also proved that Aaronovitch has been doing this since the first book, and I am going to have to pay better attention to this sort of thing if I want to be able to see all the things he’s laying down in case I miss something important to the overall plot.
And of course, if there are unicorns, fairies cannot be far behind. To be fair, they—or at least the concept of the fae—were already mentioned in previous books, but this is the first time that Peter (and therefore the reader) runs into something remotely like the fae in folklore and legend. They are also at the core of answering a question that has run in Peter’s, and some readers’, since the beginning: what exactly is Molly? It’s not a question wholly answered, but it does give the reader a direction to go when attempting to puzzle out Molly’s true identity, though I am personally more interested in her history with Nightingale and how she came to be in the Folly in the first place. Hopefully more answers will be given in later books, now that Peter has an idea regarding what Molly might be.
And now that I speak of questions being answered, any readers who are interested in the question of Ettersberg and Nightingale’s past are in for a treat: one of the supporting characters is a survivor of Ettersberg and gives some insight into the nature of that conflict and the role that Nightingale played in it. It also answers some questions about David Mellenby—the wizard with the scientific inclinations, first mentioned by Nightingale in Rivers of London when comparing Peter’s attempts to align magic and science with Mellenby’s attempts to do the same.
Throughout all of this, Peter is, well, Peter. He’s not precisely in top-notch form all the time (made especially clear in one particular scene towards the latter third of the book), but his snark and sarcasm are still there, as are his quick thinking and the kind of policing-meets-magic-meets-science that is pretty much his trademark by now. It’s likely the reader will miss the more familiar characters, like Nightingale and Dr. Walid and Lesley (perhaps especially Lesley), but I think this book really gives Peter a chance to shine on his own, solving the case mostly on his own steam and with minimal help from his friends and mentor. It also gives him some room to grow, which is important especially when one considers what lies ahead for him.
However, he is not entirely without friends in this book. Beverley Brook comes along to help, and this time is really developed into a proper character in her own right. I was rather hoping for this development because I really like Beverley, from what I’ve seen of her in the last four books, but she hasn’t really gotten much chance to shine until now. It’s also interesting to watch her reestablish (or just solidly establish?) her relationship with Peter, making their connection totally unambiguous in the novel’s climax.
As for the plot, well… It has its pros and cons. On the positive side, it is about as self-contained a novel as one can get for a book that happens in the middle of a series: the plot has minimal connection to the major events that have happened in the first four books, and the connection to the story arc of the Faceless Man is almost negligible. But it does rather feel as if things got out of hand in the latter third: what seemed a relatively tidy and fascinating story at the start turned into something very odd and complicated at the end, and I’m not entirely happy with the way things were resolved—especially when it took some (literal) deus ex machina to pull Peter out of the hot water he’d rather deliberately jumped into. I think it would have been more interesting if Peter had managed to sort out that problem on his own, not least because of the insights it could have provided, but I suppose he had to get out somehow, and he certainly wasn’t going to save himself on his own—probably without adding another fifty or so pages to the novel. Personally, though, I wouldn’t have minded those extra fifty pages, if it meant a satisfactory resolution to the whole mess, but that’s not quite what I got.
Overall, Foxglove Summer is a fun continuation of Peter Grant’s (mis)adventures in magic, mayhem, and crime, as well as an expansion of the world he lives in, reading very much like a summer holiday (insofar as it can be called that) for Peter before he goes back to the far more dangerous work grind of policing magical crime in the big bad city. It also develops characters who may have been rather neglected in the last few books (Beverley Brook), and introduces a handful of new ones whom I hope to meet again in a later book (or books). Parts of answers to some questions are given, but even more questions are asked whose answers may probably come at a later date. However, while the first two thirds of the book are pretty well organised, the plot in the latter third seems to come off the rails a bit, and some readers may find themselves wishing for a somewhat-longer conclusion.
I would like to note here, however, that readers who got the Waterstones edition lucked out, and got a short story titled “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Granny”, which they say functions as an epilogue of sorts for the story. Hopefully, Aaronovitch will make this story available to the wider reading public soon.