Back Again for Another Day of Magic and Mayhem in London Town – A Review of The Hanging Tree by Ben Aaronovitch

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Since this is the sixth book in an ongoing series, consider this a warning for potential spoilers for previous books in the series. There are no to minimal spoilers for the book itself.

The difficult thing about favouring an ongoing series is that sometimes, things do not always go according to schedule. Release dates can change unexpectedly for a variety of reasons, and while I understand why such things happen (not least because it usually means the author or authors have run into unexpected problems), it does feel a touch sad when a book I was looking forward to does not get released when I thought it would.

That was the case with The Hanging Tree, the sixth book in Ben Aaronovitch’s Peter Grant series. I was so looking forward to its release in 2015, but when the release date was moved to 2016, I admit that I was a touch disappointed. Though I enjoyed Foxglove Summer, the fifth book in the series, I thought it was more like a kind of summer vacation for Peter Grant, especially given the momentous events that happened in book four, Broken Homes. But I was looking forward to seeing Peter back in the city, and there had been a few scattered hints across the Internet indicating that big things were going to happen in the next book – but then it was delayed, and I had to wait until 2016 to finally, finally find out what was going to happen next in Peter Grant’s very exciting, and very dangerous, life.

The Hanging Tree takes place sometime after the events of Foxglove Summer. Peter gets a call from Lady Ty, more properly known as Lady Cecelia Tyburn-Thames, the genius locorum of the River Tyburn, which no longer runs on the surface but remains entirely hidden underneath London’s streets. Tyburn is calling in a favour Peter owes her (as detailed in the third book, Whispers Under Ground), and since it does not do to say “no” to a genius locorum (especially if it’s Tyburn), Peter has no choice but to do as she asks.

On the surface, it seems simple enough: make sure that Tyburn’s daughter is not implicated in the death of one Cristina Chorley. On the surface, it looks like another drug overdose case involving the children of the rich and powerful, who seem to have nothing better to do with their time than party and get drugged out of their heads. But it is never so simple or straightforward when it comes to the magical world, especially when Peter is involved, and soon the case evolves into something far, far more dangerous than anyone could have expected.

In my review of Foxglove Summer I mentioned that I was looking forward to seeing Peter go back to London and deal with the larger implications of the events in Broken Homes. While Foxglove Summer was a pleasant diversion, and perhaps necessary from a world-building perspective, I was more interested in learning about what would happen after the absolutely momentous events of Broken Homes than I was in the summer diversion that was the fifth book.

In that regard, The Hanging Tree lives up to all my expectations. While the reader must not skip Foxglove Summer when reading this series, since what happens there does play an important role in The Hanging Tree, and will likely be further developed in later books, it is also true that The Hanging Tree is more deeply related in terms of plot to the events of Broken Homes, since it deals largely with the plot arc connected to the Faceless Man and Lesley May. Important new details about the Faceless Man emerge in this novel, and the mystery of Lesley’s betrayal deepens. This will certainly lead to more interesting revelations in upcoming books, and I am very much looking forward to those.

One thing the reader may notice, though, is that some events are mentioned that do not appear in any of the first five books. These are likely events that are described in the series’s associated graphic novel, written by Aaronovitch and art by Andrew Cartmel. Unfortunately I have not had the chance to read said graphic novel, but the events do not have any great bearing on the content of the books themselves, so it is not absolutely necessary to read them. Still, since they are connected to the series, I think it would be a good idea to read them anyway, since though they are not related, plot-wise, to the books, the insight they provide into character relationships and development might prove interesting for those who want to gain a deeper understanding of the other characters outside of Peter’s head.

And speaking of characters, the old ones in this novel are as fun and endearing as they have always been. I’m especially happy with the way Sahra Guleed has been developed; while I’m sure a lot of that development happened in the graphic novel (which makes reading them even more necessary from my perspective), what I do see of her in this novel pleases me to no end. When she was first introduced in Whispers Under Ground I had hoped to see more of her beyond the passing mention of her as a “Muslim ninja”, and since then she has become one of the more important supporting characters in the series.

The same goes for Kimberley Reynolds, the FBI agent who also appeared in Whispers Under Ground. In my review of that book I expressed hope that Reynolds would make another appearance at a later date and with better characterisation, and she does both in this novel, albeit briefly. It is hinted that she will now make appearances on a semi-regular basis, depending on how the plot goes, and I am very much looking forward to those appearances if and when they happen.

Most interesting to me, however, is Lesley. The reasons for her defection are still unclear, though I am beginning to get the feeling that her allegiances aren’t quite as clear as the reader – and Peter – might have been led to assume. It is not something I can pinpoint with a particular quote – and even then I would not quote it here, since doing so would be spoiling the story too much – but I think that Lesley might not be so firmly on the Faceless Man’s side after all. This all remains to be seen, of course, but I look forward to seeing where all this goes, whether or not my instincts are proven right.

As for the new characters, they are an intriguing lot, and I have high hopes that they will make more appearances in future books. They are related to the idea (established in Moon Over Soho) that Nightingale and Peter might not be the only magical practitioners out there, and that some (if not a very large majority) of these hidden practitioners might actually be women. This is an aspect of the series’ world-building that I would very much like to see explored further, and, as with the Lesley May story arc, I am very much looking forward to seeing where this all goes.

However, at the heart of this whole story is one Peter Grant, and it pleases me to see that he is back in top form – well, mostly. His snark is as it should be, still hilarious and still referencing pop culture, if the following excerpt is anything to go by:

Now, I have – as Beverley says – views about architecture. But there’s modern stuff I like. The Gherkin, the Lloyd’s building, even the Shard – despite the nagging feeling I get that Nazgûl should be roosting at the top.

But I think it is also clear that Peter’s humour has changed a tiny bit since the events in recent books. He does not make as many pop culture references as he used to, and his tone is a touch sharper, if the following excerpt is anything to go by:

Mum said the rich private clients always preferred to use white cleaners rather than Africans. Actually they’d prefer Filipino or Vietnamese or, well, anyone really rather than Africans.

Or this:

Apparently back in 1812, when the special relationship was special in a whole different way, British policy had been to support the creation of a Native American confederacy as a buffer between an aggressively expansionist United States and the completely peace-loving and not in any way land-grabbing bit of the British Empire soon to be known as Canada.

When the Treaty of Ghent ended the War of 1812, the British, in time-honoured fashion, abandoned their allies. Who were subsequently wiped out by the Americans along with any other tribes that happened to be in the same general vicinity – even those that had actually been allied with the US government during the war. It’s exactly this sort of thing that gives colonialism a bad name.

This change is unsurprising, given all the things that have happened to Peter since the first book, and while I’m glad that he hasn’t completely lost his sense of humour, it does make me a touch sad that his cynicism appears to be on the rise. Again, I am not surprised this is the case, and would in fact be disappointed if such a personality change had not occurred to Peter after everything he’s gone through, but it still saddens me a little to see him go from what he used to be in the first two books, to where he is now.

Overall, The Hanging Tree is an excellent continuation of the series, even though it has more connections to the fourth book than to the fifth. Old favourites put in appearances, and potential new favourites are introduced, while at the same time the plot not only moves forward (in a rather big way, I might add), but expands the world just a bit more, introducing new possibilities and potentials from almost every angle. I do not know just where Aaronovitch plans to take this story, but I am quite content to just come along for the ride and see where it goes.

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