New Releases: Vegas Knights by Matt Forbeck
Sophia McDougall's SAVAGE CITY

New Releases: Moon Over Soho by Ben Aaronovitch

Moon Over SohoFantasy is saturated in series. The standalone isn't a dying art, but there are very tangible incentives to publish series. In a market riddled with gambling and doubt, a series provides a certain commercial stability.

This does, of course, provoke issues. George R.R. Martin is 'trapped' in his series. Robert Jordan's literary legacy is that he couldn't finish his. Even a recent conversation about the David Gemmell Legend Award got stuck on the series concept: how are readers supposed to judge a single book when it was never intended to be read on its own?

Some would argue (myself amongst them), that the question is a moot point. Books - in a series or out of it - should be able to stand alone. Insisting that each book in a series requires every other book demands a great deal from the reader. Granted, we're a genre vain with insider knowledge and trivial expertise, but if a book (as in "lump of paper or pixels") doesn't possess a self-contained story, is it really doing its job as a book?

This is all a bit more waffly than usual. The definition of "book" is currently in a state of flux. Perhaps by the end of the decade, it will be commonly accepted that all texts will be slave to the Moffat-Claremont meta-narrative, wallowing in an endless array of particle-prose with no holistic conclusion in sight. That'll be fun, won't it?

Regardless, the idea of a story that stands on its own two feet (or 400 pages) is quite dear to me. I don't like cliff-hangers and I'm innately wary of over-arching plots that can't be resolved between two covers (or even six - I'll grant you the occasional trilogy). I'm particularly sensitive when it comes to urban fantasy and/or the "occult detective" archetype. If you're going to be dress up like a mystery, I expect you to be mysterious. Too many trenchcoated Private Eyes start promisingly in the first volumes, only to eschew detection in favor of god-bothering sword opera. (I'm looking at you, Mike Carey & Simon Green).

Given how much I enjoy Ben Aaronovitch's Peter Grant, I'd be very disappointed if this series goes down that path. Despite the overall quality of the latest DC Grant adventure, Moon Over Soho (it really is great), the book does start to display some of the symptoms of series-itis.

If you'll remember from the first volume, Detective Constable Peter Grant is part of the Metropolitan Police's "Economic and Specialist Crime Unit". It consists of two people - Grant and his mentor, DCI Nightingale. Nightingale is much older than he appears and infinitely more knowledgable: he's a wizard. Grant, due to a combination of inclination and misfortune, is also a wizard - at least, he's trying really hard at it.

In the first volume, Grant is wrapped up in a fairly horrific little mystery that involves dark magic and people's faces falling in. The second volume starts with the same promise: someone out there is doing something nasty (and magical). Grant needs to solve it. This time around it is also more personal. The naughty-maker is offing jazz musicians, and Grant's dad is one of the best in the business. Although he's always been wary of it, Grant finds himself easily absorbed into the jazz scene. He finds friends (and ladyfriends) and indulges himself in a little second-hand fame due to his father's reputation. These new contacts prove valuable when it comes to snooping about in the dark and spicy Soho underworld.

Just to keep things interesting, there's also something out there eating dicks. And, in this instance, I don't mean private eyes. Eep.

The balance here is between plot and meta-plot. One of the cases above is a fairly transparent whodunnit. I'm not the savviest mystery reader, but I found absolutely no mystery in  whoactuallyddunnit. The only detection was trying to suss if Grant was being particularly thick or if he actually knew all along and was stringing us along for extra overtime pay. Sadly, this case is the book's self-contained plot.

The meta-plot is a much more complicated situation that involves the mysteeeerious origins of the magical tradition, a potential Big Bad (or Big Bads), a massive conspiracy, the misbegotten youf of DCI Nightingale and all sorts of stuff that is in no way resolved during the course of this book. It is fun - spell-fights and secret histories are invariably entertaining - but this isn't a mystery, it is epic fantasy with a hat on. The difference isn't merely a matter of parsing definitions, it is a matter of both storytelling and of style.

In 1928, Dorothy Sayers, G.K. Chesterton, Agatha Christie and other luminaries all created the solemn oath for the "Detection Club". It goes as follows:

"Do you promise that your detectives shall well and truly detect the crimes presented to them, using those wits which it may please you to bestow upon them and not placing reliance on nor making use of Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo-Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence or the Act of God?"

Epic fantasy eschews none of these things - it is, in fact, completely reliant on Divine Revelation, Mumbo-Jumbo and the Act of God. Again (and I should just have this on autocomplete), I don't mind epic fantasy - I like a comfort read as much as the next geek and can appreciate the subgenre on many levels (technical, emotive, etc). But it doesn't follow the same rules as mystery. It has no oaths, merely the occasional Prophecy. And that's why I worry.

I hasten to add that I am making a very large mountain out of a very small molehill. Moon Over Soho is very good. Ben Aaronovitch continues the successful formula of Rivers of London in bringing to the surface the endearing minutae of a city that he clearly adores. He also demonstrates the "real world" problems of a ritual magician trying to have some sort of "normal" life - never is this more aptly demonstrated than Grant having to run the broadband out of the garage, lest the cabling interfere with his home's magical protections. Grant continues to observe his world(s) in a detached way - a narrative voice that lends itself well to dry humor (and fits less neatly with the book's few over-the-top action scenes). Mr. Aaronovitch is, in short, writing the best contemporary occult detective series on the shelf today, and that's by a substantial margin.

My neuroses stem from concerns about the balance of "occult" and "detective". One of PC Grant's core personality traits is his emphasis in approaching everything - even the supernatural - in a modern and rational way. Despite his wizardry, he is, in fact, the consummate detective. It would be a tragic irony if the series failed to meet the exacting standards of its own protagonist.