Writers of long-running series at a certain point face a choice, expand their universe or continue to focus only on what the fans liked in the past.
Thankfully, The Hanging Tree, the sixth of Ben Aaronovitch’s best-selling Rivers of London novels, goes for the latter option.
For those unfamiliar with the series, it can best be described as The Bill meets Harry Potter. In the books magic is real, and therefore the Metropolitan Police has its own magical crime division, know as the Folly. Its staff, Corporal Peter Grant and Detective Inspector Thomas Nightingale, are all London has to challenge the threat of evil wizards, witches, vampires and assorted other dark ghouls and nasties.
I have to admit to being a long-standing fan. The previous books have been fun slices of mysticism fused with police procedural. For native Londoners (guilty) they have a gratifying relationship with the Capital, the storylines often intimately intertwined with the history of different boroughs.
It would be wrong to call The Hanging Tree a return to form, but it would be fair to say it is the best of the series since the forth novel Broken Holmes. The story follows the Folly as it faces off against long-standing enemy the Faceless Man and his protégé, former Folly police officer Leslie May. Along the way Grant and Nightingale must deal with the often unhelpful meddling of the rivers of London, in this series imagined as a set of anthropomorphic Gods and Goddesses. The plot rattles along, with plenty of thrills and spills, magical explosions and dark undercurrents.
What Aaronovitch has always done well is meld his fantasy realm with a solid dose of the real world and do so in a funny way. In The Hanging Tree he continues to do this and long-term readers will be pleased to know the novel references the action of previous novels frequently. Where the novel shows growth is in the widening of its horizons. In many ways it’s an expansion pack, with a number of new characters introduced and new ideas explored. It’s easy to see Aaronovich’s sci-fi background at work (he’s a well-know writer of classic Doctor Who episodes) in the playful imagination shown in these new scenarios. In many ways it’s reminiscent of a slightly more adult, slightly more down-to-earth Terry Pratchett.
Aaranovich continues to show a talent for drawing approachable characters. The protagonist, Peter Grant, is a likeable geek who just happens to have discovered that magic exists. His boss Nightingale is a relic of a bygone age, struggling to understand the modern world. Both of them demonstrate significant personal growth in The Hanging Tree and it’s a testament to the author that he’s create central characters with this room for development.
The Hanging Tree probably isn’t the best novel in the series, although it’s close. The plot doesn’t hold together at points and pacing wise it feels a little slack in the middle and a little rushed at the end. I also feel that the main villain, the Faceless Man, is a little underwritten, despite an obvious effort in this book to tell the reader more about him. But despite this, The Hanging Tree is still hugely enjoyable, a book I charged through in short order, and one that left me looking forward to the next instalment in the series.
The Hanging Tree was published by Gollancz on 3rd Nov. 2016.
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Review by Joseph Surtees
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