I wrote about Whispers Under Ground that I found the Rivers of London comfort reading, despite the uncanny events, the grisly murders, and the hints about horrible history in British magic. Broken Homes shows that I can still count on a narrator I enjoy spending time with, that there will be adventures and scrapes, and that Aaronovitch will show more of London’s magical side while delighting readers with his obvious love of the city. And while Broken Homes also keeps the promise of major characters surviving, it demonstrates that “not always unscathed” can cover a great deal of scathing. The book also shows Nightingale making some preparations for the eventuality that he will not be around forever to provide sage wisdom — and emergency backup firepower — to the next generation of Metropolitan Police officers who happen to be practicing magicians. Major characters might one day fail to survive.
Broken Homes begins quickly, almost busily. A fatal car crash in Sussex turns out to involve one Robert Weil, who is on the Folly’s list of probable unauthorized practitioners of magic associated with the Faceless Man, a villain whose story has been partly told across the first three Rivers of London books. Then there’s a report of a rogue magician. He’d meant to conjure a little bit of light to entertain the kids at a granddaughter’s birthday party, but he got a small fireball instead. Peter and company can’t connect him to any known British practitioners. When Peter asks him where he learned the trick, he answers “From my mother, of course.” (p. 33) Then there’s an odd suicide, committed by someone who was on the Folly’s list of potential magic users, but whom they had not yet gotten around to interviewing. He jumped in front of an oncoming Underground train, but Peter’s contact in the Transport for London police reports that his behavior was different from other suicides. Richard Lewis almost went out of the Tube before suddenly turning around and taking the escalator back down. His placement on the platform was also different from most other suicides. The contact — who worked with Peter in the case detailed in Whispers Under Ground — wonders if there wasn’t something supernatural going on.
Then a magical book turns up, flagged for the police by the bookstore where a thief tried to fence it. After that, things get a bit complex, possibly involving city planning (where poor Richard Lewis worked), German academies of magic, an architect who may have been more esoteric than eccentric, Russian magical practices during World War II, and oh yes the Faceless Man. See, one of the corpses that turns up during the various investigations has no face either. All of this is quite apart from an equinox celebration thrown by Father Thames and Mother Thames, who can’t stand each other and who have competing claims to be the deity of London’s foremost river.
In part, I agree with Doreen’s assessment that maybe Broken Homes is too convoluted, and I think that in the end some of the plot lines were given short shrift in their resolution. On the other hand, Broken Homes also feels like an inflection point in the series. The first three were tightly bound, concentrated stories. Sure, the characters changed over the course of the novels, and Aaronovitch showed readers more of magical London with each book. But he made sure to wrap everything up by the end, providing clear resolution even as the overall situation promised more cases and adventures. In Broken Homes, Aaronovitch sets up stories that will extend over more than one book, and he does it by leaving questions open. The equinox celebration reminds readers of other powers, other relationships that do not play much of a role in the present investigations. The fireballing grandfather shows one of the effects of magic increasing in the world, rather than receding as it had done since WWII. Nightingale reveals more of himself, and more about the Folly, even as he begins to recognize — and let on to the others — that even his extended life span must eventually end.
All of these point toward further tales of the Rivers of London that, I hope, will be just as fun, but will also contend with changing circumstances. I’ve not yet read nearly all of Peter Grant’s adventures, but I am just about to order more.