Peter Grant is a thoroughly modern Copper. He loves beer, curries and football, he fancies his professional partner, has become cynical about being in uniform, has a love-hate relationship with the city of London and generally tries to get on in life while avoiding being pushed into a dull desk job. Yet when called to the scene of a bizarre murder, not to help with the investigation, but to stand guard so rubberneckers don’t spoil the crime scene he is quite surprised to be given a statement by a ghost who – despite being dead – is more than happy to be a good citizen in reporting what he had seen. This begins a voyage for Peter where he meets the last Wizard left in England who just happens to be a Police Inspector.
The world that opens for Peter is one where the mighty river Thames has a God and Goddess locked in a long-standing Cold War, where each of the tributary rivers have a minor deity of their own, where river nymphs, mermaids, vampires, werewolves and magic are not just common, but an integral part of the colourful city. Taken under the wing of Inspector Nightingale, Grant develops his magical powers much in a similar fashion to any other crime drama where the protege learns the ropes from the older, wiser senior officer.
Comparisons to Neverwhere are unfortunately inevitable. This is a shame, not because one is better than the other, but because of the different themes, subject matter and approach taken by the respective authors. Gaiman’s work in general leans slightly more toward traditional fantasy, a place where magic is real and the characters simply go with it. Even Richard Mayhew, snorting at London Below and the mythology of the city is compelled to take it all at face value. Peter Grant on the other hand is a Police Officer with a highly scientific mind and wants to know how and why magic works; in his spare time he tries to discover the attributes of magic, the limitations of his own powers and the effect that using magic has on the outside world. This is a novel where magic is woven into the background and carefully integrated to be plausible within the Laws of Physics.
Another way in which this is different from Neverwhere is that it is not about an alternate London that exists beneath the one we know (i.e. two cities that rarely meet), but one that is part of it. There are more adult themes here, sex, violence and the dangers of real Policing. There are also jokes that children simply will not get. The final way in which it differs is that this novel is primarily a crime drama whereas Neverwhere is more of a fantasy adventure. All the while Grant and Nightingale are trying to solve a series of bizarre murders and their relationship is very much like Holmes and Watson, Poirot and Hastings, Morse and Lewis.
Overall this is a wonderful book. Full of gags and tongue-in-cheek pop culture references, it is a thoroughly modern urban fantasy that pays quite deliberate homage to its contemporaries with in-jokes about Harry Potter and Twilight, not through the plot but through amusing references. You’ll chuckle at the jokes, you’ll marvel at the magic and you’ll be swept along in the mystery of the crime drama. There is something here for everyone. I’m already looking forward to the second in the series: Moon Over Soho.