The Hanging Tree by Ben Aaronovitch

This book is the sixth installment in the Rivers of London magic detective series, featuring Peter Grant, the beleaguered London metropolitan cop and newly-fledged magician. This book, while enjoyable, is a good demonstration of the idea that a writer should have a clear end for a series in mind when they start writing it. Perhaps Ben Aaronovitch does have one, but it’s not particularly evident based on reading The Hanging Tree. Eventually, I think many long series start to feel like the primary conflict is only still happening because there’s more books to fill.

The Hanging Tree sees Peter Grant and his mentor, Nightingale, investigating the overdose death of a socialite teen at a party where the daughter of Lady Tyburn (goddess of the River Tyburn, daughter of Father Thames) happened to be in attendance. As the case grows in scope and the suspects grow in number, it becomes apparent that this death is connected to the Faceless Man, the Folly’s ongoing nemesis, and his apprentice, former London cop Lesley May. We also see here the continuations of progressions that have been ongoing for the series as a whole – Peter’s growth as a practitioner of magic and as a skilled investigator, as well as the development of his relationship with Beverley (goddess of Beverley Brook, another daughter of Father Thames).

One of the things I really liked seeing in this book was Peter being able to take initiative on the magical sides of their investigations. Nightingale’s role has been gradually reduced as Peter learns more about the demi-monde and as his skill as a magician increases. In earlier books, he was much more reliant on Nightingale, and I’ve appreciated seeing that growth. Stagnant characters are boring. Heroes who never learn to handle things without their mentors are boring. Much better that we see him really come into his own, however gradually (even and especially when that independence gets him in trouble).

I liked this book’s further exploration of the Rivers and their powers and their family relationships. I mean, what happens when a river goddess has a child with a human? Do they inherit some portion of the powers? Will they inherit the longevity? That remains to be seen. I liked seeing Tyburn warn Peter away from a serious, long-term relationship with Beverley – after all, Beverley will outlive him, may never age. Tyburn sees herself as saving both of them a lot of heartbreak. I’m guessing that Peter will choose not to follow that warning – what kind of romance would it be if he did? – but it’s still a good facet of that relationship to think about.

Where I encountered problems with this book was with the ongoing conflict with the Faceless Man and Lesley. Except for a few things here and there, this series has in many ways felt like the author keeps pressing the reset button. At the end of each book, the Faceless Man and Lesley have escaped custody to wreak havoc another day, and each time it happens, it gets less and less satisfying. As I said in the intro, it starts to feel like it’s just happening because there’s more books to fill and they need an antagonist to oppose them, rather than for any real reason in-story. There certainly was some progress here – they actually find out the Faceless Man’s identity! – but it still ultimately feels like not so much has changed. I tend to feel that each significant confrontation with the primary villain of a story should have an impact on the characters, and should change or shape the story in a larger way than it does here.

I still love many facets of these books, to be sure – urban fantasy protagonists who aren’t white! A story set in London that actually uses its setting well! I mean goddamn, how many times have you seen me complain about the plethora of books set in London just… because it’s London and it’s supposed to be cool? A lot of times, you guys! But in this series, Aaronovitch consistently uses the city to the story’s advantage, using intimate local knowledge and actual unique aspects of London as a city to shape the characters and the world they interact with. Maybe I just don’t like books set in London where it could be set any-damn-where. Or maybe I just don’t like books set in London written by people who don’t live there. All possibilities.

I like this series, even though I’m rarely if ever surprised by where the story tends to go. This is an example of “formula” done well – a formulaic story with rich characters and a highly detailed world built around it can work very, very well, as it does here. I’m not sure what the next full-length novel will be, but The Furthest Station, a novella set after The Hanging Tree, is coming out next month, and I certainly plan to pick it up. I just also hope that the ongoing villain arc actually… does something, and does something that has a lasting impact on the story.

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