Released hot on the heels of Rivers of London/Midnight Riot, Ben Aaronovitch's second urban fantasy adventure featuring magic-wielding London constable Peter Grant and his mentor, DCI Thomas Nightingale, hits pretty much all the same marks. Aaronovitch presents Grant with two seemingly unrelated yet equally bizarre cases, then proceeds to link them in the plot with enormous storytelling gusto, if not exactly graceful narrative structure.
The wit of the first novel is still present in Moon Over Soho, though the story has Grant making his snarky observations of police procedure and London culture with a bit more sober reflection this time. The events of Rivers have left his friend and fellow officer Leslie May permanently disfigured. If nothing else, give Aaronovitch props for not being one of those urban fantasists who ignores the very real consequences to life and limb from the wanton use of dangerous magic.
Grant is faced with two series of inexplicable deaths. In one, the victims are hapless men who've been brutalized by what appears to be a female assailant wielding an especially nasty set (though I guess there wouldn't be any other kind) of vagina dentata. If you don't know what that is, I'll leave you to enlighten yourself via Google, though I warn you that you'll never be able to unlearn the information you receive. In the second, otherwise healthy musicians gigging in London's Soho jazz clubs — and if there are as many of these in reality as Aaronovitch indicates, I know where I'm spending most of my time next time I tour the city — have been keeling over dead after performances. As the bodies of these jazzmen reveal traces of vistigium, the signature of magic Grant has been trained to detect, it's reasonable to put these deaths down to something other than the usual bebopper stew of booze and heroin.
Grant's investigations bring him closer to his father, a star trumpeter in his salad days who drugged his career to death. Now clean and sober, the old man has taken up piano. This part of the story brings a warmth to Aaronovitch's character development that helps mellow his predilection for eagerly throwing plot at you as if he were a baseball pitcher with ten arms. Unfortunately, Grant will also get a bit too involved with the sultry groupie Simone, the girlfriend of the most recent onstage fatality. And here, the plot will thicken.
The story brings both sets of crimes together much in the same way Rivers brought together its own seemingly disparate plotlines. Of the two, the other — involving the nefarious, gangsterish plans of a comic-book-villain-like mage called Faceless for how he conceals his identity — lacks the clarity it should have. In the interests, no doubt, of leaving much open for the sequel, what Faceless is ultimately after is only hinted at. Beyond an apparent plan to control an underground population of unfortunate wretches physically deformed by magic, the character's desire lines remain obscure. I guess that's the idea, sure, but I do like a series fantasy to at least pretend to be subtle about leading me to the sequel setup.
Still, the climax is both exhilarating and emotionally affecting, a sign again that Aaronovitch's skills with character will be what bring people back to this series. But as a jazz lover myself, I really appreciated seeing the music featured as a dominant motif in a fantasy novel — something I don't think I've ever seen anyone else do. By the end of the first chapter, I had to search my iPod to see if I had "Body and Soul," the standard that figures strongly early in the story. Turns out I have two takes by Coltrane and one by Monk. But now I know I need the definitive Ken "Snakehips" Johnson recording, which is going to take some searching. But when you love the music, the searching is half the fun. For this alone, I'll stand Ben a pint if I'm ever down in Soho.