You should always realize that my ratings for Ben Aaronovitch are relative to his own works; his Peter Grant series is generally five-star in comparison to any other urban fantasy. In this novella, he leaves Grant behind to follow Tobias Winter, a special agent in the special division for magical enforcement in Germany. Winter is relaxing at his parent’s house when he gets a call about “possible infraction in Trier,” which is official-speak for a potentially magic-related death. He is assigned a liaison officer, Frau Sommer, and together they work to solve the mystery.
It’s an interesting idea, to base the concept of a story on the idea of a world and the police procedural structure, but to leave out any characters from the last seven books. Tobias needs to explain the whole ‘magic’ thing to Sommer, so a reader joining the world at this particular point would not be left out. In a way, that’s a nice idea. For series fans, however, I’d say this will feel slightly disappointing, as there have been so many interesting characters throughout the seven books that I could name a handful that would be a lot of fun to explore. Kumar, from the Underground; the sword-wielding Li; Madame Tang; even, dare I say, more Abagail. I know he’s been doing some of the exploration with the graphic novels (Guhleed, Nightingale, the River Twins), but those prove less character-expanding and more about the adventure.
Tobias, unfortunately, felt largely like a watered-down Peter to me. Less funny, more methodical, prone to explaining but also still prone to methodological leaps. He gets a run and a cooking interlude to help distinguish himself. Sommer felt largely bland, with portentous hints.
There’s a bit of German language sprinkled in. To be honest, I’m not sure why. It doesn’t really give much of a sense of atmosphere, and since German isn’t really a common language, it’s largely incomprehensible. Here’s one bit:
“I joined the Bundeskriminalamt rather than the Polizei Baden-Württemberg so Papa wouldn’t be able to order me about at work.”
“Trier is not famous as a policing hotspot, having been voted Germany’s Quaintest Town five years in a row in the poll of popular destinations conducted by the Deutsche Zentrale für Tourismus.”
Sigh. Ben, Ben, Ben. You’re missing the point of using non-English words in your writing when you are writing in English. You are supposed to be conveying the inexplicable, or a cultural signifier, n’est-ce pas?
This is going to sound grumpy, I suppose; but you should always assume that I like an Aaronovitch book and what I have to specify are the ways in which it wasn’t a five-star read. The writing is clear and sophisticated. There’s certainly weird bullocks, as Det. Seawoll would say, but it’s used to good effect. Violence and gore for the sake of being thrilling and titillating is generally avoided, although there’s certainly some more horrific elements here than what we’ve usually seen Peter deal with. A new kind of fae sneaks in, as well as more encounters with rivers. Plot moves reasonably fast, although typically twisty, once we get Tobias out to Trier. Setting is developed decently, and definitely feels different from London policing.
That said, I’d really prefer Grant & Co. There were just a couple of points where I laughed, one early on:
“Despite my admiration for Förstner’s ability to insult both of us at the same time, my brain still finally managed to flag a crucial piece of information.”
I was left feeling like I spent the day with Peter’s older, more serious brother. A decent story, but I missed the sense of fun.