Thursday, December 15, 2016

The Hanging Tree - Ben Aaronovitch

The Hanging Tree is the sixth in Ben Aaronovitch’s “PC Peter Grant” series. I’ve enjoyed the series until now; though some entries have felt better crafted than others, the appeal of a supernatural mystery, cloaked in British history, and wrapped in some wonderfully funny, clever dialogue, has kept me turning pages.

The Hanging Tree doubles down on this formula, and I think it’s the better for it – after experimenting with trips out to the ‘countryside’ in the previous book, we’re now back in the heart of dirty, thriving, vibrant London again. This time our protagonist, PC Peter Grant, is exploring the lives of the rich, famous, and, er…dead. This is a whole other London to the creaking tower blocks we saw in, for example, Broken Homes. Here the streets are calm, the gardens well manicured – and the houses are merely the tip of an iceberg – exclusive addresses squatting over cavernous basements, bastions of classic wealth with sprawling facilities below. There’s a scent or privilege in the air, a sense of expensive suits and ruthlessness.

Into this world steps PC Grant, a man with an unfortunate penchant for making enemies, a certain wry charm, and the ability to throw fireballs, as long as he’s filled out the paperwork first. That said, they’re of less utility against a high powered team of lawyers, and it’s great to see Peter being put once more out of his element; in previous instalments this was tied to his understanding of magic; with that steadily improving, he’s now finding himself in environments, social and physical, which are somewhat less than familiar. Still, it’s nice to watch his long running character arc continue here – as a man slowly rising to competence in thaumaturgy, whilst determined to inquire into how it actually works. He’s starting to feel, if not more sedate, perhaps more settled – admittedly, his steady girlfriend is a river goddess, and his boss once blew up a Tiger tank with his bare hands, but Peter is entering, if not a routine, at least a steady state, a way of thinking about himself and the world which moves it from “sprinting to stay in one place” to genuine progress of comprehension.

In this he’s ably assisted by the aforementioned girlfriend, Beverly Brook, herself a creature of winsome charm and, just possibly, a bit more of an agenda. They’re both rather good at living in the moment, but there’s a creeping sense that they both are starting to look into the future, and wor out exactly what perils that may hold.

Alongside these two is, of course, Nightingale – Grant’s mentor in the world of magic. We see a bit more of Nightingale here, the slow revelation of the shattering of magic in the 1940’s becoming ever clearer. Some of what defines Nightingale is pushed around in the narrative subtext – though he remains a man of startlingly hidden depths. On the other hand, he’s also a dab hand at driving a nice car very fast, and occasionally bringing out the Big Magic for supernatural villains.

I won’t spoil those, but suffice to say the entire book is full of plots and counterplots, schemes sliding past each other in the night, entangling, and throwing together some rather unlikely pairings. Our villains can even, to some degree, be seen as sympathetic – even when they’re equally atrocious.
Where the villainy here is extremely well masked, we do get the opportunity to see the sterling supporting cast return – Seawoll, Guleed, and a great many others. There’s a sense that the Folly, the home of British Wizardry, is slowly flexing its muscles again, adding staff to an organisation atrophied down to one man. On the other hand, as has been delicately hinted in earlier instalments, there’s also the possibility of interaction with other magical traditions = which always have the opportunity to go entertainingly sideways.

The plot – well, it’s one part murder mystery, one part action caper, with a side order of personal introspection. There’s a little bit of a slow burn at the start, as the initial investigation comes together – but after that, it paces along nicely. The twists and turns are largely well done, the rising tension in the investigation keeping you turning the pages, and the occasional displays of magic are alternately intriguing and explosively impressive. There’s a lot of questions thrown out in the course of the text – and a few of the larger ones from earlier books at least start to have been answered.

Is it worth reading? Well, if you’re coming to the series fresh, I’d recommend going back to the beginning, to Rivers of London (MidnightRiot in the US). But if you’re already a fan, then yes – this entry in the series is a barnstormer, and a thoroughly enjoyable read.

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