Book Review: False Value by Ben Aaronovitch
By Doreen SheridanFebruary 27, 2020
The eighth book of the outstanding Rivers Of London series sees our hero Peter Grant at a significant crossroads in his life. Following his suspension from the police force due to the events that ended the previous book in the series, and now facing the prospect of fatherhood, he decides to take up a lucrative opportunity working for the Serious Cybernetics Company.
Founded by tech billionaire Terrence Skinner, the SCC has just opened up London offices, ostensibly to pursue innovations in algorithms. It’s run like a typical tech startup, with loads of quirky rules and policies, but a recent discrepancy in security footage has the SCC’s Head Of Security Tyrel Johnson looking to beef up his department. And who better to join his branch than a young former detective constable who’s used to dealing with the weird and unusual?
Not, of course, that Peter’s magical capabilities or history are on his resume: his work for the Special Assessment Unit a.k.a “The Folly,” the branch of the police department that deals with magic, is heavily redacted. But his work experience is just as much in the forms and protocols of catching criminals as in the formae of casting spells, as shown in this action-packed sequence of his work on his last case ahead of moving to the SCC:
“Stop, police!” I shouted on the basis that one of these days it was going to have the right effect.
The library stacks were ceiling high and so close together that the books kept brushing my shoulders. Away from the white paint and frosted glass of the offices it was suddenly dim and yellow and closed in. I couldn’t see [the suspect] down the first aisle, so I did a sharp right on instinct and was rewarded by the sight of Jacob’s back. I flicked a water balloon at his head, but I think he must have sensed it coming because he ducked and the clear globe of water went over him to splash against a row of books.
Jacob ducked left and shouted.
“Watch the books, watch the books for Chrissake.”
“Stop running,” I shouted back as I skidded around the corner after him, “And we won’t have to…”
His investigative skills stand him in good stead as he discovers that something odd, and possibly supernatural, is indeed going on within SCC walls. Johnson is convinced that one of their fellow employees is sneaking around the system, manipulating the cameras for some untoward purpose, but the more that Peter pokes around, the more convinced he is that the real problem has something to do with the secret project hidden on the top floors. When a mild-mannered computer programmer suddenly launches a homicidal attack on Skinner using weird 3D-printed plastic devices reeking of unwholesome magical residue—vestigia that has recently started showing up elsewhere around London, to deadly effect—Peter realizes that Skinner might have become involved in building something that no longer wants to be controlled. Soon, he’s exercising every one of the talents he learned as a police officer, in this next example trying to put his new boss at ease, so he can uncover the truth before more people get hurt:
[Skinner] had half a bottle of Johnny Walker’s Blue Label already opened and so it seemed logical to start with that. Unlike expensive wine I could really taste the money for once and we polished off the bottle between us as he talked about what exactly the potential for a working [Artificial General Intelligence] represented and what it meant to him. I just sipped my liquefied wood smoke and let it roll over me. He’d obviously wanted to tell someone about it for a long time and I was a convenient ear.
I get that a lot. [My old colleague DS] Stephanopoulos calls it my secret weapon.
“It’s that vacant expression,” she’d said. “People just want to fill the empty void.”
Written with Ben Aaronovitch’s trademark humor and intelligence, False Value looks into the places where technology and magic meet, delving into the history of computing and numbers in order to contemplate ancient mysteries and how they may still affect our present day. We’re also introduced to magical practitioners of other traditions, who are this time competing with The Folly for control of a potentially dangerous magical item. The culture clash is hilarious, while also highlighting significant societal differences and attitudes towards knowledge and authority. Given Mr. Aaronovitch’s unflinching commitment to showing off the realistic diversity of modern metropolitan society, this razor sharp commentary will come as no surprise to loyal readers, who will also be pleased at the ongoing developments in Peter’s personal life as he and his goddess girlfriend prepare for parenthood.
More: Q&A with Ben Aaronovitch
As for new readers, while I’d highly recommend starting from the beginning and bingeing your way here—especially since the first seven books form a complete and satisfying arc—False Value is probably the next best jumping on point for this series. That said, I envy anyone who hasn’t yet had the pleasure of experiencing these magical police procedurals: you’re in for such a treat, with every book to date being smart, hilarious and wildly entertaining.