Ben Aaronovitch is the author of the Rivers of London series. You can see my review of the books here. I am writing a distinct review about The October Man because although the book includes references to Peter Grant and other characters of the Rivers of London books, the story takes place in Germany and the main character is Tobias Winter, who is the German Peter Grant.
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In this story, we discover the KDA, the German equivalent of the Folly. Like in the UK, this is a very small department. The Director is a smart and sarcastic woman who happens to be the only person in Germany allowed to use magic. Or rather one of the two persons allowed to do magic, because she took an apprentice, Tobias Winter, after hearing that Thomas Nightingale has taken an apprentice.
In this story, Tobias is sent by the Director to Trier to check whether the death of a man could be due to magic use. The corpse that was found was indeed covered with fungal rot. Tobias’ liaison in Trier is police officer Vanessa Sommer. Vanessa is very interested in magic and is a great help for Tobias, even if he finds it sometimes a little annoying to answer to all her questions about magic.
Soon, Tobias and Vanessa understand that the deceased man belonged to a group of ordinary middle-aged men that were regularly meeting to discover new hobbies and activities and to drink some good wine together. They soon discover also that the mysterious death was caused by a forgotten, century-old conflict.
A new setting
I loved seing the way Ben Aaronovitch adapted his universe to a different country. It worked very well. I read the book in English but somehow I always expected the characters to speak German and had to remind myself that the book was in English.
As I am myself living in Germany, I could notice details that made me really feel that the story took place in Germany. For instance, I had to laugh when I read about Vanessa’s office desk that enables to work in standing position. As I got my first real job and left France for Germany, I discovered this kind of desks too and I also wondered whether people really worked in standing position. Answer is: those who have back pains sometimes do. German people take back pains very seriously.
I saw by Goodreads reviews that some people found there were too many German words in the book. There are indeed many German words, for instance the names of the police departments. This was not a problem for me but for people who do not know German, this can indeed be a little complicated to understand everything.
References to German history
I also found interesting to see the influence of history on the German magic world. For instance, the German river goddesses are much more defiant than the British ones and they have indeed good reasons for it. This is not explained in details in the book but you can understand that the Moselle river was killed during the war by the German wizards. In the October Man, she came however back to life and is now a little girl called Morgane.
As for England, most wizards were killed during WW2. The author states however that magic did not have any impact on the issue of the war. I appreciated that because this is sometimes a flaw by fantasy books. When fantasy writers explain historical events by invented magical actions, this is often disturbing, especially when they write about WW2.
The reunification of West Germany and East Germany is also mentioned, as it had some influence on the organization of the KDA.
I liked Tobias and Vanessa very much. Tobias sometimes reminded me of Peter because he has a similar sense of humor but contrary to Peter, he does not try to measure magic or to experiment with it as much. He is first of all a police officer and magic is just a part of the job. He also has a very different background. Whereas Peters parents are a British jazz musician who used to have addiction problems and a cleaning lady from Sierra Leone, Tobias parents belong either to German middle class. His father is also in the police. His mother cares about environmental issues. They met at an environmentalist demonstration during which Tobias’ father arrested his mother.
Vanessa looks a little like me, which I find funny. Like me, she has hazel eyes and brown curls that are difficult to tame. And of course she has a desk that enables you to work in a standing position, as already said. Apart from that, she is kind, loyal and competent and she is a great help to Tobias.
The other characters are not much developed. Tobias and Vanessa meet two rivers who play an important role. The Director appears in person only at the end. There is also a female forensic expert. So there are several women with important roles in the book. I had the feeling there were less diversity as in the Rivers of London books though. Maybe this is because the book is much shorter or maybe simply because London’s population is more international.
I hope the author will write again about Tobias and Vanessa because I would like to know more about them. Maybe they will meet Peter Grant in a future book? Or it would be also fun to have further novellas set in further countries.