The Hanging Tree – Ben Aaronovitch

I have been waiting for this oh-so-keenly since the last book came out… which was at least two years ago, I think? Because I didn’t enjoy A Foxglove Summer all that much, I was all the keener for this one to come out and right all the things that didn’t quite work before… I guess four books of good will give you quite a bit of leeway on one that’s a bit… less so. And to be fair, my main issue with AFS, being that it’s set in not-London, is remedied even on the cover of The Hanging Tree, which bears the legend “Back in London. Back in trouble.” This can only go well, thinks I.

And mostly, I was right about that. It does take away all the things I didn’t like about the last book. It’s also fixed some of the things that were niggling me in the previous ones, little problems that never made me want to stop reading but might have made me pull a face or sigh despairingly. I’m mainly here referring to Peter and his need to perve at every woman he meets… or sleep with them, if he can. There’s always been a slight misogyny to his gaze which kind of taints the whole novels. And, as far as I can tell, that’s mostly gone. The women he meets are described… just normally. Much less obsession with hips and breasts, more cool and descriptive… descriptions. Huzzah. I don’t know if this is just something the author has noticed/had pointed out and decided to fix, or a conscious decision following on from Peter now being in a settled relationship. I’m hoping it’s the former, because the latter doesn’t say entirely nice things about Peter as a character.

Do you know what is also fixed? MORE NIGHTINGALE. YESSSS.

He was conspicuously less active in AFS, and I missed him terribly because he’s excellent (Ettersburg exposition or not, the books are just better when he’s around). He’s not quite as front and centre in The Hanging Tree as I’d necessarily want, but he’s here and he’s wandering around being a casual badass and it’s glorious.

The story too has gone back to what Aaronovitch does best – heavily London-grounded police procedural with interesting bits of magic. There’s the right combination of familiar old things so we can guess along with what’s going to happen, and new ideas and mysteries – some unresolved – to surprise and intrigue. Particularly on the latter, we run into Reynard Fossman (i.e. Reynard the Fox) who may or may not be the living embodiment of the folk myth, and thus may or may not be able to turn into/on some level is a fox. Peter doesn’t know, so we don’t know. We get a lot of familiar face cameos (including the Silent People), but more importantly, we get some really great development on someone we already know fairly well, but never really saw humanised.

Shockingly, given the title of the book, it’s Lady Ty.

Now, thus far in the series, she’s been purely antagonist. For all that she’s on the same side (ish) as Peter… well, on the same side as people who are also on the same side as him. Basically the same thing. But yes, leaving that aside, she’s been very much a de-humanised antagonist. Not because she’s a river – Aaronovitch has no trouble humanising them when he wants to, as well as making them terrifying personifactions of natural power – but because she represents the facelessly corporate/the privileged upper classes.

Ok, so I’m committing something of a sin, as far as being critical of literature goes (well, as far as I was taught when looking at Classical authors and urban fantasy is TOTALLY THE SAME), in that I’m taking a lot of the views Peter sort of builds up over the course of the series as Aaronovitch’s views. Biographical fallacy and all that. But I can’t help it. Obviously when Peter says something outright, it’s easy for me to divorce that from what Aaronovitch may or may not think. But I’m talking about the more subtle views that took several books worth of writing to develop. Primarily, the idea that, with a very small number of exceptions, the educated upper classes are completely feckless, and the corporately wealthy are soulless, evil and sort of inhuman. These are totally in character for Peter, with his background and his job and all of who he is. And so it probably is just Aaronovitch building a really rounded idea of Peter’s worldview. But it sort of has niggled into my brain that maybe Aaronovitch doesn’t entirely disagree.

Anyway, given those two bits of viewpoint, it’s easy to see how Lady Ty, with her Oxford education, wealthy husband, powerful career and political clout is basically Peter’s greatest enemy. And it’s easy to see how she might never get a chance to be considered her own person, with actual feelings and concerns and problems. But in The Hanging Tree, she does, and I didn’t realise how much I wanted that until I got it.

Aaronovitch never stops portraying her as… if not evil exactly then certainly slightly malign. But he stops for a moment and gives us a chance to see the things she really cares about as a person – some of them other people, and some of them the fears she has about her life and her power and who she will ultimately be. And it really really works. I’ve never disliked her as much as I think I’m supposed to, and now I actually do rather like her. She’s never going to get on with Peter, that much is clear, but I’m hoping that in subsequent books he will see her more as a person than he has before, rather than the face of corporate doom.

I’m making it sound like I really loved the book, aren’t I? I’m not going to say I didn’t enjoy it, but to put rather a damper on things, despite all the things he’s changed and made better, there is something still missing in this one. With AFS, I knew why it was missing, I could tell you what was wrong. Here… I’m not so sure. The story hangs together well and goes back to everything the author was doing right before but somehow… there’s not the energy there has previously been? I don’t love it. I read it mostly in one evening, so I can’t blame distraction or any external factors. It just… didn’t quite compare. And that’s sad, because I do adore this series. I’m sufficiently perplexed by this that I intend to read it again fairly soon, in the hope that maybe I was just in a weird mood or something. It’s still a good book, and when I look at it with only my rational mind, it’s as good a book in this series as any he’s written. But emotionally? Something is wrong, and I desperately hope that’s resolved before the next book.

Which, I admit, I will pre-order as well because there was something totally wonderful about getting home on release day to find the parcel waiting for me to read.

So I’ve not given up on the series, far from it. And it’s definitely, absolutely worth reading this one. I’d be interested to see if anyone else has reacted to it the way I have.

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About readerofelse

A student of a redundant, useless and thoroughly interesting subject and reader of many books, particularly fantasy, science fiction and plenty else besides.
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