Book Review: The Hanging Tree – Ben Aaronovitch

hangingtreeI’ve been waiting on this book for what seems like an age, and then with everything that’s been going on recently I then managed to completely lose track of the publication date. It was therefore a very nice surprise to realise on the first day of my leave that it had downloaded to my Kindle.

What follows is a spoiler-free review based on my first read-through, completed yesterday in a single read while wrapped up in bed with multiple mugs of Bovril though the morning.

If you’ve not read any of the Peter Grant novels or comics before then this will still be enjoyable, but you really do need to go an read what has come before so that you get half the context of half the references in this story.

Go on – this review and book will still be waiting for you. Don’t miss out the comics which have already been collected in a bound trade paperback either – they are in continuity and are set between the events of the last book (Foxglove Summer) and this one.

Right, that should keep the newcomers busy while we get on with this. As the last paragraph reveals, the comics are worth reading, for the same reason that you should have read the previous novels – but they are not vital. That is the joy of this series, and this book in particular. Any references to previous stories’ events and characters are dealt with as colour rather than necessities – throwaway comments that hint at the rich stew of past adventures rather than relying on them as plot points. Anything relevant to the immediate plot is laid out for you briskly so that continuity is a scaffolding rather than a scaffold. (See what I did there?)

I do wonder, and I’ll be sure to ask when I next get to a book signing, if this attention to detail and back-story has been enhanced by the experience of writing a comic book. There seem to be so many callbacks and characters popping up that you could be forgiven for wanting to make your own case wall to keep track of everyone. It’s a massive contrast to the leafy and somewhat isolated themes of the previous novel, which seemed intent on keeping the regular characters as much on the borders of the story as possible.

The strength of this series, for me, has always been the ensemble cast and the interactions between them. The usual dry and self-deprecating humour in Peter’s internal monologues continues – a comfort blanket of caustic wit that draws you in and along on his journey without being actively mean. All the regular cast get moments to shine without edging out either the protagonist or the plot – and the story fills out yet more back story for certain characters that will add weight for re-readings of earlier books.

At one point I was going to make the criticism that the book has so many recurring characters that it was in danger of getting muddled. New characters introduced in this story go a long way towards spacing things back out again and adding new ingredients to the mix, but even so there were points where I did ask myself if the whole thing was going to wrap itself up in a Möbius Strip and strangle the plot.

To my great relief, that didn’t happen. There are resolutions, and climactic battles that bounce from suspense to drama to surreal humour to wide-screen action without breaking sweat and I finished the story with a sense of satisfaction.

But

There’s an awful lot of sub-plots waving in the wind, setting things up for future tales. I don’t know if they will be resolved in the comics, or in future stories and I do hope that the temptation to throw plot points at the wall to see what sticks is avoided. I keep going back to the comic books and the influence of that writing style. Chris Claremont, legendary writer of the X-Men, became famous and then notorious for throwing sub-plots into the wind and then taking forever to resolve them, if he ever did. It lead to a soap opera feel where laying threads for future plots sometimes made the current plot play second fiddle.

I really hope that Ben Aaronovitch resists this temptation. I also hope that the comics generally stay as their own thing that occasionally get referenced in the novels, rather than important story elements shifting over to the new medium for resolution. Cross-media storytelling can be fun, but it shouldn’t be at the risk of confusing people as to where their plot lines have disappeared to. The balance seems to be about right at the moment, I’m happy to say.

Like life, there are no definitive endings, and there are always loose ends, which plays to the aforementioned loose plot points. There’s no grand closing of the book, just the sign off on the case, and the realisation that life goes on. This has been another chapter in Peter Grant’s life, just like each month is for the rest of us. We’ll see how he’s moved on and grown in the next instalment.

So if you can’t already tell, I really enjoyed this book. It doesn’t contain the wisdom of the ages and its generally light fare, and that’s absolutely a selling point. It’s fun. It rewards regular readers with knowing nods and small updates, and best of all tells a story.

Can’t ask fairer than that. Five out of Five Lux Scinderes

About Tim Maidment

Writer, House Husband, Library Person, Raconteur, Poly, Queer and Bon Vivant. You were expecting something simple?
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