It’s the battle of the trainee wizards, as two titans of recent fantasy novels set in our world face off against each other. In one corner is the Hogwarts trained, magical boy wonder from the international bestselling Harry Potter series. In the other corner, it’s the London Metropolitan Police’s finest, from the critically acclaimed Peter Grant novels. Who is the best sorcerer’s apprentice?
To be honest, I have already made up my mind. I read the Harry Potter novels as they came out, to be part of the enormous sense of anticipation that surrounded them, and I found them a little underwhelming. For me the series peaked with The Prisoner of Azkaban - the last novel where the editor was able to stand up to JK.
Ben Aaronovitch’s novels are a more recent discovery for me, and from the start I was hooked on the adventures of Peter Grant, apprentice wizard and trainee detective in the Met’s division for investigating magical crimes. I loved the way in which the novels blended police procedure and the magical apprentice story into one novel. So as my mind is already made up, here are 7 reasons (equal to the number of Harry Potter books) why Peter Grant is better than Harry Potter.
Quick note, this article contains some spoilers. You have been warned!
1 – Peter Grant has a sense of humour
Peter Grant is a great character to be in the head of. I love his sarcastic comments, his irreverence in the face of gods or great wizards, his hilarious side comments to the reader. This creates the sense that Peter Grant is a real person. His reactions to the weird, the supernatural and the mystical are believable as the reaction of someone finding out that the world is a lot stranger than he had anticipated. It also makes him fun; I can imagine Peter Grant would be a good person to go for a pint with.
By contrast Harry Potter has teenage angst and the same self-centred world view that most teenagers have – except Harry Potter is the centre of the world, so he is quite likely to be extremely narcissistic later in life.
2 – Peter Grant has interests outside magic
Most people are not defined by what they do or what they study. They have a broad range of interests and the same should be true of trainee wizards. Peter Grant has interests in music (mainly jazz), architecture, football, the history of London, the tube, Isaac Newtown and so on. As I said above, he would be an interesting person to go for a beer with. We never really get an understanding of Harry’s interests outside of his magic adventures, as the world generally revolves around him.
3 – Peter Grant has better taste in music
In the second ‘Rivers of London’ novel, Moon Over Soho, we discover Peter Grant’s interest in music. His father was a well-known jazz musician and Peter was raised on a varied diet of music. In this novel, Peter investigates the mysterious deaths of several semi-professional musicians on the London jazz scene. Peter’s knowledge of jazz and the music scene helps him track down the strange creature behind these deaths.
I cannot remember Harry Potter being interested in music. If he was, I expect he would be into something over-rated, like Pearl Jam.
4 – Peter Grant did not go to a fancy private school
Hogwarts is clearly the Eton of the magical world, in that its students seem to think no other schools exists in the UK, it’s full of over privileged students who are the children of over privileged students and it only lets in enough normal people to prevent it being closed. Harry’s expensive private education might fast track him to Oxford but does not help make him a relatable character. Most people’s childhoods are not spent in expensive boarding schools, they have to deal with overcrowded class rooms and disruptive fellow students.
Peter Grant on the other hand is a graduate of that egalitarian institution Hendon Police College before embarking on two years of being a beat bobbie which all members of the Met have to go through regardless of the fancy private education. Rivers of London opens with Peter’s last days as a street constable. He is the first responding officer for a gruesome murder where he encounters a ghost. This draws him to the attention of Detective Inspector Nightingale who takes him on as a trainee detective at The Folly (the branch of the Met which looks covers magical crimes) as well as an apprentice wizard.
Peter survives the dangerous magical underworld of London using the street smarts he gained growing up in a Kentish Town council estate and his two years as a beat constable. Expensive private schools might be great for the theory of magic but when things turn nasty I would prefer to have street smarts on my side.
5 – Nightingale is a better wizard than Dumbledore
Peter’s guvnor, Detective Inspector Nightingale, is probably my favourite character in the series. From his mysterious first appearance in Rivers of London to his high-octane confrontation with Russian Night Witch, Nochnye Koldunyi in Broken Homes, Nightingale always conducts himself with sense of authority and style. Nightingale has run The Folly by himself for several decades and is now training Peter in the magical. He is over a hundred years old, served in both world wars and once casually remarked that he took out a German Tiger Tank with a fireball. Nightingale is what I expect from a wizard, academic knowledge, bravery, a scene of style from a bygone era, and the slight implication that he is a hiding a big secret from everybody.
Dumbledore (a thinly veiled Gandalf clone) attempts to be mysterious and alluring but instead is just plain unhelpful. A lot of pain and death could have been saved if he had explained everything to Harry from the beginning. However, that would prevent the story being drawn out to seven excessively long novels.
6 - The Faceless Man is better villain than Voldemort
Rarely do we encounter villains who are pure evil with hearts that are blacker than black. Most of the terrible things in this world are done by criminals who are very similar to regular people just without a regard for the law. Peter’s nemesis is the Faceless Man, a crime boss and wizard who hides this identity (and his face) behind a spell. He is not an evil spirit or a demon but a human being who wants to use his gifts to enrich himself at others’ expense. This also makes him dangerous, as he is not averse to killing those who could expose him.
In Broken Homes, Nightingale says that the Faceless Man is not a super villain but a criminal like any other, he will make mistakes and they will catch him. In this novel Peter has to go undercover in a Brutalist housing block in Elephant and Castle that the Faceless Man has gone to great lengths to demolish. However, the Faceless Man has a nasty surprise up his sleeve.
Harry’s nemesis is Voldemort, a cartoon villain who lacks depth or believability. He might be evil but we know that most villains are real people, governed by human weaknesses such greed or hatred. I find that a big nebulous baddie is a lot less scary than a normal person who is manipulative and violent.
7 – Peter Grant is proper Londoner
Raised in Kentish Town with one parent from Sierra Leone and another from Britain, Peter Grant sums up modern London. He loves the capital, it’s diversity, it’s colourful characters, it’s strange magical underworld. Peter is also interested in everything that makes London London, from its musical traditions to the London Underground. He talks about length about the history of London, for example in Whispers Underground (where Peter investigates a murder which took place in Baker Street station) he talks at length about the history of the tube, how it was first built and how the suburb of Notting Hill sprung up around it. This is one of the many passages in which Peter demonstrates his knowledge and love of London.
The Peter Grant novels are as diverse as London is. They have a cast of characters, including a Jamaican river godess, a Somali murder squad detective, a Scottish/Asian pathologist, a Russian Night Witch as well as characters who are LQBTQ and disabled. Ben Aaronovitch handles the writing of these characters with care and sympathy. The Peter Grant novels are a good series of books to read if you are interested in diversity in the broader SFF genre, a gene which has not always handled these issues well.
I would like to take a break from this light-hearted article for a moment to make a serious point. One of the weaknesses of Harry Potter is the sidelining of characters from a minority background. The books have a very positive message about tolerance but it is somewhat problematic to represent minorities as magical creatures whilst sidelining the human minorities in your novel. For someone being much more intelligent and articulate on this subject, Harry Potter and wider SFF please see Sarah Shokerhere article here.
Seriousness is over now, and I will also say that the one thing Harry Potter has over Peter Grant is a better animal companion. Hedwig is much cooler than Toby the dog.
Well, that’s my take on drawing a few parallels between two books aimed at different ages, different audiences, published at different times and in different genres. It’s all a load of fun anyway, which is what reading should primarily be about.