Expelled from school, betrayed by her best friend and virtually ignored by her dad, who's never recovered from the death of her mum, Beth Bradley retreats to the sanctuary of the streets, looking for a new home. What she finds is Filius Viae, the ragged and cocky crown prince of London, who opens her eyes to the place she's never truly seen. But the hidden London is on the brink of destruction. Reach, the King of the Cranes, is a malign god of demolition, and he wants Filius dead...
London has forever been a city that inspires fiction. From the famous works of Charles Dickens and Arthur Conan Doyle to more recent releases such as Audrey Niffenegger’s A Fearful Symmetry, England’s capital has always been a popular setting for make-believe.
Over recent years, London has featured prominently in genre fiction, with the city cropping up as the host for ever-more imaginative escapades. In Sarah Silverwood’s The Double-Edged Sword (Gollancz, 2010) multiple versions of the capital exist on different plains, each more mythical and fantastic than the previous, while in China Mieville’s Unlundun (Tor, 2007) an extraordinary flipside to the city is uncovered by two twelve-year old school girls.
Debut author Tom Pollock is merely the latest in a string of genre authors to utilise the capital as the setting for his fantasy frolics, but he does so with aplomb.
In The City’s Son, London is a city falling apart (in more ways than one). Set primarily in the East End, where glass skyscrapers are emerging between the rubble and the abandoned, urban expanses of the Docklands reign, Pollock’s tale presents London in its truest form. The contrast of modernisation, embodied by Canary Wharf and the city, with forgotten urban landscapes that stretch the length of the Thames, is deftly depicted, emphasising the city’s jarring architectural and geographical juxtaposition as it stands today.
It is within this giant building site of a city that Beth, a rebellious graffiti–loving teenager, discovers a new life, one where sentient trains hunt her down, luminous glass people dance on estates and humans live forever trapped in bodies of stone. Voice-stealing spiders harvest human vocals and oil-soaked men flick cigarette lighters for fun. It is in the midst of these creatures where the real city lies, and Beth’s journey of discovery is a superbly enjoyable one.
Characteristically though, Beth serves more as a vehicle through which the reader accesses Pollock’s London than she does anything else. While she’s engaging enough and far from disagreeable, she doesn’t stand out from the ‘tormented teenager’ crowd. That title is reserved for Filius Viae, the son of the Goddess of the Streets, and who is in contrast one of the best aspects of the novel. With skin the colour of concrete, oil for sweat, and possessing a metamorphosing pile of garbage for a best friend, he is by every definition ‘the city’s son’. But Fil stands out principally because beneath his literally tough skin, he remains a teenage boy, one who’s never known his mother and who is now faced with the colossal responsibility of saving his world from complete devastation.
There’s a vast array of great supporting characters to enjoy here as well, the likes of which are punctuated by the Russian tramp Victor and leader of the imposing Chemical Synods Johnny Naptha. The patriarch of evil, Reach, is a malevolent being awaiting physical embodiment, but whose terror successfully reigns supreme throughout the book.
In amongst all this however, The City’s Son possesses a few problems.
Stylistically, Pollock’s fluctuation between third person story-telling and first person POV (reserved entirely for Fil) doesn’t always work, with the intervals at which Fil’s POV feature feeling somewhat erratic. In addition, the Filius presented in the first person segments is sometimes hard to reconcile with that of the third person, so different is the characterisation.
Narratively there are also a few noticeable bumps. The abusive relationship between Pen (Beth’s best friend) and her school teacher is established early on and then ignored until the end of the book. A seemingly key piece of information in Pen’s character development, it feels strange to bring up and then abandon, such treatment leaving it hanging over her character throughout the book.
Further details on how the city’s more interesting inhabitants go unnoticed by the general populous would’ve also benefited the story, as although a degree of explanation is offered (a huge battle on Chelsea bridge between giant wire wolves and stone statues was reported as an earthquake) one or two moments of interaction with London’s public would’ve lent the book a little extra credibility.
These are minor gripes however in a book that is by any standards impressive. The imagination with which Pollock reinvigorates the city is astounding, and his creations, whether it’s the Sodiumites or the Pavement Priests, the Scaffwolves of the Railwraiths, are wonderful incarnations of a city whose character is still very much bound up in its suburbs.
Imaginative, innovative and bursting with creativity, this is a wonderfully confident debut that will have even the most critical fantasy fans clamouring for more.
Review by Alice Wybrew
9/10 from 1 reviews
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