Jo Fletcher Books, 2012
Following in the tradition of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere and joining such excellent company as China Miéville’s Kraken and Kate Griffin’s A Madness of Angels, Tom Pollock’s YA debut The City’s Son is an exuberant London fantasy in which the capital’s quotidian veil is stripped away to expose the magical cityscape that seethes beneath. Protagonist Beth Bradley is in the perfect position to discover London’s hidden world: a smart-mouthed, free-spirited teen graffiti artist, Beth is happiest when she is roaming the streets with her best friend Parva ‘Pencil’ Khan, Beth tagging the city with her distinctive pictures while Pen scribbles verses on the brick and cement. But all is not sunshine and rainbows: while Beth’s wanderlust rises partly from a deep love of her home city, it is also partly a way to forget the coldness of her neglectful father, who is trapped in a deep trauma following the death of his wife years before. So when Pen and Beth fall out for the very first time, and Beth unexpectedly meets the strange urchin prince Filius Vitae (a.k.a. ‘Fil’), she seizes the opportunity to plunge into his fantastical world. Not that it’s a safe haven by any means – for in offering to help Fil, Beth also pits herself against a formidable foe: the dreaded Crane King, Reach, who seeks to birth a new London out of the ruins of the old.
Launching with a tense, fast-paced action sequence set in London’s labyrinthine railway system, The City’s Son’s first chapter sets the tone for this punchy and effective YA novel. The plot is fairly simple as far as it goes, but far from making for dull reading this instead means the book is streamlined and clear-sighted in its execution. The majority of the story is told from Beth’s perspective in third-person past tense, with a large chunk from Filius’s PoV in first-person present tense, and other occasional forays into the heads of Pen or other secondary characters. I’m not sure of the reason for the switch between third and first-person, past and present tense (and can’t help but feel it was primarily used to enable the immediacy of chapter 1), but it works well enough despite there being no technical need for it. Indeed, one feels churlish complaining about this detail when one of The City’s Son’s strongest points is its characterisation. Beth, Filius, and Pen are all exceedingly well drawn, and the relationships between the three teens is what makes this novel a particular delight.
Beth is a fiery, rebellious girl, stubborn to a fault, with a sharp wit and iron will. There’s a danger here that the ‘strong female character’ is becoming a trope in and of itself, and can sometimes come across as paying lip service to feminism without any deeper consideration of the issues at stake. However, this accusation cannot be levelled at Pollock. Throughout The City’s Son we see Beth exhibit both strengths and flaws, with the author allowing her very believable moments of vulnerability – but in such a way that they don’t undermine her strength of spirit but instead reinforce her courage when she bounces back.
Filius too is an interesting character, whose cocky exterior at times cracks open to reveal the fear and doubt beneath. The constant banter between him and Beth gives the book a lot of its warmth and humour, while their frequent bursts of frustration at each other also serve to offset the sentimental aspect of what might otherwise have lapsed into a stereotypical accelerated YA romance. These two still fall for each other a little too swiftly in my eyes, but I was willing to forgive this niggle due to their otherwise wonderfully depicted interactions, and Pollock’s adroit turning of the relationship down an unexpected and bittersweet path.
But the greatest hero of The City’s Son is Pen, whose heart-rending plotline centres on issues of choice and personal (and physical) liberty. Although Pen is ostensibly Beth’s sidekick at the start of the novel, when she is kidnapped by a cruel minion of Reach her path quickly takes her down what is easily the most harrowing and serious (in terms of real-world resonance) story thread. A part of me is a little anxious about the implications of having a Pakistani character’s storyline revolve around questions of choice/independence, as I feel this might be a cultural stereotype in itself – but I am not informed enough to judge and will leave that to more capable minds. What I will say is that personally I felt that Pollock created a brilliant character in Pen, and that in my eyes her storyline seemed skilfully handled so as to empower her while not denying the long-lasting impact of her experiences.
[Edit: I should add here that I'm really looking forward to reading book 2 of The Skyscraper Throne - The Glass Republic - in which Pen takes over as the main PoV.]
Another element of the novel that is worthy of particular note is Pollock’s treatment of the relationship between Beth and Pen. The fantasy genre still sadly suffers from a dearth of good female friendships (cf. the Bechdel test and the many, many books that fail it), but Pollock has given us a true gem in The City’s Son. Seldom have I come across a female friendship rendered so carefully and so well – two girls with their own minds, their own interests, their own desires, but with a fierce love and loyalty that binds them together. Such a rare delight.
And this review would not be complete without mention of the book’s depiction of London itself – for of course the city is the font from which The City’s Son springs, what with its plot centring on the clash between old and new (architectures, values, &c) characteristic of London’s eclectic neighbourhoods. Pollock’s writing is vivid and evocative as he describes London’s rain-slick pavements, the glow of neon on the skyline, the clatter of trains as they pass over a railway tunnel – and with similar liveliness he conjures fantastical beings out of the city’s fabric too. In doing so, the author does not shy away from the grime and grit of city life – Gutterglass, Fil’s mentor, creates her/himself out if litter, rats, and insects, while the Chemical Synod owe their existence to urban pollutants – though there is perhaps a slight tendency to romanticise this aspect (and living on the streets) that is a shade problematic. However, for the most part I very much enjoyed Pollock’s evocation of London preternatural: the Mirrorstocracy, the Pavement Priests, the Railwraiths, and all the other creatures were wonderful creations. Granted, The City’s Son does not do anything particularly new here (see the examples of other London fantasy above), but what it does it does with such verve and earnestness that a reader would be hard-pushed not to get caught up in its magic.
As an exhilarating ride around (and above, and beneath) London’s streets with memorable characters, plenty of touching moments, and a vivid narrative voice that carries the novel forward with panache, I would highly recommend The City’s Son.