Friday, 27 July 2012

Book Review | The City's Son by Tom Pollock

Running from her traitorous best friend and her estranged father, graffiti artist Beth Bradley is looking for sanctuary. What she finds is Filius, the ragged and cocky crown prince of London’s mystical underworld. Filius opens Beth’s eyes to the city she’s never truly seen — where vast spiders crawl telephone wires seeking voices to steal, railwraiths escape their tethers, and statues conceal an ancient priesthood robed in bronze.

But it all teeters on the brink of destruction. Amid rumors that Filius’s goddess mother will soon return from her 15-year exile, Reach, a malign god of urban decay, wants the young prince dead. Helping Filius raise an alleyway army to reclaim his skyscraper throne, Beth soon forgets her old life. But when her best friend is captured, Beth must choose between this wondrous existence and the life she left behind.


"Thrum-clatter-clatter, thrum-clatter-clatter," (p.5) comes the sound of The City's Son: a syncopated siren song that I found positively impossible to resist.

The City's Son is a tour-de-force in sophisticated urban fantasy—beautifully wrought, tightly plotted and fantastically finessed. Shockingly, it's also Tom Pollock's first novel.

I had, however, read this fellow before, by way of a very memorable short in Stories of the Apocalypse, which is to say the first Pandemonium anthology edited by the peerless pair behind Pornokitsch. However, as impressed as I was with "Evacuation," it took The City's Son to properly sell me on Pollock's potential... which is to say world, meet the spiritual successor to early China Mieville.

A reductive recommendation, admittedly, but better to make it now and move on than dwell on the many and various ways in which The City's Son put me in mind of King Rat, Perdido Street Station and Kraken. Anyway, let's face it: before now there was no-one quite like Mr Mieville out there, and more of a good thing is good, surely.

But getting back to the matter at hand, note that the plot of The City's Son is not what makes it awesome. In fact, you'll have heard the broad strokes of it before, very probably over and over - in Neverwhere, Un Lun Dun and the books of The Folly by Ben Aaronovitch, to name but a few - but though the concept of a magical secret city under, above or amongst our London is fairly far from inspired, Pollock's execution of the premise is pitch-perfect. His city, his setting, seems so alive that it practically writhes. There's an army of living stone statues, a Mirrorstocracy of impermanent reflections, a gaggle of girls with glass skin, and a man, who is as often a woman, made out of rats and rubbish.

And that's just the good guys!

On the other side of the divide, beyond the glimmering limits of the light cast by the city's grey-skinned crown prince Filius: the forces of darkness. The gathering forces, I should say, for they are rising in name and number with the return of Reach, the Crane King. Amongst the hellish highlights, keep your eyes peeled for the scaffwolves - dog-monsters made of scaffolding poles -  and listen, listen, for the phantom rhythm of a railwraith, plowing past St Paul's, leaving only death and devastation in its wake.

Pollock's imagination is in its prime, then. And though the premise is pallid, the author enlivens it, invigorates it, with a cast of I dare say daring characters. There's Filius, for starters: an orphan in the care of the undercity itself, who wields a railway spike like a sacred spear yet knows next to nothing about London and life as we understand it. More relatable in that respect is our protagonist, Beth Bradley: a graffiti artist who takes to the streets after the death of her mother, the dazed abandonment of her father, and the devastating blow left by her best friend Pen's betrayal.

Speaking of which, with respect to Pen in particular, The City's Son takes some truly gruesome turns, so don't be dissuaded on account of all the young uns. This is bleak, black urban fantasy... some of the very best in the business, by a mile of city mice.

It comes complete with all the trimmings, too - some of which I grant are more surprising than others - including a sense of wonder-struck discovery, a light touch at times, and bona fide feeling. So ignore the superficial similarities we spoke about before, because in they end, their reach is only skin-deep. In a better world, this book would have The Hunger Games' great legacy ahead of it. Certainly, as of this first installment, the series deserves such success, but as Tom Pollock teaches, appearances can be deeply, darkly deceiving.

Come what may, The City's Son is stonking stuff. A year's best contender which marks the arrival of an unmissable new talent. Go on: get in on the ground floor of The Skyscraper Throne.


The City's Son
by Tom Pollock

UK Publication: August 2012, Jo Fletcher
US Publication: September 2012, Flux

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