Saturday, 7 July 2012

Review: The City's Son by Tom Pollock

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. In the absence of the Lady of the Streets, Filius’ goddess mother, Beth rouses Filius to raise an alleyway army, to reclaim London’s skyscraper throne for the mother he’s never known. Beth has almost forgotten her old life – until her best friend and her father come searching for her, and she must choose between the streets and the life she left behind.

Every now and again a book comes along, usually out of the blue, and floors me with its brilliance. It doesn’t happen enough, but when it does the book in question will take over my waking and sleeping thoughts completely. The City’s Son by Tom Pollock is one such book, and whilst it is not necessarily going to be perfect for everyone, it was perfect for me.

Long time readers will know that I am a huge fan of urban fantasy set in London, Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere is one of my all time favourite books, and in recent years I have loved the likes of Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London and Moon Over Soho, Charlie Fletcher’s Stoneheart series and the first two volumes in Sarah Silverwood’s The Nowhere Chronicles trilogy. The London-set urban fantasy bar has been set very high by these authors, but with The City’s Son I feel that Tom Pollock set a very strong challenge.

The City’s Son is what China Mieville’s Kraken should have been, instead of the disappointing, and dare I say it self-indulgent, mess of ideas that it was. I bought Kraken with my hard-earned pennies and felt completely robbed. In contrast, I received a free proof copy of The City’s Son from publisher Jo Fletcher Books, but I will be front of the queue to buy the hardcover when it is published in August. Whilst I am at it I may as well compare it to Kate Griffin’s Matthew Swift books as well, and no doubt upset even more fan boys when I say that in my mind it is far more accessible and a lot cleverer than Griffin’s work. “But The City’s Son is YA and Kate Griffin’s books are for the adult market” I hear them shout. I am fully aware of this, but The City’s Son is so well written, with a lyricism that is so rarely seen in a YA story, that it wasn’t until I had finished it and seen the cover revealed over at Fantasy Faction that I realised for certain that it was a YA book.

The City’s Son is an urban fantasy story that I believe has true cross-over appeal, and will be thoroughly enjoyed by both the teen and adult markets. Main characters Beth and Filius are teenagers, and yet the prose is of a quality more often found in adult stories (hence my initial confusion as it is not often you see teen characters in an adult novel). At the beginning Beth is expelled from school for a particularly vindictive piece of graffiti that she creates on the school playground, aimed at a particularly nasty teacher. Beth is a gifted artist, and stunning images created with her media of choice, spray paint, can be found all around Hackney. With a handful of uninterrupted minutes and a bag of spray cans Beth is able to bring the concrete and brick walls around her seemingly to life, but what she does not realise that the city she lives in is as alive as she is.

Beth’s life is less than happy. Her mother died suddenly three years earlier, and from that moment Beth’s father pretty much gave up on life and any kind of relationship building with his equally distraught daughter. Following her exclusion (which happens because of what Beth thinks is a betrayal by her closest and possibly only friend) from school Beth takes off to one of her usual hangouts, a disused railway tunnel, and it is here that her adventures begin. Beth finds herself literally caught in the headlights of a train, and as she tries to make sense of how a train could possibly be running on her disused tracks she realises that it was actually more of a train-like thing. Despite her fears she enters what she later discovers is a Railwraith, and in doing so sets herself on a journey that very quickly has her meeting Filius Viae, the city’s son of the book’s title.

Filius is the son of the Lady of the Streets, the long-absent goddess of the City of London, and the true hero of this story. Filius can run faster than any normal human, can ‘skate’ along electric cables, has amazing powers of self-healing and needs to food as he gets his energy from the materials of the city itself. His friends include people made from glass and electric light who live in street lamps, humans permanently cursed to live their lives within stone as statues, and most incredibly, Gutterglass, an entity made of pieces of garbage who can break up his/her body at will, and have it rebuilt miles away with the aid of the friendly neighbourhood worms and insects. All are embroiled in a battle against Reach, the King of Cranes, and supposedly evil god who, in the absence of the Lady of the Streets, has finally decided to assert his authority with a view to taking over the city.

I mentioned at the beginning of this review that The City’s Son has its flaws, although for me the sheer jaw-dropping scope and magic of Tom Pollock’s imagination made these fade into insignificance. Suspension of disbelief is required at times, especially when the various fantastic beings are on the move. There was a little voice whispering away in the back of my mind, questioning how the ‘normal’ inhabitants of London were completely unable to see the wolves made from scaffold, the people made from glass and the trains that don’t need to run on rails. However, as a life-long lover of escapist novels I am well practised at ignoring that voice, and if you can do so as well then the book will be all the more rewarding for it.

Naturally, there will be reviewers who will compare this to Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere – let’s face it, it happens every time an author writes a story where London is treated almost as a character. Naturally, as a Neverwhere fan I also had this in the back of my mind as I was reading The City’s Son, and therefore I couldn’t help but chuckle at one audacious nod Tom Pollock makes to Gaiman’s story. Filius makes a reference to the green witches, to which an awestruck Beth asks if there really are witches in Greenwich. Filius mocks her in reply, asking if she expects there to be a sea of flour and eggs in Battersea.

If you have read Fletcher's Stoneheart trilogy then I would imagine that like me, you look at London's statues in a very different way these days. The City's Son will have a similar effect, but with the city as a whole. I have read many reviews for books in the past where the reviewer writes about the city in which the story is set as being like another character. Exactly the same can be said of the London that is portrayed in The City's Son. It comes across as a living, breathing entity and right from the opening chapter you know that it is so much more than just the setting for the story. London is the story. However, what makes this special from the likes of Stoneheart, is that Tom Pollock isn't writing about the famous buildings and landmarks, but the very fabric of the city itself. As such, whenever I am in London, I now feel my eyes drawn to the street lights, the graffiti, and the materials that the walls, pavements and roads are constructed from. Tom Pollock has breathed vibrant life into mundane London, the stuff that we take for granted and often miss as we gawk at the historical buildings or eccentric characters, and has made me look at the city in whole new way.

The City’s Son is most definitely not for younger teens. It is at times violent and brutal, and the dialogue contains more than the occasional swear word. As well as his characterisation, I found Tom Pollock’s dialogue to be superbly written, with the profanities only adding another layer of realism to it, an opinion that I know many older teens will share. However, alongside the violence there are also some incredibly poignant moments in the story, several of which literally took my breath away, and there were a couple of key scenes where I even had tears threatening to make an appearance. At no point does Tom Pollock patronise his target teen audience, and the ending to the story is a perfect example of this. It is a take-no-prisoners conclusion to the story that leaves the reader with jaw completely dropped.

I do not know how many books are planned for this Skyscraper Throne series, but if they are anywhere near as good as this then I am more than happy to sign up for the duration. The City’s Son ranks as one of my favourite reads of the year so far (and also one of my favourite book covers), and I can’t wait to read the sequel, The Glass Republic, due to be published in August 2013.

The City's Son is scheduled to be released on 2nd August and my thanks go to the lovely people at Jo Fletcher Books for sending me a copy to read and review.


  1. I read this one a little while ago (got an eARC off Netgalley) after I think it was GavReads mentioned it on Twitter and I was blown away by it!

    Utterly compelling and brutal at times as you say. I know I'll by buying my own copy when it is released. (And I don't do that very often when I've read something as an ARC.)

  2. Really looking forward to reading this. Also got the eARC off of NetGalley! Sounds so good and I love the cover! :D