Pen's life is all about secrets: the secret of the city's spirits, deities and monsters her best friend Beth discovered, living just beyond the notice of modern Londoners; the secret of how she got the intricate scars that disfigure her so cruelly - and the most closely guarded secret of all: Parva, her mirror-sister, forged from her reflections in a school bathroom mirror. Pen's reflected twin is the only girl who really understands her.
Then Parva is abducted and Pen makes a terrible bargain for the means to track her down. In London-Under-Glass, looks are currency, and Pen's scars make her a rare and valuable commodity. But some in the reflected city will do anything to keep Pen from the secret of what happened to the sister who shared her face.
*** Warning: this review will probably contain spoilers for The City's Son, the first book in Tom Pollock's The Skyscraper Throne trilogy ***
Parva Khan (aka Pen) did not have a particularly happy time in The City's Son. Being bound in 'living' barbed wire is never going to be a particularly pleasant experience for anyone, but for a teen girl who is now heavily scarred, both physically and psychologically, it is pretty much social suicide. Yes, she can keep the playground hounds at bay for a while, with wild and imaginative lies about where she was and how her face became damaged, but there will always be a couple of her peers who are not satisfied with her stories, and unfortunately for Pen these ones are the leaders of the pack.
With her best friend Beth forever changed by magic of Johnny Naphtha and the Chemical Synod, Pen's only escape from the trials of school is the girls' bathroom in a disused part of school. There she spends hours in front of the mirror, not crying over her disfigurement, but conversing with her reflection. Naturally, this being a Tom Pollock book this is no mere mirror-image of Pen, she is instead talking with her mirror-sister in London-Under Glass, known as Parva throughout the story to differentiate her from Pen and avoid confusion.
However, when Parva is suddenly no longer there on the other side of the mirror, and a pool of blood on the bathroom floor suggesting foul play, Pen decides the only course of action is to somehow find a way into London-Under-Glass. Pen soon discovers that this place, although a reflection of London, is very, very different. It's a place where Pen's imperfect face is celebrated, with young people queuing to have similar scarring added to their own faces. It is a city where corruption and elitism reign supreme and Pen soon finds herself not only trying to track down Parva, assuming she is still alive, but also battling against the twisted society she finds there.
I loved The City's Son and named it my Book of the Year for 2012. I waxed lyrical about it in my review last year and have been recommending it to as many people as possible. If I now told you that The Glass Republic is even better than its predecessor then you might begin to understand why I have been finding it very difficult to write a review for it. I've started this review countless times since I read the book back in August, but every time I find myself struggling to find the words to do it justice. Tom Pollock is such a gifted writer that any words I put down about his work seem amateurish and clunky and books like this really highlight my shortfalls as a reviewer.
As I was reading the book I had one phrase running around my mind, a phrase that I was definitely going to use in my review. However, someone beat me to it. Back in August I posted an extract from The Glass Republic on this blog, and in the comments section someone going by the name of Pocket Knife Planet wrote the following:
The City's Son was on a par with Gaiman. The Glass republic is BETTER than Gaiman.
A bold statement given the god-like status attributed to Neil Gaiman by his legions of fans around the world, but a statement that I was very much in agreement with. Comparisons with Gaiman are hard to avoid for me, especially given that Neverwhere is one of my all time favourite books. In fact, having since read The Ocean at the End of the Lane, and found it very disappointing and way below par (yes, I know that is a risky thing to say as I have seen a few critical reviewers flamed by upset fans) I am even more comfortable with the initial pronouncement of this being better than NG.
After much agonising about this review, and much deleting and rewriting, I have decided to keep my words to a minimum. This book is best read with as little prior information as possible. I started reading this book without having read any other reviews, thinking I knew what I would be getting. After all, The City's Son was so unique that surely this would be more of the same (i.e. stunning prose, mind-blowing imaginative writing, great characters, etc). I soon discovered that I was only part right in this assumption - The Glass Republic is all of this but even more. It is a truly beautiful read, and calling it urban fantasy almost seems to do it a disservice as it is head and shoulders above all YA (and most adult) urban fantasy that I have ever read. It almost demands a genre title of its very own.
Beth was a great character in The City's Son, and Pen was very much in the background, but although this is a sequel to TCS, it is very much Pen's story. Beth does make an occasional appearance, as do a host of characters & 'entities' from the previous book, but this story is all about how Pen interacts with them. She is very, very different from Beth, and will probably become the series favourite for many readers.
This review ends with a word of warning: this is the second book in the trilogy and therefore the ending may upset some readers as it not only doesn't tie up a lot of loose ends, it also finishes on something of a jaw-dropping cliffhanger.
My thanks go to the lovely people at Jo Fletcher Books for sending me a copy to read.