Hidden under the surface of everyday London is a city of monsters and miracles, where wild train spirits stampede over the tracks and glass-skinned dancers with glowing veins light the streets. When a devastating betrayal drives her from her home, graffiti artist Beth Bradley stumbles into the secret city, where she finds Filius Viae, London’s ragged crown prince, just when he needs someone most. An ancient enemy has returned to the darkness under St Paul’s Cathedral, bent on reigniting a centuries-old war, and Beth and Fil find themselves in a desperate race through a bizarre urban wonderland, searching for a way to save the city they both love.
I love to read about London – it’s a place overflowing with history, myth and legends, wonderful characters both real and imagined, wonderful evocative street names and an incredibly melting pot of cultures, and stories, from all over the world. It’s the perfect place to let your imagination run riot, to play with the outlines of buildings, wisps of history and ever-present cranes and construction to create a a new mythology. That’s exactly what Tom Pollock has done in The City’s Son, the first instalment of The Skyscraper Throne trilogy.
Filius Viae is the son of the streets, literally if you can read Latin; his skin in the greasy grey of metropolitan concrete and he draws strength from the energy in the tarmac under the soles of his feet. His mother, Mater Viae, has been absent for almost all his life, has embued him with great strength and power; Filius and his guardian Gutterglass hope she will return soon to help them battle the old enemy, Reach. Filius, or Fil as Beth calls him, was a fascinating character, part mythical hero, part Artful Dodger, and 100% embedded in the fabric of London. I could easily believe he’d sprung organically out of the grimy landscape.
Beth too I thought was an absolute delight to set out an an adventure with; she’s no angel – quite the opposite – but I enjoyed her even more for this. She’s brave in the face of bewildering and terrifying situations, speaks and acts from the heart and she’s totally honest. Her fiercely protective nature is completely winning; I was gripped by the way she can’t bear to abandon Fil in his hour of need and her dedication to Pen despite feeling betrayed was heartbreaking and incredibly moving.
While his heroes are strong and and highly engaging, Pollock doesn’t shy away from acknowledging the ambiguity at the heart of everyone. While Beth has so many fantastic qualities, she is impulsive and angry in a way which causes her to doubt her best friend. Fil struggles with self-doubt and Beth’s father has been almost catatonic since his waife passed away. The Pavement Priests are slow to act and Lampgirls are jealous and quick to flare. But the most ambiguous, tragic character of all is Pen. She loves Beth dearly and yet she becomes integral to Reach’s attack, in a way which is horrifying but also strangely compelling; I was appropriately gripped by her ordeal.
Some readers have compared The City’s Son to Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman. Of course, a comparison like that is no bad thing – Neverwhere is fantastic – but I think that, in fact, the two novels are quite different in tone and content once you look past the urban fantasy London setting. While Gaiman’s book is ethereal, relying on more of less literal interpretations of Tube station names, religious allegory and a shady otherworld of intangible hidden rooms and doors, Pollock’s London is the London of 2013. It’s gritty, it’s visceral, it’s real, it’s dirty, smelly, and industrial, tainted but also fuelled by the detritus that people have created, and discarded, since the colonisation of the Romans 2000 years ago. Gutterglass, Fil’s mentor, is entirely composed of rubbish, in fact. This may have been the aspect of the novel I found most joyous; Pollock’s appropriation of so many recognisable ingredients of the metropolis is sometimes imaginative, sometimes tongue-in-cheek and sometimes downright spine-chilling. I will never look at a tube train, a crane or barbed wire in the same way again.
“I dare you to try it yourself.”
There’s something here for everyone; excitement, adventure, innovation and also depth of narrative, depth of world and, most important, depth of personality and emotion. The City’s Son took me on a journey, twisting and turning through alleyways, rooftops, tunnels and tower blocks, from laughter to tension, thrill to tragedy. I dare you to try it yourself.
The City’s Son is out now in paperback, from Jo Fletcher Books, who kindly provided a review copy.