Pen’s life revolves around secrets: the secrets behind her three-month disappearance from school last winter, the secret cause of the scars that mar her face, and, most secret of all, her twin sister Parva: her doppelgänger in London-Under-Glass, the city behind the mirrors.
Pen’s trying to forget Reach Filius Viae and the Wire Mistress and get back to a normal life, but when Parva vanishes, she has no choice but to seek out London’s stranger side. And when Pen journeys through the mirror, she finds a world where scars make you beautiful and criminals will kill you for your face – a world in which Pen’s sister was keeping secrets of her own…
I was in the privileged position, in summer 2013, of being sent a gorgeous hardback copy of The Glass Republic by Jo Fletcher Books, at the same time as part one of The Skyscraper Throne, The City’s Son. I tumbled headfirst into that book, captured by Tom Pollock’s original, irreverent reimagining of London and its strange inhabitants. Still, I waited a little before beginning The Glass Republic – I wanted time to reflect and come to it fresh, as the way The City’s Son ended left me more than a little shocked and raw.
In this second part of The Skycraper Throne, we spend time in a different place and a different cast of characters, with one exception – Pen. Without giving too much away, I was astonished that Pen made it through The City’s Son – she goes through an excruciating ordeal that pits her against best friend Beth, an fantastic heroine with all her strength and flaws. This time, Beth is put to one side and Pen takes centre stage. That’s not easy for Pen; she’s always been shy and happy for Beth to stand in the spotlight. That’s even more pronounced after her experience in Book 1, which leads to an enforced absence from school and a serious amount of camouflage-strength make-up.
And that brings me to the first thing I love so much about these books. Tom Pollock ‘gets’ teenagers. As much as I loved Beth (and Fil) in The City’s Son, I could see myself in Pen, admittedly some years ago now. Her concerns, her relationships, her anxieties are so incredibly, scarily true. We’ve all been teenagers, some more recently than others, but some writers are able to tap straight into that state where everything is just a little less than certain. I think Tom is one of them. Pen embodies the idea that every choice, every situation has possibilities and consequences, although we may not see what those are until after we take the plunge. That’s frightening. But it’s also real. Pen has to put her trust in people she’s just met, people she’s come to doubt, and, most difficult of all, herself, and hope that they can make it all work.
Then there’s the setting and the tone of this novel; it’s very different to its predecessor in a number of important ways. Where The City’s Son felt free and adventurous, with Beth and Fil testing out their boundaries and enjoying the abilities and opportunities that London has granted them, The Glass Republic feels darker, more tense, with more of a science fiction edge. London-Under-Glass is a strange, topsy-turvy place, half remembered but also a mirror image, in terms of layout but also values. Where everyone is a reflection, difference is celebrated, and those who have a ‘full’ face become part of the Mirrorstocracy. No meritocracy here; the class system is rigid and non-negotiable.
Of course, wherever there is a rigid authoritarian system, there are those who wish to reform and rebel. Having started her journey to discover the fate of her mirror-sister Parva, Pen finds herself a pawn in the power-play between the Faceless rebels and a leading member of the Mirrorstocracy, Senator Case. Strange earthy creatures haunt this world, reminding me of the Golems of Jewish folklore, and the passages with the Faceless hinted at the politically charged world of Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses. When you put all these elements together, it’s a promising combination and Tom’s characterisation makes it irresistible. I should also add that Tom is, again, one of a few authors currently writing same-sex relationships in young adult novels, without this becoming the “issue” of the story.
Finally, Tom clearly understands what his readers want. Despite Pen’s story taking her to London-Under-Glass, we don’t follow her completely. Beth is still in our London, still regrouping and picking up the pieces after the dramatic events at the end of The City’s Son. When she realises the deal that Pen has made in order to travel between worlds, she pulls together all her resources to try to help. There is just enough of Beth and her narrative woven through this story to link it clearly with the first part of The Skyscraper Throne, and to bring both worlds colliding together in a shocking cliffhanger at its end. I can’t wait to see what Tom has in store for us in Part 3.
The Glass Republic is out now in hardback from Jo Fletcher Books, at £14.99