The City’s Son, by Tom Pollock
Know that great feeling when you’re so wrapped up in a book that you barely even register it’s your stop and that nice polite woman next to you has been asking for five minutes if she could get out? This is one of those books. It rocks.
There’s a certain buzz about young adult writers in London right now. The UK has Patrick Ness and Moira Young, and the bookshop cafes are crawling with American expat SFF and young adult writers, seemingly drawn inexorably to the lack of summer and the overpriced coffee. It’s exciting. And this is a book about imagination applied to today’s London. It feels very ‘of the moment’. And it’s very, very good.
The language is crisp and clear: the dialogue is the patter of the streets; the characters sound like groups of teenagers on the tube, like people who really live here. Pollock’s London is animative; its spaces are inhabited and recogniseable. It possesses talking street lights and Machiavellian rubbish and sinister skyscrapers. It is the classic ‘unseen city’.
The two main characters are the teenage Filius, heir to the ‘throne of the streets’, and Beth, a ‘fearless’ schoolgirl who’s running from her own demons, including a dead mother and emotionally absent father. So far, so par for the course. In fact, the set-up and the predictable romance are the least interesting things about this otherwise regenerative book.
People say that Tom Pollock is like China Mieville, and I’d agree that this does extend further than both being men with shaven heads – Pollock’s coinage of new words reveals the same glee in mishaping language that is characteristic of Mieville’s recent work. And, let’s not forget, they’ve both written ostensibly young adult novels with ‘living’ railway engines this year.
Pollock’s best word is ‘urbosynthesis’, the ability to draw energy from the surroundings of the inner city – a mere touch of oil slicked tarmac renews Filius, a modern-day Antaeus. This creative rerun of the urban environment is one of the delights of the book. I want to live in this venomous London where voice-stealing spiders lurk in wait for the lonely, and street lamps dodge lethal rain showers.
Grounded as it is in the modern-day geography of London, the territorial references don’t jar. Instead they throw up each space in a new light. The evil crane king’s heartland is St Paul’s and the sides are battling for possession of a throne carved out of Canary Wharf, a singularly appropriate trophy.
There are weak spots. There’s the dubious plotline involving mutilation of Beth’s best friend Pen and sexual abuse. You do feel Pen deserves more page space – she’s pushed aside, left mutilated and lacking a bottom lip – because the boy’s own main plot doesn’t have room. Pen’s strength in her ‘freedom’, presumably from her teacher’s sexual abuse, seems very disturbing. That an acceptable response to extensive facial scarring in a young woman is relief that you can rid yourself of your abuser by no longer fitting conventional norms of beauty is intensely weird.
Aside from this, the story has a huge amount of momentum – you’re dragged along with the heroine, into the world and all its dangers – which makes it compulsive, a daredevil chase through the places and fantastical people of the city, a race against a nominated enemy who is revealed to be less than expected.
It’s almost impossible not to lose yourself in this partially familiar world, brutal and unlit. The language itself contains some joyful moments that you can’t help enjoying, including an insult from lamp to woman along the lines of ‘your mother was a forty-watt bulb.’
All in all, it’s a treat you shouldn’t miss out on. It redraws and redefines London with the glee of a child discovering it for the first time. And it’ll make your journey to work seem a lot more fun, not least because you’ll be watching out for maddened railwraiths and voice sucking BT spiders.