Concrete and Clay – The City’s Son by Tom Pollock

The City’s Son is an inventive urban fantasy set in the city of London. It’s an ambitious and imaginative debut, entertaining but not entirely convincing. Pollock’s novel contains a wealth of ideas, but whilst some are well-realised others are under developed.

The opening is strong. Beth and Pen are two inner London school children; misfits and best of friends. Beth is a street artist whose gift extends well beyond mindless tagging. Pen is a wordsmith; a shy but lyrical girl. When Beth is expelled from school because Pen gave her up to the teachers, a wedge is driven between them. Beth is distraught. Alone in a city of millions. Her mother has died, and her grief stricken father is catatonic, leaving her to fend for herself. Beth flees to her safe haven, a forgotten tunnel under the railway, where she can paint freely. When a phantom train crashes in on her misery, her life is changed forever.

The railwraith is just the first in a series of bizarre imaginings from Pollock’s incredibly fertile imagination of Tom Pollock. The City’s Son features creatures of light who live inside sodium street lamps, cursed criminals eternally bound inside statues,some incredibly cool communication spiders and they are just the beginning. The hero of piece is Filius Viae, a concrete skinned boy, who draws strength from his bare feet on asphalt. This Prince of the Streets has a seneschal who reforms itself daily from London’s rubbish and detritus.

The story is a battle of good against evil – The orphan prince has to fight for the city against the evil ‘Reach’, who in essence is the world’s nastiest property developer. He controls the cranes, makes monstrous creatures from scaffolding, and is spreading horrible glass buildings across the city (So, if you don’t like the Shard, now you know whose fault it is.) He and Fil are fighting for the Skyscraper throne. Reach is the stronger of the two, progress and regeneration feed his power. Beth, down on life in general, with little to live for, sees Fil’s cause as something worthing fighting for. Whilst he thinks all he can do is run, Beth cajoles Fil into taking the fight to Reach.

And here for me is the first of the novel’s problems. When confronted with this magical world of ghost-trains and filament fairies, Beth barely misses a step. She just takes it in her stride, without a single mention that actually this is all a bit weird, and maybe she should sit down for a moment. As the novel progress, it’s clear that Pollock’s fantasical creations interact pretty heavily with the real world, yet, somehow nobody has ever heard of them. He makes a half-hearted effort to explain that humans don’t want to believe and so invent alternative explanations, but it doesn’t really add up. Some of these creatures have lived in London for centuries, appear to have made no effort to keep themselves secret, yet are unheard of.

I also found the plot confusing, and I think this may be that it’s a bit light. An awful lot happens in the novel, but it’s not always entirely clear why it’s happening. Fil and Beth crash from one exciting set piece to the next, but there are so many new concepts and mythologies, I found it difficult to see a coherent story. Indeed the whole premise of a boy who draws his strength from the urban world, being at war with somebody who wants to build a modern city, doesn’t quite add up. There’s possibly an environmental message, but its hero is no greener than the villain. Similarly, is Fil battling progress? It feels like it, but I’m not sure that is what Pollock set out to do.

I found the climax with Reach unconvincing. At its heart was a great idea, but because the relevant themes are under-developed, I didn’t feel it made complete sense. If Pollock had saved some of his peripheral ideas for future novels, and explorered in greater depth those more central to the plot, The City’s Son would have had a greater emotional resonance.

But this is a unfairly bleak appraisal of what is an impressive debut. Pollock’s descriptive prose is highly evocative. His portrait of London’s underbelly is so vivid, the pages of the book feel grimy. Pen and Beth are particularly well drawn. Great characterisation and, unusual for this type of fiction, two strong female leads. The ensemble cast are also well-drawn and Pollock’s dialogue is sharp and filled with humour.

Without giving spoilers, I can say that some aspects of the overall plot have great appeal. There is a central theme of the city of London being built on deals, which in our current economic climate strikes a particular chord. Pollock’s personification of the banking industry is delightful, and one of the novels strongest points.

The City’s Son is a novel I wanted to love, but don’t quite find myself able to. It’s beautifully packaged. Top marks to the publisher for going with a bold evocative cover, that’s a little different from the norm. Despite my reservations, The City’s Son has much to recommend it, not least of which is Pollocks’s array of fantastic creations. After the chaotic fight scenes of the novel’s climax, the final chapters leave a tantalising taste of what’s to come next. Pollock is clearly a talented writer and surely an impressive career awaits. I look forward to reading ‘The Glass Republic’ to see how the series and the author evolve.

Many thanks to Jo Fletcher Books for providing me with a copy of this book to review.  

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