Sunday, 12 August 2012

Review: The City's Son by Tom Pollock

Released last week, in the middle of the Olympic Games which have drawn global attention to London, it is fitting that the building sites and back streets of East London form the canvas on which Tom Pollock paints this manic vision of apocalyptic fantasy warfare.

Pollock perhaps missed a trick by not including the Olympic Park, but apart from that his brilliant imagination presents a distorted reflection of all aspects of London – duelling snake-like trains, graffiti-coated tunnels, skyscraper thrones and drunken Russian tramps.  In amongst this, though, it is surprisingly the human (or, at least, anthropomorphic) characters which shine through.

Make no mistake; the urban fantasyscape that Pollock creates is breathtaking.  The only reason not to describe the novel as cinematic is a doubt that film technology could keep up: this is an example of the descriptive power the written word still keeps, even in the Avatar-era.

And having populated his London with this marvellous cast, Pollock slightly belatedly gets into his narrative stride: Filius Viae, son of The Lady of the Streets, is both the target and the potential nemesis of Reach, King of the Cranes.  His support, inspiration and romantic interest comes in the form of Beth Bradley, a teenage graffiti artist expelled from school having been betrayed by her only friend, Pen, leaving her desperate and alone.

The escalating violence correlates with the two youngsters growing relationship.  This is standard YA fare, with young and isolated protagonists fighting an increasingly complicated and unforgiving world.  Pollock’s skill is in creating characters who are worth caring about, and these fit the bill, Beth in particular.  The early description of her and Pen roaming the streets of London, Beth producing spectacular graffiti and Pen tacking melancholy love poems underneath phonebox sex-line flyers caught my attention.

The only weakness here is the slightly garbled mythology that underpins the story.  The blurb promises a ‘fable’, and at certain points this is foregrounded – Reach symbolises merciless greed, for example.  However too often this subtext is forgotten – if Reach is greed, then what does Filius’s mother represent?  There’s a difference between moral ambiguity (which, to be fair, is often used brilliantly) and symbolic fog, and occasionally Pollock strays into the latter.

On the whole though, this is a great read, and as the second half unfolds it becomes increasingly hard to put down.  The ending, with an impressive string of twists and turns, leaves the floor open for the remainder of the series.

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