Book Review: The City’s Son, Tom Pollock

Pollock recreates Urban Fantasy as a tangible, palpable thing. Forget werewolves. Forget Vampires. The city is alive.

A year ago I decided to take some random blogger’s advice (probably someone very important, but I can’t remember who said it) and take an active effort in getting to know the UF market. I had never shot in the dark before, concerning debut novels, so it’s a pretty big deal I stepped out with Mr. Pollock. (Mr. Pollock, if you ever read this, you’re my first first novel, meaning I bought it entirely on faith.)

I knew the novel before it was published, back when the old cover looked like a Teen Romance between a shirtless character and a fathomless, powerful damsel. Thankfully the cover changed, and is all the more impressive because of it (I believe someone up the pecking order realized this was a special novel, perhaps a cut above the rest, and they wanted the cover to reflect that).

I don’t do “Fanboy” very well: the book either speaks for itself, or it doesn’t, and while I stepped into the novel expecting Young Adult writing, I also expected it to have flair and connect with me, a 20something writer with his own ideas of good writing. This is a coming-of-age novel.

This novel has succeeded in every way the author hoped, and then some. Yes, I hate to say it, but I am, officially, a Pollock fanboy.

Overview (spoilers): Beth is a spunky, rudderless teen with no parental figures and a flair for graffiti. Her best friend snitches on her (through incredible, violent coersion by a teacher) and Beth, betrayed, runs away into the stormy London night. She falls down the metaphoric rabbit hole to find Filius, a boy that literally lives off the city. He’s strong, fast, violent, and animalistic. He destroys an attacking train with a spear, like some incredible phallic symbol, and they trade macho stories about who saved whom. An instant match.

Beth finds out 1) Filius is the son of a goddess, 2) a great evil god is erupting from the city’s construction sites, and 3) Filius is waiting for his mother to return and kick the god’s butt. Beth takes up the fight, gives him a backbone through trust and courage, and he, in turn, believes in her. Rich violence, passion, fighting ensues to carry the momentum of the book through. Not gratuitous; creative violence.

I generally read a novel and search for the areas of insight, of passion on the writer’s part. I look for areas that the writer thought important enough to flesh out thoroughly, and therefore connect to the writer through this format. Where I found the most connection, and perhaps the author’s point of conception, is in this quote:

“Our memories are like a city: we tear some structures down, and we use rubble of the old to raise up new ones. Some memories are bright glass, blindingly beautiful when they catch the sun, but then there are the darker days, when they reflect only the crumblingwalls of their derelict neighbors. Some memories are buried under years of patient construction; their echoing halls may never again be seen or walked down, but still they are the foundations for everything that stands above them.

“Glas [character] told me once that that’s what people are, mostly: memories, the memories in their own heads, and the memories of them in other people’s. And if memroies are like a city, and we are our memories, then we are like cities too. I’ve always taken comfort from that.”

With that quote in mind, all of this work is fleshed out: from Beth’s best friend Parva to descriptions of the fantastical characters and a very real, very lethal evil. I’ve never visited London but I feel it, truly feel it, in this book. Every scene feels alive. Every character feels motivated, special, passionate. In fact, there are so few flat characters (in opposition to round) that I was honestly quite surprised. Everyone finds a voice, and I can’t say anything besides Pollock was inspired by all of it. Not an easy feat. I’m quite impressed.

The sense of loss in this novel is striking for a YA. Very real, very lovable characters die. Innocent characters are tortured. The expanse of emotion in this novel is, well, expansive. I’ve read several reviews on this book, and every one of them said it was too graphic for a YA. I disagree. Too many YA novels are sparse on details, fluffy, and unrealistic. This novel hits hard, hits often, and the promise of death and pain comes with every decision the characters make–as it should.

There is no notion of good vs. evil in this book, and in that point alone, it is a rare gem of writing. Both sides are complex and ultimately self-serving: they want to survive. It’s literally a jungle. (A more appropriate theme would be fight vs. flight: when does one draw a line in the sand to abide another’s survival?)

The philosophy some of these characters have is phenomenal: many Eastern ideas (reincarnation, buddhist beliefs, and especially those surrounding the “evil” Reach, the Crane God) are melded inconspicuously with Greek mythology (Filius is likened to Achilles, a mortal son of a goddess) and, of course, fantasy elements like elementals, primal animals/totems, and metal-scaffolding-molded wolves. I tasted inspiration from Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere throughout, with Pollock’s flair for the light thrown in the mix.

The book never lets up. It builds and flexes, crescendos and crashes and ebbs and flows.

The cons are few and far-between. I wished for consistent narration: switching from third person limited past tense for Beth to first person present tense for Filius created jarring stop-motion for me. Maybe it’s just a personal pet peeve, but I didn’t like its execution. The Lord of the Rings freak in me wanted thousands of unique creatures. I wanted a city teeming. It was filled, yes, but the number of perhiphery creatures/characters were too blurred for my tastes.

Like most writers, myself included, scope is difficult to expand past a certain point, namely when explaining war between two armies. All in all, in the end, the war between Reach and Filius had, give-or-take, around 300 souls on Filius’ side and, if I read it correctly, around 150 on Reach’s side (although Reach’s armies had reconstructing capabilities, so some of them were used repeatedly). For a place as large as London, this war seemed small.

I wanted more involvement from the Mirrors. All I’ll say about that. They seemed to be a clever twist that Pollock didn’t quite know what to do with, even though (or possibly because of) Reach’s compound was wall-to-wall mirrored surfaces. The war could possibly have been won simply by marching the Mirrors on Isengard, I mean, St. Pauls.

In many places this book read almost like a Sci-fi novel: in retrospect, I can’t imagine how it couldn’t, given London is modern and filled with tech. For Pollock to leave that detail out would be to sever one dimension of the story. This isn’t a gripe, moreso a warning. The descriptions can be a little complex.

This is the first book of 3. I can only speculate as to where the next book will take the reader.

Overall I give it a 5 of 5. An incredible debut novel from an incredible writer. I have no doubt he will be around (if he so chooses) in the writing world for a long time to come. My nitpicks are tiny compared to the overall story, and I can’t recommend this book enough.

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