Review: The City’s Son by Tom Pollock

The City's Son Book Cover The City's Son
Tom Pollock

Tom Pollock's debut novel and the first volume of the Skyscraper Throne series, The City's Son is an imaginative tale of adventure set in a city that is quite literally alive.

Beneath the streets of London lies a city of monsters and miracles, where wild train spirits stampede over the tracks and glass-skinned dancers with glowing veins light the streets.

Following a devastating betrayal, Beth Bradley, a sixteen-year-old graffiti artist, is suspended from school. Running from a home that she shares with her father who has never recovered after Beth's mother's death, Beth stumbles into the hidden city and meets Filius Viae, London's asphalt-hued crown prince. And her timing couldn't have been more perfect. An ancient enemy is stirring under St. Paul's Cathedral, determined to stoke the flames of a centuries-old war, and Beth and Fin find themselves drawn into the depths of the mysterious urban wonderland, hoping to prevent the destruction of the city they both know and love.

Review:

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

The City’s Son is the essence of urban fantasy: a tale of wonder, set in a city whose very foundations are alive with magic. In Pollock’s novel, London is the domain of Mater Viae, a powerful goddess who rules as Lady of the Streets. After reigning for centuries, Mater Viae has been mysteriously absent from her realm for nigh on 16 years, and a usurper is gathering his forces to take control of the city.

Reach, the Crane King (we’re talking the machinery crane, not the bird crane), is slowly overtaking London, increasing in power each day. A force of urban sickness, Reach is the “city’s own greed, killing itself in its haste to grow.” With Mater Viae gone, the only person left to defend London is Filius, Mater Viae’s 16-year-old son. The task seems impossible until Filius’ path crosses that of Beth, a lonely human teenager whose recently-widowed father is too sunk in his grief to properly care for his daughter. Beth joins Filius in his quest to battle Reach and his minions, and The City’s Son chronicles their attempts to recruit the various magical beings living in London and wage war against the Crane King.

The City’s Son reminded me very much of The Night Circus, in that I enjoyed its creativity and imagination but wasn’t sold on the characters and plot. What first drew me to this story was the promise of London being “a city of monsters and miracles,” and in this matter Pollock certainly delivered. Unbeknownst to most of London’s human inhabitants, nearly everything in the city is alive, animated by magic. The trains are powered by Railwraith spirits, and the streetlights are illuminated by glowing lamp people who communicate by blinking in flashes of semaphoring light. There are Scaffwolves – vicious metal beasts formed of construction scaffolding – and glass Pylon Spiders that scurry about the city via Internet/telecom wires and feast on people’s voices.

Pollock’s got a vivid imagination, and he fills his pages with inspired creatures and striking language. Filius has skin the color of cement, sweats oil, and has arms that can crush steel girders. Another character gives the impression that his “smile was indestructible, that you could put [his] smile through a car-crusher and his grin alone would come out whole on the other side.” Mater Viae is said to have “laid the foundation of the streets[…] and the bones of the roads buried under them. She stoked the Steamwraiths’ engines and gave the lamps their first sparks. She forged the chains that hold old Father Thames in place.” The City’s Son is a fantastical, wondrous world in which anything is possible.

As creative as the world building is, the plot and characterization leave something to be desired. Beth’s allegiance to Filius, in particular, felt like a stretch. Beth meets Fil in the street one day and decides almost immediately to not only join his cause, but to forsake her father, home, and life to do so. I realize the two of them are supposed to be kindred spirits, drawn to one another because they both know what it’s like to feel lonely and abandoned, but Beth’s instant and unwavering devotion felt unnatural to me.

I wasn’t impressed by Filius, either. He is foundering under the weight of his subjects’ expectations, unable to measure up to his beloved, mighty mother. Although I usually root for underdogs, the problem with The City’s Son is that Filius isn’t just perceived as inept by other characters; he’s seen that way by the reader as well. I like my crown princes brave and heroic and powerful; Filius is none of those things. He lacks experience, has no clue what he’s doing, and especially doesn’t know how to lead an army against a force of evil.

The City’s Son is great in terms of imaginative magic and creative world building, but if you’re looking for something more I’m not sure this book will provide it. It does have great quotes, though, so I’ll leave you with a few of my favorites:

“Only the people you love can scare you witless enough for true courage.”

“Graffiti tangled over the wall, but there was nothing interesting, only messy, graceless tags. Beth had no time for signatures like that. Bricks were a journal for her, not a megaphone; she didn’t paint to shout about her impact on the city but to show the city’s impact on her.”

“‘Inseparable, they used to call us,’ she said, ‘like it was ordinary. Like it wasn’t a bloody miracle to have someone who can tell you’ve got a broken heart by the way you button your coat.’”

Review: Dodger by Terry Pratchett

Dodger Book Cover Dodger
Terry Pratchett

A storm. Rain-lashed city streets. A flash of lightning. A scruffy lad sees a girl leap desperately from a horse-drawn carriage in a vain attempt to escape her captors. Can the lad stand by and let her be caught again? Of course not, because he's...Dodger.

Seventeen-year-old Dodger may be a street urchin, but he gleans a living from London's sewers, and he knows a jewel when he sees one. He's not about to let anything happen to the unknown girl--not even if her fate impacts some of the most powerful people in England.

From Dodger's encounter with the mad barber Sweeney Todd to his meetings with the great writer Charles Dickens and the calculating politician Benjamin Disraeli, history and fantasy intertwine in a breathtaking account of adventure and mystery.

Beloved and bestselling author Sir Terry Pratchett combines high comedy with deep wisdom in this tale of an unexpected coming-of-age and one remarkable boy's rise in a complex and fascinating world.

Review:

I don’t usually presume to speak for famous authors, let alone one as prestigious as Charles Dickens. In this case, however, I feel justified in saying that Dickens would probably have been very, very pleased with Terry Pratchett’s Dodger.

Pratchett’s reimagining of The Artful Dodger, who appears in Dickens’ novel Oliver Twist, is nothing short of a masterpiece. This story is packed with everything I love in a book: a charming, clever scallywag of a main character; a colorful and unforgettable supporting cast; tongue-in-cheek wit; inside jokes that you may only get after reading the book for a second time; and a setting that is so unique and well described that it’s practically a character in its own right.

We first meet our scrappy protagonist when he springs from the London sewers on a stormy night to rescue a young woman being beaten in the street. This feat brings Dodger to the attention of Charlie Dickens and his friend Henry Mayhew, who happen to be passing by at the time and assist Dodger in taking the unconscious lady to safety.

Dodger, infuriated by the treatment of the beautiful, mysterious girl, refuses to rest until her attackers are brought to justice. Assisted by Dickens and a motley assortment of waifs and urchins, Dodger sets forth to track down the people responsible for the girl’s mistreatment and do whatever it takes to secure her safety.

It’s usually characters that make or break a book for me, but in the case of Dodger it’s actually the setting that made me fall in love. This isn’t to say that Dodger doesn’t have fantastic characters – it does, and I’ll get to them in a minute. However, the setting is so spectacular, so vividly drawn, that it outshines everything else in the book, even its charming hero.

Like Dickens, Pratchett has a gift for bringing 19th-century London, in all its glory and filth, to life on the page. The sounds and smells and tastes of London permeate the book until you can actually hear the coaches rattling by and smell the fog rolling in from the Thames. It’s a world of chimney sweeps and violet sellers, pickpockets and Punch and Judy puppet shows, prostitutes and games of Crown and Anchor at the local pub. There are a million little details that build the “character” of London and enrich the story, from the slang the street urchins use (“cove,” “tosher,” and “Bobbies”/ “Peelers” are a few of my favorites) to descriptions of the weather:

“The rain was falling faster now, rain that was undeniably London rain, already grubby before it hit the ground, putting back on the streets what had been taken away by the chimneys. It tasted like licking a dirty penny.”

Pratchett does more than simply paint a picture of London; he paints it in a way that is insightful and entertaining. Dodger is filled with observations that are as amusing as they are astute, such as this description of the Thames: “[One] could only call what was in the river ‘water’ because it was too runny to be called ‘dirt.” There’s a great deal of tongue-in-cheek humor, not just in the story itself but also in the helpful and hilarious footnotes that are used to explain certain words and facts within the book.

The setting may be my absolute favorite part of Dodger, but the characters come in at a close second. I’ve always been delighted by crafty, mischievous characters, and Dodger fits the bill perfectly. He’s scrappy, resourceful, and a skillful actor, able to produce tears on demand or charm the pants off of a well-to-do passerby. He’s an all-around fun, hilarious, and wily protagonist, and I couldn’t have loved him more if I tried. Although he’s a little rough around the edges and liable to pick your pocket as soon as look at you, Dodger’s what the folks in this book would call a “decent cove.” He’s always quick to jump to the aid of the defenseless, even if it means donning a dress in order to save a group of young flower girls:

“And so when the sharp-suited gentlemen who liked to go down among the poor flower girls to see if there were any new blossoms they could pluck came to ply them with strong liquor until they could have their wicked way with them, they would actually be subtly directed to the shrinking and simpering violet who was, in fact, Dodger.

Actually, he had to admit that he had been incredibly good at it, because to be a geezer was to be an actor and so Dodger was better at being a shrinking violet than any of the other flower girls who had, how could you put it, better qualifications. He had already sold quite a lot of his violets because his voice hadn’t broken then and he could make himself a real little virgin when he wanted to. After a few hours of this, the girls tipped him off to the whereabouts of a particularly nasty dandy who always hung around the smaller girls, and who was heading towards him with his nice coat and his cane, jingling the money in his pockets. And the street applauded when a suddenly rather athletic little flower girl grabbed the smarmy bastard, punched him, dragged him into an alley and made certain that he would not be able to jingle anything in his pockets for some time to come.”

The secondary characters in Dodger are spectacular as well. Historical figures make cameo appearances, such as Benjamin Disraeli, Angela Burdetts-Coutts, Robert Peel, and John Tenniel. There’s also a cast of fictional – but no-less-interesting – characters with fun names like Mary-Go-Round, Messy Bessie, and Stumpy Higgins who play small yet memorable roles in the story.

Dodger‘s phenomenal setting and smart, hilarious characters make this book a definite must-read. My enjoyment of this novel grows every time I read it, something I intend to keep doing as often as possible.