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: Sunshine by Robin McKinley

Sunshine Book Cover Sunshine
Robin McKinley

There are places in the world where darkness rules, where it's unwise to walk. Sunshine knew that. But there hadn't been any trouble out at the lake for years, and she needed a place to be alone for a while.

Unfortunately, she wasn't alone. She never heard them coming. Of course you don't, when they're vampires.

They took her clothes and sneakers. They dressed her in a long red gown. And they shackled her to the wall of an abandoned mansion - within easy reach of a figure stirring in the moonlight.

She knows that he is a vampire. She knows that she's to be his dinner, and that when he is finished with her, she will be dead. Yet, as dawn breaks, she finds that he has not attempted to harm her. And now it is he who needs her to help him survive the day...

Review:

In the interest of full disclosure, I feel I should preface this review by admitting that I’m a little bit enamored of Robin McKinley. I’ve been smitten since the day I stumbled across The Blue Sword in my middle school’s library and was blown away by the brilliant adventures of the heroic Harry Crewe. I consider McKinley a story-telling master, and some of her novels rank among my top twenty books of all time.

That being said, the phrase “love is blind” definitely applies here. My adoration for Ms. McKinley is so great that it allows me to be more tolerant of some of her books than others might be. I love Spindle’s End, Outlaws of Sherwood, and The Hero and the Crown so much that I can overlook some of the weaknesses in Deerskin and Pegasus. In fact, I admire McKinley so much that I pretend Chalice was never written, just so I don’t have to accept the ugly truth that I dislike one of McKinley’s novels.

Now that I’ve shared all of this with you, you know to take my review of Sunshine with a grain of salt. I’ve decided to give it a rating of four stars, even though I have a feeling that some of you might read the novel and get rather annoyed with me for having recommended it.

Sunshine is about a 25ish-year-old baker named Rae Seddon, known as Sunshine. Sunshine lives in a world much like our own, except for the presence of magic and creatures who aren’t quite human. These non-humans are referred to as Others, a category that includes demons, Weres, and, most interestingly, vampires.

The vampires in McKinley’s story are a far cry from the brooding, sexy immortals in Twilight. There’s nothing romantic about these guys – they’re dead, alien, and frightening. They’re mesmerizing, true, but they’re also unnatural and unsettling. They smell different, feel different, and look different – and not in a good way. Most people, if they’re lucky, are able to go through life without ever running into a vampire. Sunshine isn’t so lucky.

While walking in the woods near her grandmother’s house, Sunshine is captured by vampires. Rather than killing her outright, they lock her in a room with another vampire, who’s chained, starved, and clearly a prisoner as well. Sunshine and the vampire, Constantine, are forced to forge an uneasy alliance in order to escape. Once they make their getaway, Sunshine returns home and tries to pick up where she left off. She does her best to repress the memories of the terrifying ordeal but finds this harder than expected, especially when she discovers that the vampires she’s escaped from are determined to get her and Con back.

Sunshine is an arresting story, and I found myself completely absorbed by it. McKinley’s greatest strength as an author lies in her meticulousness. She knows every thought her characters have ever had, every dream, every worry. She can tell you the entire history of the world and society she’s built and can cite the textbooks that hold that history. She’s always in control, has a great imagination, and writes in such a way that you can’t help but get caught up in her characters’ lives and feel like you’re actually a part of the book and the events within it.

Unfortunately, McKinley’s meticulousness can also be a weakness. It often results in information overload, a complaint I have for all of her books. She knows her characters and the worlds in which they live so intimately that it’s like she can’t help but share the minuscule details of their lives with the reader, whether the reader wants to know them or not. I usually like plenty of details when reading, but in this case there were more than I could handle.

Sunshine, for example, has a tendency to mentally ramble on and on about bran muffins and bread dough and different types of flour and whether she should make apple tarts or cherry tarts, etc., etc. It gets frustrating after a while. I felt like I spent a lot of time wading through trivial details in order to get to the juicy bits, a.k.a. the bits featuring Constantine.

Speaking of Constantine, I never got enough of him. I know it’s conventional wisdom to always leave an audience wanting more, but there’s a difference between enticing a reader and leaving them dissatisfied. I’m among the legion of fans clamoring for a sequel, though I’m not so sure we’ll ever get one.

Either way, I’m glad I was able to experience Sunshine. It’s not perfect, and there are some things about it that seriously grated on my nerves at times. When it comes down to it, though, it’s a) a book by Robin McKinley and b) a book about vampires, which is really all I need to be happy.