This review contains spoilers.
The City’s Son is urban fantasy along the lines of Neverwhere and A Madness of Angels: it’s about London, the vital magic of the biggest city in Britain. Our Heroine is Beth, a teenage truant and graffiti artist. Running away from a detention and a seeming betrayal by her best friend, she stumbles upon a hidden London where the ghosts of railway trains fight and the streetlights are inhabited by tiny flickering beings. And here she meets a boy, as grey as the streets, who calls himself Filius Viae, son of Mater Viae, the Goddess of the city, who has been missing for many and many a year.
Filius and his mentor, Gutterglass (a woman made of rubbish) are leading a resistance against a being known as Reach, whose armies are cranes and barbed wire, whose thrones are skyscrapers of metal and glass, who’s literally killing the city – London’s fabric and foundations are revealed to be sentient. Beth finds herself caught up in the war: brokering alliances, learning about this new side of London, and trying to solve the mystery of where Mater Viae has gone.
Let’s start with the good, shall we?
In terms of representation, The City’s Son is doing some good work. Beth’s best friend, Parva “Pencil” Khan, is a practising Muslim, and I think (with the usual caveats: I’m a white, Western woman) that Pollock does a good job of making her a normal teenager without erasing her faith. I feel like most stories give us one or the other: either a character who’s superficially Muslim – say, they won’t eat pork – but is mostly indistinguishable from a white Westerner; or someone whose entire existence is predicated on the fact that they are Muslim – or whatever other form of non-Christianity/liberal atheism it is. Pen is both a British teenager and a Muslim – which is refreshing.
Speaking of Pen: her relationship with Beth is amazing. Female friendships are rare in speculative fiction, and Pen’s and Beth’s has all the intensity of teenagerhood – the sort of friendship that’s a bit like being in love, as Filius observes a bit jealously.
Because, of course, Filius and Beth fall in love; one criticism I do have of how Pollock handles his characterisation is that the L-word starts flying around a bit too quickly. But he does navigate the intersections between Beth and Filius and Beth and Pen well: when Pen is captured by a terrible creature called the Wire Mistress and forced to do her bidding, Beth ignores Filius’ advice and leaves him on the battlefield to rescue her. And, unusually for YA, there’s a scene at the end where they both manage to put aside their feelings for each other to do what needs to be done.
Oh, and Beth’s dad has depression, and Pollock shows us how he can be both a lousy father and a bit sympathetic. Oh, and Beth isn’t all toughness, though she pretends to be: Pollock shows us how she takes hold of her doubts and transforms them into action and decisiveness. Oh, and one of the very first conversations Beth and Pen have is one in which Pen outlines the distinction between arranged and forced marriage. Oh, and –
There’s a lot of oh, ands.
It’s a shame, then, with all this detailed, careful characterisation, that, for me, the story doesn’t quite work. The figure of Reach is quite a powerful one for a modern mythology of London: Reach is the embodiment of gentrification, unsustainable development, the capitalist greed driving Londoners out of London – killing the city, in the sense that it’s driving the heart out of it. Reach is terrifying because, it turns out, it’s mindless: a child constantly in the throes of birth, crying over and over “I will be”; just as the slow gentrification of London, the rise of all those empty, glittering residential towers on the South Bank and in the City and elsewhere, is the product not of any individual evil but of mindless, unchecked capitalism, a system driven by the need of companies to survive, crying that single-minded mantra: I will be, I will earn, I will exist.
Most of us work in that system so we can be, earn, exist, and that’s how it perpetuates itself. We’re all part of the problem.
That’s a pretty clear-eyed observation of how capitalism works, as far as it goes. But the book really has a problem in dealing with that symbol. London’s built on capitalism. It was a trading port, for a long time; that’s how it got its wealth and status, how it became the heart of an empire, how it survived the Roman invasion and the Norman Conquest and the Great Fire to become the city that it is today, layer upon layer of history and culture, all existing side-by-side. Reach has always been here. Rich developers of one kind or another have always razed the houses of the non-rich to build great deserted temples to capitalism.
What does it mean, then, for the fabric of London, created by Reach, to be fighting Reach? (Gutterglass is a particularly interesting case in point: aren’t rubbish dumps sort of the ultimate symbol of capitalism?) And, more pressingly, what does it mean for London if Reach is destroyed?
The consequences are radical; they have to be. But the novel doesn’t, in my view, do a good enough job of addressing this. The price Beth and Filius pay to destroy Reach is high, but nothing really seems to change afterwards.
The problem is partly a product of the fact that The City’s Son is only the first book in a trilogy. If the enemy you fight and defeat in book one is capitalism itself, where do you go from there? How do you follow that, if not with a revolution (which is not the road Pollock’s chosen, based on the evidence of the second novel)?
Making the monster of capitalism easy to defeat, a destruction that leaves society unchanged, is a lie, one that serves the system it criticises.
But then, so do we all.