When a devastating betrayal drives her from her home, graffiti artist Beth Bradley stumbles into the secret city, where she finds Filius Viae, London’s ragged crown prince, just when he needs someone most. An ancient enemy has returned to the darkness under St Paul’s Cathedral, bent on reigniting a centuries-old war, and Beth and Fil find themselves in a desperate race through a bizarre urban wonderland, searching for a way to save the city they both love.
Pollock’s YA-aimed debut novel immediately brings to mind comparisons to China Mieville’s Un Lun Dun; both YA novels, both with female protagonists, both interested in ideas of destiny and prophecy, and both looking at a London-under-London. The City’s Son treads in some of the standard footsteps of the genre – pun-based names and beings, hidden worlds, and a romance between the male and female protagonists – but also breaks some molds, if not always successfully.
The plot of the novel is pretty standard fare for this kind of thing; there’s a war for the soul of London between Reach, the King of the Cranes, and Filius Viae (the for-some-reason-Latin-named “Son of the Streets), who is joined by our other protagonist Beth, a normal dropped into the underworld of London by pure chance. None of the characters are very distinctive, being standard teenage fare – with the exception of Pen Khan, who is a minor character, the only PoC who features in the book, and… rapidly becomes a victim. This, of course, fits into a pattern; and it’s only one of a number of patterns in the book.
Others include the mysterious prophecy that becomes true in an unexpected way, the hidden-identity of the protagonist, the happy-reunion/closure-granting ending, the torture-as-route-to-freedom (but not for any white people!), and more. The fact is that the beats of this novel are exactly what we would expect, and so are the characters; the two selling points of the novel are the imagination of the setting, and the writing style. The latter is fast-paced without feeling breezy or rushing things, and the combination of third and first person is incredibly effective in its differentiation of character perspectives; it is the kind of book it feels somehow natural to read.
The imagination is bolstered by the writing style; without a baroque style, Pollock still manages to bring his subLondon to beautiful, brilliantly visual life, with some fantastic ideas; Gutterglass is a brilliant piece of imaginative imagery, a combination of refuse in various ways – including shifting gender – but always with eggshells for eyes. Similarly, what Pollock does with lights, statuary, scaffolding… all are fantastic; it’s just a shame that The City’s Son is such a… typical book for such imaginative creations to inhabit.