A slow week, but here’s something to unsettle you.
Expelled from school, betrayed by her best friend and virtually ignored by her dad, who’s never recovered from the death of her mum, Beth Bradley retreats to the sanctuary of the streets, looking for a new home. What she finds is Filius Viae, the ragged and cocky crown prince of London, who opens her eyes to the place she’s never truly seen. But the hidden London is on the brink of destruction. Reach, the King of the Cranes, is a malign god of demolition, and he wants Filius dead. In the absence of the Lady of the Streets, Filius’ goddess mother, Beth rouses Filius to raise an alleyway army, to reclaim London’s skyscraper throne for the mother he’s never known. Beth has almost forgotten her old life – until her best friend and her father come searching for her, and she must choose between the streets and the life she left behind.
This is a London of urban terror, dark majesty and age-old battles for the soul of the city. Filius is the son of Mater Viae, the Goddess of London. He’s powered by the city itself; the very tarmac of the city’s pavements giving him speed, power and agility that leaks into his skin. He’s London’s champion; the unsung hero of a city that doesn’t realise he exists. It’s a world of scaffwolves, railwraiths, living lamps and, perhaps most importantly, The Crane King:
Fil is destined to battles Reach for the city’s soul, but in order to do it he’ll need help. He needs an army. He doesn’t know it yet, but he needs Beth too. Beth Bradley finds herself embroiled in this urban madness, fighting for a God she didn’t know existed. But she’ll know soon enough.
Tom Pollock’s debut novel, The City’s Son, is a love letter to the urban sprawl of the Big Smoke. London is here, in all its glory – a living, breathing (literally!) landscape of cockney madness and industrial chaos. London is at the epicentre in a genuinely thrilling YA fantasy which puts only one thing above the setting: the characters.
In Beth, Filius and Pen, Tom Pollock has created a trio of believable, three-dimensional young characters that bring this bizarre landscape to life. Beth is the easy believer – a street-kid in many ways already and meeting Filius only brings her closer to the London she loves. Fil is the titular city’s son, literally tied to the city with his life, and in many ways the grounded thinker to Beth’s “shoot first, ask questions later” attitude.
And then there’s Pen. Parva (Pen) Khan is very much the supporting character here, but in so many ways the most memorable. She’s quick-witted, but not brash like Beth; she’s fragile, yet strong; loyal but not foolish and the all-around yin to Beth’s yang. Pen’s storyline is heart breaking, difficult and soul destroying – but the strength of her character means we’re with her all the way. Whether it’s a weakness of the rest of the novel or not, I always found myself delighted when a Pen chapter appeared, and saddened when they ended.
But let’s talk about London. Or, more specifically, Tom Pollock’s London. It’s a living sprawl of urban brilliance that lives and dies on the page, littered with creatures that I’d normally expect to see in something by China Mieville. Heaving monstrosities of granite and machinery provide the horror here, with Reach and his Scaffwolves in particular acting as the catalysts for much of the terror. Sometimes it felt like Pollock got a little carried away with his creature creation (and with it, his ties to London) meaning on occasion I was struggling to picture what I was reading due to the sheer madness of it all and my complete lack of knowledge when it comes to London.
The City’s Son is urban fantasy that doesn’t treat its audience with kid gloves. Despite it being labelled YA, this has some seriously dark themes of loneliness, fear and what it means to be…human. Beyond the aforementioned comparison with Mieville, it would seem a disservice to compare this with anything else. Yes, it’s in the vein of other London-set urban fantasies, but Pollock has here created something entirely his own. A city that truly lives, breathes, loves, hates and dies. I’d have no problem recommending this to anyone, and as to whether I’ll be reading The Glass Republic anytime soon?
I. WILL. BE.
Reviewed by: Doug Smith
Rivers of London (Folly #1) by Ben Aaronovitch
This was both exactly what I was expecting and precisely what I wasn’t. The plot and general make-up of the story (apprentice wizard/detective is trained by kooky mentor in weird old house, gets into shenanigans and ultimately solves the case) was no surprise, but the characters were – mostly. Above it all, though, and what really makes this novel stand out from the pack of UF wizard-crime books is the style. The authorial voice Ben Aaronovitch uses is so quintessentially British: it’s dry, cynical and observant in a way that only Brits can really do. His treatment of the “mythology” of London is perhaps my favourite of the many I’ve read, with a really grounded flavour that just fits perfectly with the sense of humour. Rather than go overboard, Aaaronovitch mostly reins himself in and allows the oddness to complement the procedural nature of the crime novel, rather than let the setting spill out and overtake the thrilling plot. It’s a very good first novel and a world I’m fairly eager to return to in Moon Over Soho.
The Gap Into Conflict: The Real Story (Gap #1) by Stephen R. Donaldson
The Real Story is the first in Stephen Donaldson’s Gap Sequence, fairly closely based on Wagner’s Ring Cycle. It’s pure Space Opera, through and through, and oh my is it DARK. This is, hands down, the most twisted thing I’ve ever read. It’s grim, depressing and utterly devoid of hope. But, in a masochistic way it is a compelling read. I absolutely would not recommend this to, well, almost anyone. But let’s say you do want to read it: prepare for a story which takes characters to places George RR Martin would find squeamish. I’m not entirely sure I can say whether or not I enjoyed The Real Story, but I certainly appreciated it. There’s no doubt Donaldson achieved what he wanted to (note: be sure and read his introduction) and it is a work of real, cerebral, human horror. Whether I’ll read on, I’m not sure – maybe one day, if the (extremely dark) mood takes me – but The Real Story mostly works as a complete story of itself. Short, bitter and horrifying: read it if you need something truly difficult to stomach. You might just enjoy it.
Old Man’s War by John Scalzi
Moving on to a space opera that doesn’t make me want to wash out my brain, Old Man’s War by John Scalzi is light, fun and mostly devoid of anything that will tax your brain muscles too much. Therein lies my problem. Scalzi essentially explores one, very interesting idea through the medium of SF and the Space Opera. When you get older, would you sell yourself for a new, younger body? It’s an interesting question which Scalzi explores fairly thoroughly in the first third of the novel (easily the best section) very much in the vein of classic SF. He takes a core concept/question and runs with it. But then things get a bit more predictable, everything devolves into a Mary Sue story of aliens, super-powered soldiers and galactic space battles. It’s not boring – far from it, but it’s hardly the most interesting route Scalzi could have taken the concept. I enjoyed Old Man’s War as a piece of popcorn space opera; as conceptual SF, not so much (except for that 1st third!). I’d be curious to see where it goes in the sequels, but whether I’d read them…
Reviewed by: Doug Smith
Dev is a smuggler with the perfect cover. He’s in high demand as a guide for the caravans that carry legitimate goods from the city of Ninavel into the country of Alathia. The route through the Whitefire Mountains is treacherous, and Dev is one of the few climbers who knows how to cross them safely. With his skill and connections, it’s easy enough to slip contraband charms from Ninavel – where any magic is fair game, no matter how dark – into Alathia, where most magic is outlawed.
But smuggling a few charms is one thing; smuggling a person through the warded Alathian border is near suicidal. Having made a promise to a dying friend, Dev is forced to take on a singularly dangerous cargo: Kiran. A young apprentice on the run from one of the most powerful mages in Ninavel, Kiran is desperate enough to pay a fortune to sneak into a country where discovery means certain execution – and he’ll do whatever it takes to prevent Dev from finding out the terrible truth behind his getaway.
Yet Kiran isn’t the only one harboring a deadly secret. Caught up in a web of subterfuge and dark magic, Dev and Kiran must find a way to trust each other – or face not only their own destruction, but that of the entire city of Ninavel.
The Whitefire Crossing by Courtney Schafer was something fresh and different from much of the fantasy I have been reading lately. There were no swords, mercenaries, knights or many of the other standards currently so common in fantasy. But there was prevalent magic, mages, charms that could contain magic to be used by anyone, and in addition to magic wielding mages, there were children who were Tainted. These children had abilities of their own that defied explanation of the mages which is an interesting concept. I quite enjoyed the magic in this book, it was more along the lines of a Sanderson novel than a Martin or Abercrombie novel and I found that to be a refreshing change of pace.
Another component that I think makes this book stand out are Schafer’s vivid descriptions of the mountains and climbing. The author is a Mountain Climber herself and her first hand experiences really enabled her to do a superb job illustrating the mountain setting and the perils of climbing. Obviously when we deal with worlds of fantasy, we can’t expect authors to have first hand experience in all of therir settings. But in this case, I really think her experience shines through and adds more substance to descriptions of both the setting and to the characters’ experiences. Definitely strengthened the book in my opinion.
I also enjoyed Shafer’s characters. There are two POVs in this, Dev and Kiran. Dev is an outrider who has been supplementing his income with smuggling. Dev’s character is likable, fallible and while he may be involved in the practice of smuggling illegal charms to Alathia (a nearby land where all but the simplest magic and charms are prohibited), he has a moral compass that deeply impacts his decisions. He is a good person trying to do right with the circumstances he has landed in.
Dev crosses paths with the other POV when his smuggling job requires him to take more than just charms into Alathia, he has been tasked to smuggle a mage, Kiran. Kiran is a very doe eyed innocent young man who has lead an extremely sheltered life. Some tragedy has forced him to flee the life he has known and hide in a country where his discovery could mean his death.
And enter the villain. I don’t want to say too much for fear of spoilers, but I enjoyed some of the things that Schafer did with Ruslan, that gave him a bit of a creepy psychotic feel that added some dimension to the story versus having him play more of just a straight out “Evil Villain” role.
The only thing I noticed with this book is that I do have a sense of certain characters being “safe”. Not all the characters by any means, but some of them. I don’t want to say that is a fault of the book, it’s quite typical to feel there are lines that wont be crossed, but it just carries slightly less suspense, I feel like I know whichever character will eventually be saved, I just don’t know what the journey will be to save them and that’s the reason to read on, to experience the journey. But, as I said, I really enjoyed reading the book, and will definitely read the next one, so I don’t mind.
Reviewed by: Lisa Taylor