Our Lady of the Streets, the third part of Tom Pollock’s Skyscraper Throne series, will be published by Jo Fletcher Books in August 2014. To celebrate this, they’re conducting a reread of The City’s Son (2012) and The Glass Republic (2013), which I’m taking part in.
The story so far: Beth Bradley has taken to the London streets after being betrayed by her best friend, Parva Khan. Pen has confessed that she and Beth sprayed an unflattering portrait of a much-hated teacher on the school playground. Beth’s father has withdrawn from the world since his wife’s, Beth’s mother’s, death, and Beth has no one else to support her. In the streets Beth meets a strange grey-skinned boy, Filius Viae, the so-called Son of the Streets, and begins to discover a London she has never known before, one inhabited by Railwraiths, Pylon Spiders and other surprising creatures. Filius’s mother, the Lady of the Streets, has been missing since he was a baby, and without her to defend the city, it is under threat from Reach, the Crane-King. Now there are rumours that Mater Viae is returning and Filius is preparing for her return. Filius and Beth recruit an army to fight Reach, but they are struggling to match his strength, and they are losing too many of their fighters.
Meanwhile, Pen has been seized by the Wire Mistress, to use as a host, and has been terribly disfigured by the barbs of the wire. Beth’s father, Paul, has finally been jolted out of his torpor and has gone looking for his daughter. He now finds himself about to go into battle, alongside the Pavement Priests.
Now read on (and there will be spoilers):
In Chapter 47 of The City’s Son, we find this paragraph:
In some places the walls were tight on her, tighter than a coffin, tight as a birth canal, and she had to thrust her arms ahead of her, wedge her elbows and undulate forward. The spear was strapped to her back, the metal so cold against her neck it almost blistered.
Tom Pollock has noted on a number of occasions that he admires the work of Alan Garner (as indeed do I); and for me that admiration is most fully articulated in this moment. Those familiar with The Weirdstone of Brisingamen will undoubtedly recall Colin and Susan’s epic journey through the Earldelving, a narrow tunnel deep under Alderley Edge. They’re escaping from Grimnir, the Morrigan and the svart-alfar, and with them they carry the Weirdstone, which they are taking to Cadellin. It is by far the most terrifying sequence in the novel, to my mind, much more so than any of their confrontations with Grimnir or the Morrigan, and it is terrifying because the children are not fighting an external enemy but their own deepest fears. Will they become irrevocably stuck? Will they suffocate and die, become fossilised under a vast weight of rock?
Tom is far too much his own writer to simply copy Garner, but I can’t help thinking Beth’s journey is in part a homage to Colin’s and Susan’s flight through the Earldelving, although the setting is so very different. Like Colin and Susan, Beth has to inch herself along on her stomach, with that constant fear of getting stuck. Like Colin and Susan, she is carrying with her an unwieldy item that needs to be manoeuvred through the confined space. But Tom’s description also emphasises a couple of things that Garner’s descriptions, claustrophobic as they are, only hint at – ‘tighter than a coffin, tight as a birth canal’. Garner’s novel was originally intended for a younger audience, and they might not have given much thought to the idea that the passage through the Earldelving represents death and rebirth, the fear of entombment in the darkness, the relief of the return to the world of light. Here, though, Tom makes plain what’s at stake: the passage down the birth canal, into the light, the first steps towards the final enclosure, the coffin, the tomb. Beth may be young, she may have new powers, but there are still consequences.
The Colin and Susan who emerge from Alderley Edge are very different people to those who first went into the caves. They have become an integral part of the battle between Light and Dark, independent agents in the fight, and Cadellin can no longer send them away for their own safety as he did before, any more than Bess Mossock can insist they stay at home while the others travel to meet Cadellin. Susan in particular now has a significant role to play in the action, a role that will be more fully developed in The Moon of Gomrath. (It is only much later, in Boneland (2012) that the adult Colin, will finally take up a more prominent role.)
Much the same can be said of Beth, although I’d argue that there is no one great cathartic moment for her, no single moment of epiphany. Her passage through The City’s Son has been a series of small rebirths, a gradual assuming of new power. Not even her plunge into the Chemical Synod’s toxic pool, baptism as it so obviously is, entirely transforms her. She is not stripped of doubt and uncertainty in that way that Susan is. The key moment, for me at least, comes in Chapter 44, as Beth weighs her options: will she take the fight to Reach or accept she can’t win, and walk away? We know what her decision was, and in this section we see her begin to act.
Except, of course, that not even making a difficult decision brings sudden clarity. We do not find Susan’s intuitive knowledge and certainty in Beth. There is directness, yes, but also poor choices: ‘They die because you are bad general,’ says Victor, her self-appointed guardian, and if he’s blunt he’s also right. After all he is not the first person to tell her that. What Beth can’t take from Ezekiel, the stone angel, she must take from Victor. Unlike Susan, Beth’s job is to recognise her human frailties, and having acknowledged them, work with others in order to deal with them. Even Beth’s projected moment of glory, running to meet Reach head on, is derailed, thanks to Victor, the old military man, guerrilla, whatever he really is, who knows the value of reconnaissance – but more importantly, perhaps, to reiterate what Ezekiel has already made plain to Beth, that it is not just about her. Victor too is willing to say out loud that he is scared, afraid of the dark, of dying, that dreadful thought that Colin could never quite say out loud (in Boneland we can see the effect that this has on him as an adult).
Yet there are quite clearly parallels between Beth and Filius and Colin and Susan. In each case it is the girl who is active, coming into her power, the boy who seems somewhat bemused by the accelerated change of the situation, who is unable to voice fear. But Tom’s protagonists are that bit older, and for Beth at least, the world is no longer black and white. Childhood certainties must be replaced by the harsh verities of teenage life in the city. Beth can make the easy choice of becoming like Filius, but the choice of supporting Filius or going after Pen is a less straightforward one. Whichever choice she makes involves abandoning someone; Beth is always loyal but loyalty is a complex business and in this instance Pen is the winner. Beth’s directness in choosing to go after Pen mirrors Susan’s refusal to retreat in Gomrath.
Susan, of course, represents the Old Magic, that is the intuitive magic, while the other characters, mostly male, represent a more classical form of magic. (The Morrigan although a ‘Celtic’ figure nonetheless employs Latin in her magic, but her hybrid form is a discussion for another day and another place.) And the same is true of Filius and Beth. Filius plays by the rules he has been taught by Gutterglass and the others; it’s Beth’s spontaneous actions that most often move the action forward or encourage others to actually do something rather than simply discuss or else reject it. Beth is idealistic, and perhaps in thrall to the power of story, and how it ought to work itself out, but nonetheless, her position as an outsider is at times vital to break the deadlock when it comes to acting.
But it’s not just The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath that are referenced in this section of The City’s Son. That spear that Beth carries, the spear that belonged to Filius, the spear that looks oddly like an iron railing, has its counterpart in Garner’s work as well, in Elidor, his third novel and the only one with a truly urban setting. The opening chapters of Elidor are set in Manchester in the early 1960s, with wartime bomb damage about to be superseded by the demolition of entire neighbourhoods in the cause of post-war development. The Watson children – David, Nicholas, Helen and Roland – are drawn to an old church in the process of being demolished, and are led through this unpromising portal by Malebron, the maimed ruler of Elidor, a land as damaged as its leader. Malebron sends the children back to their own time with the four treasures of Elidor, including a spear, which is carried by Roland, the youngest of the children, and is transformed into a length of fence railing when he returns to his own world. Again, there are parallels; London is a wasteland, thanks to Reach’s depredations. Filius is injured, like Malebron. Like Malebron he struggles to keep his kingdom intact, as the light fails.
Beth has certain things in common with Roland, not the least being their fierce desire to do the right thing, and their conflicting loyalties, as well as their willingness to give up everything to help a comparative stranger. Like Beth, Roland accepts the presence of magic, even when his siblings try to deny it, and even if this means he must turn away from them in order to do what he believes to be right. But like Beth, he will turn back to help a friend.
And so, with this weight of allusion on them, in Chapter 47, we find Beth and Victor crawling through tunnels under London, undulating, such a horrible word, one that makes me think of worms or snakes (though both can be, in their way a force for good). Note how Beth hates the ‘deadness’ of the place: ‘there was no energy, no life flowing where her bare skin touched the masonry’. We might suppose this is because brick and stone, the built environment, are dead anyway, but by this point in the novel, we know this is not true. Time and again, we’ve learned, as Beth has, that the city is as alive as the countryside, that it exhibits the same interconnectedness that, say, Alan Garner proposes for the Cheshire landscape around Alderley Edge. (It’s also worth noting that Garner returns to the idea of the living fabric of the earth in the Stone Book, in an extraordinary sequence when Mary goes into the heart of the Edge to see the hand- and footprints of all her predecessors.) But, as Beth realises, ‘[t]his neighbourhood had been broken, its vitality leached’; that is, Reach and his cranes are literally ripping the heart out of the ‘living city’, a city created by layers of historical accretion. (This actually raises an interesting point that may be answered elsewhere; can there ever come a point when Reach’s constructions might similarly come alive, given enough time.) And life, when Beth does sense it, comes again from the Masonry Men and the Women in the Walls, not dead this time, but trapped under the cranes. Here, as never before, Beth is confronted by the enormity of the task ahead of her – so much is at stake.
It is in Chapter 48 that Beth confronts her most immediate enemy, the Wire Mistress, one of the nastiest antagonists I’ve ever encountered in a fantasy novel. Barbed wire is the ultimate symbol of modernity and exclusion Animated, it is truly horrible. Snakelike, the wire penetrates the ‘living concrete’ of the city, attacks the Women in the Walls and the Masonry Men, uses their power. The Wire Mistress has already taken Pen, and it is here that she crushes Victor, mysterious, brave, sardonic and selfless Victor, leaving Beth undefended. And it is here, too, that Beth fights for Pen, and Pen offers herself as a sacrifice to save Beth. until Beth finally works out how to save Pen. And again, it’s Pen who reminds Beth of her greater duty to London, telling her that Reach doesn’t understand what he is doing, that he’s killing the city.
And so far I’ve ignored Chapter 46, and for a good reason. Chapter 46 briefly breaks away from Beth’s story to turn to her father, Paul, who has finally emerged from his blankness, to realise that he needs to find his daughter. Parents have always been a problem in fantastic fiction for and/or about children and teenagers. The understanding, in the past, was always that the writer needed to get rid of the parents. In Weirdstone and Gomrath, Colin and Susan’s parents were abroad; in Elidor the Watson parents were present but distracted. Susan Cooper’s Dark is Rising sequence uses a similar solution, losing Will Stanton in a huge family, or having him sent away after illness. Which is not to say that there isn’t value in having an adult present, but adult figures seem to be wizards, like Cadellin or Merriman Lyon, though Gowther Mossock might stand as a surrogate father to Colin and Susan. The City’s Son has a plethora of parental figures very much in evidence, reflecting a more modern emphasis on parents keeping a closer eye on their children; even Filius has Gutterglass and Petris watching out for him. Paul Bradley is very much the odd one out, blinded as he is by his own grief and inability to function. When he does face up to his own responsibilities it’s interesting to watch how he sets about trying to find Beth, first in the conventional ways, then in the unconventional, suggesting his own openness to the strange. For readers of my generation it would have been unthinkable for actual parents to get involved in magical battles; here, it seems entirely right that Paul Bradley would become involved, not least because he has shown the creativity and imagination necessary to locate where Beth has gone.
And this is where I pause, and hand over the baton, or should that be the railing-spear, ready for the battle to come.