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Rereading Tom Pollock’s The City’s Son, Chapters 45-48

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 Beth’s father has withdrawn from the world since his wife’s, Beth’s mother’s, death, and Beth has no one else to support her.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):

Chapters 45-48

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.

Rereading Tom Pollock’s The City’s Son, Chapters 13-16

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’ve agreed to take 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. In this section of The City’s Son, Filius and Beth begin to recruit an army to fight Reach.

Now read on (and there are inevitably spoilers).

Chapter 13

something was crawling up her lamppost

Chapter 13 is short but extremely interesting, the first complete chapter that is not told from the viewpoint of a human being or, in the case of Filius, someone who appears to be human. Before now, with one exception – the episode concerning the fate of the lost Whitey – everything has been shown either from the third-person narrative viewpoints of Beth or Pen, or else from Filius’s first-person viewpoint. So what does this shift to an omniscient viewpoint give us?

Up until now it might just have been possible to read Beth’s experiences as a product of her own imagination, arising from her encounters with Filius. We’ve already seen how she and Pen spark off one another creatively, What’s to say she’s not constructed something similar around meeting Filius. Even the Whitey’s encounter with the barbed tentacle could be read as their joint invention. But here no human observers are present, and the reader sees one of the Sodiumites directly. This reinforces the idea planted by the Whitey’s encounter that something strange really is going on. The viscerality of both encounters confirms too that this magical London we’re dealing with is a place that is downright nasty.

And that’s even before we get to the astonishing pathos of this short scene. We’ve already seen the Sodiumites in action, dancing with Filius, suspicious of Beth, generally volatile, and we’ve also seen their antipathy towards the lost Whitey. Attractive as they are in their way, the Sodiumites are also difficult to like; they’re jittery, menacing. Yet here, when we see them under attack, presumably victims of whatever it was that took the Whitey, our feelings towards them must inevitably shift to sympathy. Voltaia’s discovery of Galvanica’s body in particular is made more horrific by the beauty in the details – the body lying half unfolded, the skin frosted with tiny cracks. This moment becomes symbolic of what it is that Filius is fighting against.

Chapter 14

When we return to Filius, we can see already that Beth is setting the pace; while the chapter begins with Filius’s observations, it quickly shifts to third person again as Beth, driven by her desire to help Filius, sets about finding him his army. Although Filius has sent out messages via the Pylon Spiders, this chapter marks the start of their actually visiting people to recruit them to the cause (and here one might think of Lewis’s Prince Caspian and the series of calls that Caspian pays on talking beasts and mythological creatures). The question is, who should they call on?

“Doesn’t your mum have a vicar or two to help us out?” It sounded so simple, so logical.

One of the reasons I wanted to talk about this section of The City’s Son in particular is because I am fascinated by the Pavement Priests, and this is where we first meet them. The setting is a graveyard – we might be familiar with the big burial grounds of London, like Highgate Cemetery, but there are many smaller graveyards, lost, overgrown, dotted around the place, and Filius has taken Beth to one of these forgotten places. Even as they travel there, Beth notices for the first time the cranes ‘sprouting like malign winter trees across the skyline’.

And suddenly, they are in ‘a clearing filled with gravestones where life-sized statues stood sentinel.’ In particular a ‘stone monk stood at the heart of the crowd, his heavy granite cowl shading his eyes’. This is Petris, another of Filius’s tutors, ‘who taught me nearly every dirty trick I know’. Petris is one more in a long line of English monks who go about God’s business in a particularly worldly way – Friar Tuck is the obvious model. But while it is one thing to encounter a stone monk who can speak, the full horror of the predicament of the Pavement Priests is yet to be revealed. One moment Beth is making artless jokes about having a heart of stone (that ‘Petris’ suggests petrified is left for the reader), the next she looks into the stone monk’s face to see in his mouth, ‘flesh lips, pink, parched and peeling’. It will be hard to look at a statue in the same way ever again.

And it is perhaps at this point that we see most clearly what it means to be Mater Viae. She may be a goddess, this does not mean that she is ‘good’. Filius has already commented how she ‘made’ the Pylon Spiders, who live on human bodies, especially their voices, but now we see first-hand what she is capable of. ‘His mother’, says Petris, ‘is not as merciful as she might be’. The Pavement Priests turn out to be trapped in their stone punishment-skins, their deaths sold on by Mater Viae to ensure they pay their debt to her for whatever sins they committed in past lives, leaving them to be born over and over again.

My life had a beginning, but it has no end to give it shape. That’s what our Goddess took from us in payment for our sins: the outlines, the boundaries, the very definition of a life.

How a life is defined is something that haunts this novel. Thanks to her mother’s death and her father’s inability to accept it and move on, Beth’s life has also lost any sense of outline, and since her meeting with Filius, what she thinks she knows about her world has become uncertain. For Pen the problem is quite the opposite; her life is far too well defined and she works constantly to blur the boundaries. As for Filius, one has the sense that he has been marking time, waiting for his mother to reappear or to be confirmed as dead so that he can assume her role, but perhaps also he is content in a way with this invisible life. Yet, as Petris notes, ‘the infinity [Mater Viae] has condemned us to is rather easier to tolerate without her actually around’. In other words, is it worth the cost to now disrupt the status quo? Does the possibility of a broader freedom outweigh the certainty of a limited freedom inside the punishment-skins?

And much of what is about to happen is based on worth, even down to those deaths that Mater Viae has traded. Who would buy those deaths, Beth wonders, and is given her answer: the Chemical Synod – ‘traders, bargainers, barterers’. London has long been a place of commerce, a place where everything has a value, even debt, but the Chemical Synod take this to its logical extreme: height, gravity, heartbreak and death – literally everything has a price, but death most of all, given what the Synod can do with it.

Chapter 15

Every step carried Beth further from the city she knew.

There are so many Londons in fiction (there is a useful list here). More than most cities, it’s easy to imagine alternative Londons in which its past comes alive again. So what marks this London as different from the others? For me it is in part the very modernity of the place. We’re dealing with electricity, telegraphy, neon, razor-wire, lampposts, underground trains and of course, cranes. This is not the past re-emerging so much as the present shaping itself in unexpected ways. And to do that it works with a new urban mythology. Other writers may reinscribe older myths on the city – and why not, given it has seen more influxes of immigrants than we can ever imagine – but Tom Pollock’s characters emerge from the more recent fabric of the city.

And if we were ever in doubt of that before, in spite of Railwraiths, Pylon Spiders and Pavement Priests, this chapter makes it absolutely explicit, when Filius takes Beth to the Demolition Field. Here we see the remains of the Women in the Walls and the Masonry Men, victims of Reach’s demolition men. This is a fantastically resonant scene. We might think of the layers upon layers of burials under London, that turn up in archaeological digs. We might think too of those who lost their lives during the bombings of World War Two. We might think, too, of all those who are displaced as a result of rapid or inappropriate redevelopment in post-war London, with communities uprooted and scattered.

The Masonry Men and the Women in the Walls stand for all those who are displaced by Reach’s ‘pretty little towers [built] out of glass and steel’; this is a novel that is deeply preoccupied with the ongoing rebuilding of London and what it does to the city. How has the city changed as much as it has done yet seemed to somehow remain the same? The city has survived Reach’s earlier depredations and returned stronger than ever, presumably thanks to Mater Viae. Yet, if Reach is now manifested in the cranes that dot the skyline, we’re prompted to think about how the nature of that rebuilding is changing, not least the speed and scale of it. London’s Walkie-Talkie skyscraper, the one that reflects light and melts cars, may have come after the publication of The City’s Son but it’s clearly one of Reach’s buildings, inimical to the people who have to live and work around it.

Chapter 16

London is, as I’ve said, a layered city. It is also a city in which so many people are invisible. Not just the beggars and the homeless sleeping in doorways, those people we mostly pretend not to see, but there are the people who choose not to be seen, not because they live in the interstices of the city, but because they regard themselves as too important to be seen. Business people, aristocrats, people who regard themselves as part of the fabric of the city too, but not in the same way as ordinary people. Tom Pollock hits on an ingenious way of commenting on this by introducing us to the Mirrorstocracy, hidden London’s so-called nobility, with all that entails.

I find the Mirrorstocracy as fascinating as the Pavement Priests, though they are much less likeable. Here we have a glimpse of a deeply privileged group of people determined not only to maintain the status quo but also willing to exploit the situation to their own ends, reminiscent of all too many people at work in London as we know it (this is a deeply political novel, if you look closely). The romance of the Son of the Streets taking up arms on behalf of his absent mother is countered by a group of people who can see how they will benefit from Reach’s building glass towers. Their contempt for Filius is clear in the way they refer to him as the Urchin Prince. It may be a term others also use too but in the mouths of the Mirrorstocracy it is an insult. Clearly, they see themselves as better than royalty. Which may be the case, given their London is not precisely a mirror of Filius’s. London-Under-Glass seems to stand at an angle to Beth’s London as well, relying on accidental juxtapositions to create new inhabitants. Note too the anxiety when Filius offers to flood London-Under-Glass with new Mirrorstocrats. The parvenu is always the greatest threat to the blue-blooded – like them but not like them, undermining their exclusivity, and how. But the means of their creation can, at the same time, become the means of their destruction.

And this, then, may be counted as a small victory for Beth and Filius. The Mirrorstocracy won’t fight willingly but they have been forced to honour their obligation to Mater Viae.

Chapters 1-4 of The City’s Son are discussed here, chapters 5-8 here and chapters 9-12 here.