Kibble. A word coined by the late great Philip K. Dick to describe those useless objects which proliferate in our lives and threaten to overwhelm us over time. Kibble proliferates, it replicates, it accumulates, contributing little of value to our existence. I can think of no better word to describe the vast majority of novels that proliferate in the Fantasy genre, a genre that is endlessly replenished with derivative, unoriginal, uninspiring escapist kibble.
There’s nothing wrong with escapism, and it certainly has a place in our lives, but Fantasy is a genre that on balance has come to make a virtue of disengagement from life. And yet Fantasy does not need to be escapist, or at least it does not need to be exclusively escapist. At its very best, Fantasy does not simply remove us from our mundane existence but in doing so provides us with insight and a new perspective by filtering the everyday through a distorting lens.
Almost any flavour of Fantasy fiction could serve this dual purpose, but Urban Fantasy is perhaps ideally suited to this undertaking as its starting point is the lived experience of the vast majority of us urban creatures: life in the city. The skill of the urban fantasist is to paint for us a picture of the city with all its familiar complexity and to transform it before our mind’s eye, making the mundane strange and often darkly magical. Through the distorting lens of estrangement, the city (and the lives we live within its bounds) is presented in a new and revealing light.
This is one reason why the Urban Fantasy continues to appeal to me when so little else in the Fantasy genre does. It seems to me that this sub-genre produces a disproportionate number of quality works, but if this is so, it is unclear to me exactly why that is the case. Perhaps it is because writers of urban fantasy can’t entirely fake it. They can’t rely on fantasy alone. Considerable discipline and talent are required to paint an authentic picture of life in the city even as that picture is twisted and estranged. It is thanks to writers such as China Mieville, who is perhaps peerless in this urban territory, and Neil Gaiman that the kibble is kept from engulfing the Fantasy genre entirely. When practiced by such writers fantasy is not escapist to the exclusion of all else, but rather turns our mind’s eye both inward and outward, allowing us to see the city differently – more clearly perhaps – to see its horror, its injustice, its wonder and beauty.
Mieville and Gaiman are not alone in this battle against the kibble, and their ranks have been bolstered by the arrival of newcomer Tom Pollock whose debut novel, The City’s Son, Book One in The Skyscraper Throne trilogy, is an Urban Fantasy of the first order. The City is London and comparisons to the London-based urban fantasies of Mieville (King Rat and Un Lun Dun in particular) and Gaiman (Neverwhere) are inevitable and yet The City’s Son is that rare thing these days, a work of fantasy fiction that acknowledges its roots and yet is remarkably, endlessly and refreshingly original.
There is no other city like London, no other city quite so magical and yet mundane, benign and yet sinister, slipping from one state to another in the blink of an eye. This is a place of contrast and contradiction, a place in constant phase transition, both solid and in flux, where fashion and novelty come but never go, simply layered over what came before, becoming part of the background. Capturing this quality of the City is a challenge met by few, but Pollock successfully navigates this endlessly changing territory with immense skill.
Given the delightful novelty of The City’s Son I’m tempted to say no more for risk of contaminating the experience of reading it fresh, but I will limit myself to some words from the publicist. The City’s Son introduces us to teenage graffiti artist Beth Bradley who, betrayed by her best friend Parva Khan and more or less abandoned by her grieving father (in the wake of her mother’s death some time earlier), finds herself on the streets and in a London that is becoming more bizarre, unfamiliar and dangerous by the moment:
Hidden under the surface of everyday London is a city of monsters and miracles, where wild train spirits stampede over the tracks and glass-skinned dancers with glowing veins light the streets.
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 has crafted a novel that is filled with strange and wonderful originality, writing with a critical eye for the inhabitants of his city (real and fantastical) and a refusal to shy from moral complexity. Pollock’s city is strange and yet even at its most bizarre – encounters with railwraiths (avatars or spirits of underground trains) for example – it is strangely familiar. Pollock’s feel for the City is in no better way demonstrated than through his depiction of the tension between what the City is and what it is becoming. The City of Filius Viae is one that evolves through layering the new over the old and making all part of the whole, a City that embraces all its many aspects from its mythical past through to bleeding edge technology (not to mention making a virtue of its filth, rubbish and pollution). Filius’s nemesis, the Crane God Reach, embodies unbridled development which destroys without regard for what has come before, tearing up the past and destroying what has come before.
In the pages of Pollock’s Urban Fantasy this tension is manifested as a titanic conflict between powerful semi (or perhaps wholly) divine beings, and yet when all is said and done, Pollock’s fantasy is grounded in the lived experience of many city dwellers confronted by urban decay and often unbridled “renewal”. This is Fantasy at its best, taking us out of the mundane but also providing an insight into our lived experience.
The City’s Son should find a place on the bookshelf of any one who appreciates quality writing and originality. Highly recommended.
Volume Two, The Glass Republic, is due in July 2013.