As a people, we are plainly preoccupied with the picture of perfection; obsessed, essentially, by being beautiful.
But image isn’t everything, much as it may look that way in the day to day. As the protagonist of Tom Pollock’s striking second novel suggests, “This thing—beauty?—it’s arbitrary. People just make it up.” Then again, as Pen’s new partner in thought-crime counters, “Just ’cause something’s made up, doesn’t mean it’s not real.”
All too true. So what’s a poor, disfigured girl to do? A girl whose trust in another—her best friend Beth, no less—led to her being embraced by the barbed wire arms of The City’s Son’s big bad? Whose scars, even after extensive reconstructive surgery, are “a dozen mocking, mirroring mouths” which mark Pen out as other amongst her fearful peers? Why, travel to an alternate dimension where our preconceived ideas about beauty have been completely reconceived; where she’s celebrated, instead, as the most gorgeous girl in all the world!
We’ll get back to the inverted landscape of London-Under-Glass in time, but before that, let’s recap. The Glass Republic begins a couple of months after the unhappy ending of Pollock’s phenomenal first novel. Pen—aka Parva “Pencil” Khan—was a standout supporting character in said who was butchered come its cruel and unusual conclusion. To wit, I was keen to see what fate awaited her in book two of The Skyscraper Throne seires, however I hadn’t expected her to take Beth Bradley’s place as protagonist.
Beth isn’t absent the narrative, exactly, though her role is rather reduced, in part because she must come to terms with what she’s become: something hardly human, she feeds “on the city around her with every step […] drawing power and information through the bare soles of her concrete-grey feet.” She carries an iron railing around as an extension of the urban environment she represents, and speaks to streetlight spirits without sound. Beth, then, figures into the fiction from time to time, but her intermittent chapters are largely devoted to foreshadowing; setting up certain secondary story threads Pollock plans, I presume, to pay off in the concluding volume of his terrific trilogy, namely next year’s Our Lady of the Streets.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves again. The Glass Republic is for its part about Pen’s plight, primarily. At the outset, she’s trying to immerse herself in the mundane, the better to forget the incredible events she was caught up in some four months ago. To that end, she’s returned to school, but to ingratiate herself amongst a new group of friends, she’s asked to explain her mutilated face. She does so honestly—not that anybody believes her. Cue the smoothest recap I’ve read in recent memory:
I was kidnapped by a living coil of barbed wire—the servant of a demolition god whose fingers were cranes. I was its host, and it sent me to kill Beth Bradley, but she freed me from it instead. I held the monster down with my body while she cut it off with a sharpened park railing.
Predictably, things between Pen and her new school friends go from tolerable to terrible in short order. Seeking solace from their spite, she turns to a reflection of herself… yet Parva is no mere mirror image. She’s an esteemed member of the mirrorstocracy:
The girl on the other side of the glass had come from [Pen]—she was composed of all the infinite reflections of her that had been caught between the two mirrors—but that was when their coexistence had ended.
Pen and Parva had diverged from that moment in time like beams of refracted light; now Parva had her own feelings, her own life, built up in the weeks since she’d first stepped into whatever lay outside the bathroom door in the reflection. She drank wine, ate meat and swore like a squaddie with haemorrhoids. Much to Pen’s chagrined envy, she’d even managed to land herself a job, although she wouldn’t say doing what.
After an upsetting incident, Pen escapes to the bathroom where she and Parva like to put the world to rights, but on this occasion, all she sees behind the mirror is a bloody handprint. It’s apparent that Parva’s in trouble, so Pen resolves to seek out the Chemical Synod—the same oily entities who helped Beth discover herself—praying that they may know a way for her to travel to London-Under-Glass.
They do. They possess “a compound fit to change sseeing into doing, a tincture to transform a window to a door: a portal primer, if you will, or a doorway drug.” But the price of this prize is a painful prospect; no less than “a complete ssset of memoriess of a child, rendered from the mindss of her parentsss—not copiesss, you undersstand, but originalss.” Without telling Beth anything, Pen acquiesces—after all, this is her quest, to undertake on her terms—and into the mirror city she goes.
I’ve been banging on about being burned out on London as the backdrop for fantastic happenings for long enough now that I confess I did not relish the thought of another narrative set in the city, but The Glass Republic sidesteps that category smartly.
The larger part of the action takes place in London-Under-Glass, which, like Parva, is different enough from its original that it is independently interesting. The mirror city has its own aesthetics—asymmetry is valued highly, which is why Pen’s scars make her the apple of everyone’s eye—not to mention its own politics and media and economy and so on. Everything, right down to the weather, is similar, yet bizarrely set apart. As Pen observes, “it was as though the London she knew had run in the rain.”
She recognised the art deco horses of the Unilever building over her, and the old power station that housed the Tate Modern on the opposite bank, but they were taller here, and their shapes rippled as they rose into the sky, their familiar outlines bent by strange accretions of brick and stone.
They look exactly like they look reflected in the river at home, Pen marvelled. Here, that’s how they actually are.
Pen, in the interim, is an absorbing protagonist. She’s reticent and introverted where Beth was ballsy and confident. She goes her own way rather than simply mirroring the development of our previous hero, which is especially refreshing. That said, I was as taken with Espel: a fierce steeplejill-cum-companion who both helps and hinders Pen throughout The Glass Republic. I can safely say that she balances out Pencil Khan’s more passive aspects nicely; explaining much more than that would be to give what is a great game away.
Meanwhile, Pollock’s monsters are awesome. I enjoyed the “sewermander”—a bottle-sized dragon—particularly, but not all of the author’s creations are so wonderfully whimsical. Be warned that there are also “nightmare things squatting fatly on heavy haunches with back-bent teeth and empty eye sockets.” And that’s just for starters.
A year or so ago, I described The City’s Son as “a tour-de-force in sophisticated urban fantasy—beautifully wrought, tightly plotted and fantastically finessed.” Somewhat shockingly, it was also Tom Pollock’s first novel. If anything, his second is better. Certainly, the prose is punchier, and it was pretty impressive to begin with. Add to that an awesome secondary world and a masterfully expanded cast of characters, and it’s easy to see why this author is one of speculative fiction’s most promising new voices.
The Glass Republic is not your garden variety urban fantasy. Instead, it’s a text very much concerned with appearances, and indeed, what lies beneath these. In that sense—and many others, yes—it’s such an unfettered success that the concluding volume of The Skyscraper Throne saga can’t come soon enough.
The Glass Republic is available now from Jo Fletcher Books.
Niall Alexander is an erstwhile English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and Tor.com, where he contributes a weekly column concerned with news and new releases in the UK called the British Genre Fiction Focus, and co-curates the Short Fiction Spotlight. On occasion he’s been seen to tweet, twoo.