Running from her traitorous best friend and her estranged father, graffiti artist Beth Bradley is looking for sanctuary. What she finds is Urchin, the ragged and cocky crown prince of London’s mystical underworld. Urchin opens Beth’s eyes to the city she’s never truly seen-where vast spiders crawl telephone wires seeking voices to steal, railwraiths escape their tethers, and statues conceal an ancient priesthood robed in bronze.
But it all teeters on the brink of destruction. Amid rumors that Urchin’s goddess mother will soon return from her 15-year exile, Reach, a malign god of urban decay, wants the young prince dead. Helping Urchin raise an alleyway army to reclaim his skyscraper throne, Beth soon forgets her old life. But when her best friend is captured, Beth must choose between this wondrous existence and the life she left behind.
I was sort of confused when I first started this one, because it really appears as though Urchin/Filius* hunts the ghosts of old trains, which only made me think of Railsea. This book could not be more different from Railsea, though, so it took me a little time to get my bearings. The book begins with a kind of “cold open,” so to speak, and we’re thrust right into the story. You know what though? This one is fun. Lots of fun. And because of the whole train ghost thing, I thought this might be another fun, but silly, urban fantasy novel, but things get pretty heavy for everyone involved in this tale, and I loved it. Trigger warning, there is implied statutory rape, first mentioned in the first quarter of the book. (*I’m not sure if it’s because I got the ARC, but Beth only refers to Filius as “Urchin” once or twice in the beginning, so I’ll be calling him Filius from now on.) Despite the obvious sci-fi elements in this one, it’s also fantastical, like when we meet three sisters made of electricity, who live in streetlamps. For some reason, I imagined them as Calder’s sisters from Lies Beneath. For the first third of this novel, I was confused about the setting, confused about the characters’ motivations, and confused just in general about what was happening, but after Beth and Fil visit Reach’s graveyard, the action starts to pick up.
My favorite part of the first half was the Mirror People and how very touchy they are. Their snobbery made me laugh a lot, and so did Beth’s reaction to them. I also liked that Beth seemed to realize her sudden loyalty to Fil was unusual, as she addresses it in her narrative. I liked that Beth could, and did, hold her own, and that this wasn’t insta-love. Fil and Beth are together for a whole half a book before I was even sure if they liked one another! Meanwhile, Pen has her own individual storyline and if Pollock wants me to hate her, he did a very bad job of it (though I don’t think that’s what he was going for ). I ached for Pen throughout the book, even during the scene in which Beth figures out Pen betrayed her. But…I had to stop about a third of the way through because I was bored. I mean, I liked the premise, I like Fil and Beth and Gutterglass, but nothing was happening. It was just Fil and Beth running around, failing to gather any significant support for Mater Viae’s cause. I took like a 10 day long break from this one and came back to it feeling a little more refreshed.
And then I was mad that I quit at all because when this book gets good, it gets great. I couldn’t put it down once I got past the 50% mark, and I loved how Fil and Beth’s adventures intensified, and I felt the horror of what was happening to Pen. Things started happening rapidly after the recruitment of the Blankleits and Sodiumites, and sometimes it’s horrific. It’s some of the best urban fantasy YA has ever offered, in my opinion. The second half of this book made me add back a star I’d dropped. Everything starts getting real, so to speak, and no one pulls any punches in this one. A lot of people just come out and say the hard truths and it’s so refreshing. And when Beth leaves Fil, before their romance even becomes anything other than a tingle, I exulted, because in this novel, our protag values her close female friends more than the guy she just met.
The ending to this one is kind of bittersweet and it made me a little angry, but this book isn’t about the ending, it’s about the journey. London. About the living, breathing streets and stop signs, the cruelty of construction and barbed wire, and overcoming horrific circumstances to not only find yourself, but also those who love you. If you can stick with it through that first half, you’ll discover a whole new world nestled within our own.