This review contains spoilers.
I wonder if Tom Pollock wanted to call his book The Mirror Empire – a much more appropriate title than the one the book’s got – but saw it was taken?
The Glass Republic picks up some time after the events of The City’s Son. This time, it follows Parva “Pen” Khan, Beth’s best friend, who’s suffering from PTSD and substantial facial scarring after her possession by the Wire Mistress in the previous book. For four months, unbeknownst to anyone else, she’s been talking to her own reflection: a literal doppelganger who lives on the other side of the mirror, in the mirror-city of London-under-Glass, populated by reflections.
When mirror-Parva goes missing, Pen decides to follow her through the mirror. In London-under-Glass, it turns out, her scars make her stunningly beautiful: facial symmetry is commonplace behind the mirrors, whereas asymmetry is rare and valued, an automatic ticket to aristocracy. Pen is mistaken for her missing doppelganger, and she becomes drawn into a life as the face of the Looking-Glass Lottery, an annual event which gives one lucky underclass, symmetrical Londoner the gift of asymmetry, and fame.
The Glass Republic is a dystopia, then, a very simple black-and-white one in which power is distributed and maintained according to physical characteristics, the underclasses kept in check by the tantalising, almost-but-not-quite unattainable hope of betterment. Its central gimmick – flipping our standards of beauty around so that symmetry is ugly and asymmetry beautiful – is structurally the same one Malorie Blackman used in Noughts and Crosses (in which black people are privileged and white people treated as second-class citizens): functionally, its point is that binary value systems like black/white or ugly/beautiful are arbitrary structures inevitably used as tools of oppression. It’s not a complex or particularly nuanced world, and in that respect I don’t think it’s as interesting a novel as The City’s Son.
However, like the previous book, The Glass Republic is doing some important work representationally. Pen is a practising Muslim, and Pollock continues to make that a significant part of how she relates to the world without it being the be-all and end-all of her character. (Note: this is, of course, from my own white Western perspective.) In particular, an understated but ever-present tension in the novel is Pen’s own knowledge that her scars will make it vastly more difficult for her parents to arrange a marriage for her. And that intersects interestingly, too, with the romance that’s brewing throughout The Glass Republic between Pen and her London-under-Glass lady-in-waiting Espel. Pen’s never thought of herself as gay before, and her realisation is well-done: a moment of surprise, but not one she obsesses over too much. She’s got a doppelganger to save, after all.
It’s interesting, too, that both The City’s Son and The Mirror Empire have a scene in which The Right Thing to Do trumps romantic love – and that in both cases this is something that the romantic interest actually encourages. In The City’s Son, Filius asked Beth to kill him, to bring the Chemical Brotherhood to the fight to destroy Reach; in The Mirror Empire, Espel asks Pen to let her die and reveal London-under-Glass’ Terrible Secret to its people. It’s a much-needed corrective to a media culture which holds romantic love as absolutely sacred – even, and especially, if the lovers have known each other for all of a week. For Pollock, romantic love is important, but some things are more, or differently, important.
And it’s rare to read a fantasy heroine, even an urban fantasy heroine, who’s suffering from PTSD, which is ridiculous when you think about it. In Pen we have a heroine who’s not unaffected by it, but who’s finding ways to deal with it: she’s strong despite it; she doesn’t let it stop her fighting injustice. In other words, she feels like a real person, dealing with real shit.
The Glass Republic is not a perfect book. (Honestly, what is?) It’s not even particularly up my street; I originally picked it up thinking it was something else. But if you’re looking for YA urban fantasy that’s smart about representation and neoliberal structures of oppression, you could genuinely do a lot worse than Pollock’s series. I’m not sure yet if I’ll be reading the third and final book, Our Lady of the Streets, but I’m reasonably sure I won’t hate it if I do.