Retro review: Viaduct Child

Review originally published on LiveJournal in January 2006.

Viaduct Child (now listed on as Electric Dragon) is an embarrassment to me. It has sat, pristine, on my bookshelf for over a year – possibly two, I’m not sure – and I have not once made the effort to read it. And what a foolish, foolish, foolish girl that makes me.

I shall now ritually beat myself over the head with a sharp object as penance.

It is brilliant.

The Viaduct Child is Dushma, a sparky teenager in an alternate modern London. In this Gothic vision, a child without registration papers is not entitled to education or healthcare – she is condemned to sterility and possibly a lobotomy in the workhouse. Luckily, Dushma has been kept clear of the authorities by her alcoholic Aunt Megan, a hooker with a heart of lead. They live in domestic infelicity under the train track that crosses the city, high up in the Viaduct walls, within view of St Gotha’s Cathedral.

Dushma gains her education from the encyclopaedia (or the beginning of it, at least) and attitude from street-smart Alison Catfinger, but her life is turned upside-down when the police arrive one afternoon to take her into custody. She escapes more by good luck than good management, and finds a new home deep in the London Underground with a pack of unregistered boys who entertain one another by telling stories and building machines. Here she learns about the electric dragons who were built to guard the tracks, about Hitler Street, the forgotten station bricked up by embarrassed officials, and about the first bloom of love.

Philip Pullman meets Neverwhere in this well-written little gem, the characters sharply drawn and very human (with the possible exception of police inspector Rapplemann) in both their friendships and betrayals. For betrayal runs through the story at every turn, hinted at but rarely exposed. Dushma’s birth, Aunt Megan’s plans, Mr Mackenzie’s compassion – there are suggestions that even the best intentions mask bitter actions, and that sometimes you can only help through harm. And gradually, as the tension ratchets up, we start to suspect that perhaps the doctors who refused to register the girl were right – there is indeed something different about her. Something unusual. Something that might even be dangerous.

In spite of this, the story is never downbeat; Dushma’s bright-eyed obstinacy and her love of the city keep you enthralled, as do the stories the children share. She is less antagonistic than Pullman’s Lyra, and if she is as helpless as Gaiman’s Door, she feels more resourceful in her almost thoughtless determination to keep her freedom. No relying on cavalier companions for this girl; she must look out for herself and learn as she can.

The ending is abrupt; although the publishers are unkind enough (in my edition) not to mention it, this is clearly the first book of several (or two, anyway) – and frankly, I’m rushing out to find the next installment (Firestorm Engine). I’m told this may be a challenge – I’m up for it. Wood is a very promising new writer and I can’t wait to read more.