Phillip Reeve and David Wyatt have created what can only be called an epic in Larklight OR The Revenge of the White Spiders! OR To Saturn's Rings and Back! : A Rousing Tale of Dauntless Pluck in the Farthest Reaches of Space (which has a pretty cool website) and the trilogy of books of the same name. In 2001, Reeve published Mortal Engines, which became the first in his Mortal Engines Quartet, referred to as the Predator Cities books now that the Fever Crumb Trilogy of books, which take place in the same post-apocalyptic London world but many generations earlier, have been published. A bit confusing, yes, but also indicative of the detailed, layered and complex kind of world builder that Philip Reeve is. The Predator Cities books are set in a distant future known as the Traction Age where city-states mounted on caterpillar treads for mobility travel around devouring smaller cities in an act known as Municipal Darwinism, which is such a cool concept. While these books have been on my TBR list for ages, I did have the immense pleasure of reading Fever Crumb in 2011 when I was a Cybils (book awards given by panels of judges who are book review bloggers) judge. I tell you all this by way of demonstrating the brilliance and deeply creative imagination of Philip Reeve, who also happens to have a way with weaving history into his stories, even when they are set in the future and the history of the story is the world of today, as in Fever Crumb where the city of Battersea becomes B@ersea and the pop culture remnants of our world are interpreted as meaningful mottoes and even battle cries, the lyrics from a David Bowie song being shouted in exactly that way.
With the Larklight Trilogy, Reeve, with the help of his excellent illustrator David Wyatt, conjures up a world that could be called "steampunk," a term coined in 1987 that refers to a sub-genre of science fiction in which the setting is, most often, a Victorian England where steam powers all sorts of machines that did not exist at that time or even in this time. Basically, I think of it as a mash-up of a historical setting that has futuristic machines, powered by something other than what it might realistically be fueled by. The bulk of Larklight takes place in an outer space where spacecraft that resemble Victorian era schooners made of timber and powered by the wind in the sails, but are in fact powered by something else altogether. The ships in Larklight, like the Sophronia captained by Jack Havoc, are powered by something referred to as the "chemical wedding," a closely guarded fusion of certain chemicals which enables sailing ships to travel through the æther of space. Sir Isaac Newton, with a bit of help of a character who shall remain unnamed here, discovered the process of the chemical wedding, which of course, is something that only men can perform. This is important as our narrator, Arthur Mumby, and his older sister Myrtle, find themselves hurtling into space, away from their family home, also called Larklight, some thirty pages into the novel when an anticipated visitor, Mr. Webster, turns out to be one of the White Spiders of the title.
Larklight, the house, had been in Art's Mother's family for "absolute ages," and after she died their father didn't have the heart to leave it. Nobody knows who built it, "nor which way up it is supposed to go, but Mother used to claim it had been constructed by an ancestor of hers during the early 1700s, just a few years after Sir Isaac Newton's great discoveries made the Conquest of Space possible." Despite efforts of Mother's forbearers to improve upon Larklight, it remains a "shapeless, ramshackle, drafty, lonely sort of house, and a terribly long way from anywhere, spinning along on its remote orbit out of the depths beyond the Moon." When the White Spiders attack, father is the first to be wrapped in a cocoon and abducted by the spiders, who seem to be looking for something inside the small house. Art convinces Myrtle to flee with him to the lifeboat house where they are ejected into space with only the slimmest hope of being rescued by a passing ship. At this point, I almost feel like making a list of the amazing places, people and creatures that Art and Myrtle encounter as they are pursued by the White Spiders since it is so vast. Actually, I can't resist. Here is a list of a few of the amazing creations from Reeves's imagination:
Hoverhogs: These come from the gas-world of Jupiter and "scoot about the upper atmosphere and suck up" the detritus in a home when the gravity is turned off and the crumbs and bits of trash are floating about. They propel themselves around the room by "exhalations" that have the smell of rotten eggs and do not dispel quickly.
Potter Moth: Found on the Moon, this massive creature who, using "spittle and moon dust and the chewed-up mulch of mushroom trees" makes a jar and lays an egg inside. The Potter Moth then stuns its prey and seals it in a jar where, paralyzed, the the poor captive is slowly eaten to death by the larva that grows from the egg.
Ssilissa: Found as an egg somewhere in space, it was taken to the Royal Xenological Society where it hatched into the blue, lizard-human hybrid with tentacle-like hair and a tail. While imprisoned at the RXS, she exhibits the rare ability to effect the chemical wedding. An especially poignant character, Ssilissa is in love with Jack Havoc and also unable to trace her origins when given the chance to ask someone who would know.
Ph'Arhpuu'xxtpllsprngg, pronounced "far-poosht-pull-shpring" and commonly called Farpoo: The capital of Io, a moon of Jupiter, it has been a harbor town for 10,000 years and is a crossroads and marketplace for traders. It has grown over the years, sprawling across the surface of Io, and is home to the ideospore plant, which can affect the minds of thinking creatures, causing them to take up a particular thought. The "weapons botanists" of Io quickly learned to grow the plants to produce specific thought-spores and, when infecting the opposing army with them, convince them to "throw down their weapons and start doing folk dances" or implant the Callistan snail calvary with the impulse to ride over the nearest cliff.
Jovian Wind-Whales - These creatures are like big, gas-filled jelly fish without so many tentacles. They travel in pods and are the prey of space squid.
I won't be giving too much away if I tell you that Art and Myrtle are separated early on in the novel, shortly after being rescued from the Potter Moths by Jack Havoc, a pirate with a reputation akin to that to of the Dread Pirate Roberts (The Princess Bride) and his crew of space oddities (there is another, fantastic story here, that is a little bit heartbreaking but gets its own section in the novel with Jack telling his story) while Myrtle finds herself, eventually, with Sir Richard Francis Burton and his native born wife on Mars. There, the uncover a plot that threatens the royal family and quickly hurtle back to London to stop what they believe will be a catastrophic event planned to coincide with the opening of the Crystal Palace, built to house the Great Exhibition of 1851.
From start to finish, Reeve exhibit a magnificent storytelling skill that will wrap you up in whatever world he is creating and sweep you away for hours on end. I highly recommend his books to anyone who loves Harry Potter and Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy. While Reeve is telling a less magical story in the traditional fantasy sense, his stories are every bit as magical and complete as books by the masters of the realm.
Source: Purchased Audio Book and swapped (the paperback) from paperbackswap.com