Fri, Apr
25
2008

When Cities Roam No More
(A Darkling Plain Reviewed)

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The feeling in our gut is that Nora will be arriving sooner rather than later. Indeed, a part of us believes that Nora’s arrival is imminent. Hopefully, she’ll give us at least one more good night’s sleep before we have to go through the labour. In the meantime, there is a nervous tension around the house. We’re displacing some of that by cleaning madly in anticipation of her arrival. I myself am supposed to be working on Baseball Science for the British publisher that commissioned me, but though I’ve made some progress, my mind is churning a bit. And I think Vivian has picked up on all this tension and is getting antsy.

On the plus side, the place looks really good.

In the meantime, as this could be the last post I’ll make for a while, I thought I’d post a book review. A Darkling Plain is the fourth and final book in Philip Reeve’s Hungry City Chronicles depicting a harsh future where Traction Cities on caterpillar treads churn up the remains of Europe, the Middle East and Siberia, madly consuming resources and each other in a practice known as Municipal Darwinism. I have reviewed each book in this series separately (here, here and here). The last book series that got this multi-part treatment was Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials sequence, but I ended up reviewing those three books as a unit.

What I think this says about Philip Reeve’s series is that, despite the fact that the books are somewhat flawed in their execution, the ideas at the core of this tale resonate with me. I can’t bring myself to hold off until the final book to talk about the series as a whole; I have to gush about each book individually. Each book is exciting, has complicated characters and fascinating plot twists. The series is a page turner in every sense of the word.

A Darkling Plain has the added challenge of taking all of the elements introduced in the previous three books, and wrapping them up into a satisfying whole. Here’s where Reeve’s abilities as a master plotter are really tested, and where lesser authors have come up short, he comes up trumps. The story takes place six months after the cliffhanger of Infernal Devices. Tom and Hester have separated. Tom and his daughter Wren now live the life of air traders on the bird roads while Hester works as a hired killer on the sand sea of the Sahara with her Stalker (a resurrected soldier) Grike. Theo has returned to his family in Zagwa and has received the welcome of the prodigal son.

But while these people try to live their lives in peace, the world won’t let them. A group of German Traction Cities have temporarily abandoned Municipal Darwinism and have cooperated to form the Traktionstadtsgesellschaft. These armoured cities have fought the anti-tractionist Green Storm to a standstill, but at great cost to both sides. With the death of Stalker Fang, General Naga has taken control of the Green Storm and has made a tenuous truce with the Traction Cities of the Great Hunting Ground. Forces loyal to Fang’s vision of wiping the moving cities from the face of the Earth can’t abide this, however, and they try to spark the war again by sending assassins after Naga’s wife, the meek but steely Oenone Zero. The conflict draws in Theo, who has to be rescued by Hester.

Meanwhile, Tom sees a ghost from his past, almost literally. An old friend named Clytie Potts is flying under an assumed name and purchasing odd pieces of Old Tech for mysterious buyers out east. But she can’t be alive, she’s from London, and Tom witnessed that city’s destruction as an Old Tech weapon went haywire (in an attack against the Anti-Traction League which started the whole war in the first place). Clearly the ruins of London aren’t as dead as they seem, but what are the survivors planning?

And, through it all, Stalker Fang survives, helped by the lonely Lost Boy Fishcake. With his help, she struggles to continue to make the world green again, implementing a plan to wipe out humanity.

The Hungry Cities Chronicles is a masterwork, and as it is Philip Reeve’s first major publication, he has burst onto the scene in a way most authors can only dream of. Indeed, he makes me quite jealous to think about where he might yet go. The books have the raw energy that a talented rookie brings to the game. Yes, there are flaws — Reeve continues to break point of view and switch tenses in an annoying fashion and, in book four, some scenes take on a pretension in its narration that makes me want to slap him (the introduction to the Hester’s sand ship on the Sahara stands out like a sore thumb) — but there are also lots of ideas. Even the tense switches and the pretensions are all attempts by Reeve to outdo himself, and he’s got talent to spare, such that he can follow through on the basic premise of cities roaming around on caterpiller treads. His vision of the world holds together and is fascinating to watch.

His characters range from the stock to the complicated, with Hester being at the top of the heap. This dark, hardened woman, physically and mentally scarred from the murder of her parents, continues to be a fascinating balance between compassion and rage. She rescues Theo without a second thought, but is ruthless in dealing with his captors. She deliberately tries to keep a shell around herself to prevent people from getting close and possibly hurting her again, the way she was hurt to lose Tom, but she can’t help herself. Tom continues to be so naive that you want to shake him, but it’s a feature of his character that you cannot help but love. He stubbornly holds onto his optimistic world view, even in the face of all this horror. As for Wren, she has matured from the innocent and sheltered little girl of Anchorage. She shares her father’s naiveté, but is brave and has a talent for deception that serves her well in foiling the bad guys. Her budding romance with Theo is sweet.

Also interesting is Oenone Zero, a shy, plain girl who first appeared in Infernal Devices as a medical officer with an amazing talent in creating Stalkers out of the corpses of dead soldiers. It is her desperate plan to kill the Stalker Fang and end the Green Storm’s kamikaze onslaught against the Traction Cities that resurrects Grike, and since then she’s found herself in the unlikely position of commanding the Green Storm hierarchy. She does not feel as though she belongs there, but she does what needs to be done. The revelation that she is coming to follow a near-forgotten religion that venerates a cross may seem to some to be a little trite, but it works.

But it’s Reeve’s skills as a master plotter that are front and centre here. He deftly moves the chess pieces across the board, bringing up elements that were almost forgotten in the first books, tying things together in a nice bow. Despite some clichés, the whole thing works as a strong, united story. The last chapter in particular, when Stalker Grike wakes up thousands of years later in the new world that’s forged after the Traction Cities stop working, brings us back to the beginning in many ways and emphasizes the four book series as a unit. Not many authors of series manage to do this in their final books, which tend to balloon out of the many elements that have to be resolved, but there’s none of that here. I get the sense that Reeve knew where he was going to be throughout book four when he started writing book one.

I highly recommend the Hungry City Chronicles. Sci-fi lovers will enjoy the clarity of his vision of the future, from the monstrous machines, to the many hints of the history that leads us from the Sixty Minute War up to here. Fans of potboilers will love the action, the elements of romance and the wry humour. And for those who want something deeper, the characters of Tom and Hester — especially Hester — will keep you reading. And as the first four books of this author, the Hungry City Chronicles establishes Philip Reeve as an author to watch. The writing has noticeably matured in book four compared to book one, and there’s no telling where Reeve will go next.


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