Philip Reeve first came to my attention when I stumbled upon his Mortal Engines quartet of books. Straight from his debut novel — straight from his first line, in fact, I knew that the author was something special.
“It was a dark, blustery afternoon in spring, and the city of London was chasing a small mining town across the dried-out bed of the old North Sea.”
Erin: Say what?
Me: You heard me.
Philip Reeve then went on to create a fantastical post-post-post-apocalyptic world of gigantic cities moving about the remains of Europe and Asia on tank treads, consuming each other in a new social order called “Municipal Darwinism”. The stories followed Tom Natsworthy, a young man apprenticed with the City of London’s Historian’s Guild, as he has to cope with life outside his cloistered city in the Great Hunting Ground.
Despite being set in the far future, I’d argued that the book was Steampunk. In it, you had an incongruity of technologies, both old and new, gerrymandered into supporting a civilization that was more advanced than it had any business to be. It obviously struck a chord with readers. The Mortal Engines sequence won awards, and closed out with four well-received novels that fleshed out Tom and Hester’s story in a most satisfyingly epic way. Reeve has since gone on to add more books to this future world.
But upon finishing the first four novels of The Mortal Engines sequence, Reeve decided to take a break and go in a different direction. He stayed in steampunk, but he decided to make a play for younger readers. Pulling back to the Victorian era, Reeve decided to play with material that gave us Space 1889. Led by a young narrator in the form of 12-year-old Arthur Mumby, Reeve gives us the British Empire among the stars. The result was Larklight, a delightful tale of derring do, featuring space pirates, planet surfing, and an ancient conspiracy from the dawn of the solar system, not to mention a giant robot stomping Tokyo — I mean, London.
The story is set in 1851 where narrator Arthur Mumby lives with his irritating older sister Myrtle and their distracted father aboard their space house, Larklight. Their peaceful existence is disturbed by a most unwelcome guest: a bowler hat-wearing giant spider named Mr. Webster (ha! I only just got the pun!) who invades the Mumby’s home with his spider minions, and kidnaps everyone. The Mumby children escape in a pod that takes them to the Moon, where they quickly have a nasty run in with the fauna there.
Fortunately, the Mumbys are rescued by a group of space pirates, led by a heroic young gentleman named Jack Havock. Art, being very much a Boys’ Own Adventure type person, is over the moon (no pun intended) at this development. Much has been written about the exploits of Jack Havock, space pirate, and his tales of derring do. Yes, they are now on the run from the British Navy, but it all promises to be a rollicking adventure from here on in. If only Jack Havock wasn’t getting so silly and soppy over Art’s sister, Myrtle.
Larklight will take readers on a tour of the solar system, from the forests of Venus to the dusty plains of Mars, from the cloud platforms of Jupiter to the icy wilds of Saturn’s rings. You will meet many of the aliens who live in this ridiculously populated region of known space, and you will be captivated by a number of mysteries, from the true origins of Jack Havock, to the real reason behind the disappearance of Art and Myrtle’s mother.
Philip Reeve is clearly having a lot of fun, here, creating whole new worlds and linking them to various Victorian analogies, but the key to the success of Larklight lies in his narrator Art Mumby. Art has just the right mixture of youthfulness, British arrogance and hauty naiveté that sells the whole story as coming from the Victorian era. Art’s absolute confidence in himself is made all the more delightful as readers can see through the narrative and get a sense of what’s really happening, from clues that Art has missed, to the fact that Myrtle is really quite a capable and attractive young woman and Jack Havock has every good reason for falling in love with her.
The books are richly detailed, not only in their narrative and in setting, but in describing the wider universe in which the Mumby’s live. Illustrator David Wyatt supplies pictures within the book which not only show us what Art and Myrtle look like, but also give us pictures of period advertisements selling various wondrous inventions and patent medicines of the age. Reeve has not just written a book as much as built an entire universe. It’s this level of detail that distinguishes his work from similar works of steampunk.
You can’t go wrong with a fun-loving adventure novel like Larklight. It has action, romance and mystery, and it has plenty of depth as well. In many of the characters, from Jack Havock to Myrtle to Myrtle and Art’s mother, there’s more than meets the eye. Get yourself a copy, sit down and enjoy.