Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Book Review: Larklight, by Philip Reeve

Larklight: A Rousing Tale of Dauntless Pluck in the Farthest Reaches of Space, by Philip Reeve. Illustrations by David Wyatt. ISBN 1-59990-020-3

In a Victorian setting where travel through the “aether” is common, eleven-year-old Art, his sister, and their father live in an ancient house beyond the moon, where gravity engines frequently need re-started and rusty auto-butlers serve their meals. The aether is filled with thin oxygen--no space suits necessary. Icthymorphs flap past their windows--and make good eating as well as fascinating study for their scientist father.

Then they are attacked by giant white spiders, beginning a breakneck adventure that continues for four hundred pages. It includes aliens, space battles, killer moths, a conversation with the giant storm on Jupiter, and a giant robotic spider stomping London.

The book is obviously aimed towards children or young adults (our young heroes team up with a teenage space pirate named Jack -- which I admit, I found a bit corny). But the inventive world and humorous quality of the writing can keep an older person entertained, too. Just a look in the front and back of the book had me in chuckles before I got home with its humorous advertisements for fake products.

Occasional Victorian spellings (such as ‘sopha’ for sofa), the long, descriptive ‘In which we…’ chapter titles, and the careful refusal to say ‘fart’ when describing the hoverhogs’ method of propulsion all bring to life the feeling of Victorian England in space.

The hilarious understated British humor reminded me of P.G. Wodehouse. Take this calmly thoughtful paragraph in the midst of danger (from page 56):

Among my mother’s book I had once discovered a volume of stories by a gentleman named Mr Poe, who lives in Her Majesty’s American colonies. There was one, The Premature Burial, which gave me nightmares for weeks after I read it, and I remember thinking that there could be no fate more horrible than to be buried alive, and wondering what type of deranged and sickly mind could have invented such a tale. But as I lay immobilised in a jar on the wrong side of the Moon with only a ravening caterpillar for company I realized that Mr Poe was actually quite a cheery, light-hearted sort of chap, and that his story had been touchingly optimistic.

Of course, Art survives the moths and goes on to have more adventures, all while trying to remain properly British, and considering the sensibilities of his straight-laced older sister (even though she annoys him).

Overall, Mr. Reeve wrote an inventive, fast-paced yarn in the space opera tradition. David Wyatt’s well-executed line drawings add greatly to the work, helping one to envision the fantastic settings and details.

Although I didn’t love everything about this book (the humorous tone kept me from identifying closely with the characters, and the gentle mockery of Victorian values got old at times), Mr. Reeve is a splendid writer, and his genius for world-building shines throughout. That is the real reason to read this book.

This is the cover on the version I read:

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