Review of the Day: Larklight
Larklight by Philip Reeve, illustrated by David Wyatt. Bloomsbury. $7.99.
Oh my, oh me, oh dearie dee. Reviewing a book originally published in 2006? A book that, should you like the sound of it, you might be able to actually find in your local library? Have I slipped? Stumbled? Fallen head over heels in love with one of the best science fiction offerings of this or any other year? I have. Philip Reeve, you coy laddie, I can’t resist you. My resolve weakens whenever you pick up a pen. Review on!
Space. It’s so done, isn’t it? Nine times out of ten the stories that take place in outer space are just metaphors for cowboys anyway. Star Wars. Star Trek. Firefly. Some work better than others, but the idea of a sci-fi space-based children’s book would, under normal circumstances, do nothing to lift the rate of my pulse. Obviously this must have occurred to author Philip Reeve as well. Best known until now for his “Hungry City Chronicles”, Reeve turns his sights on his nation’s dirty past. But what if that dirty past were transposed into the outer regions of space? A space where breathing in zero gravity isn’t really a problem, there are aliens galore, and the British figured out how to conquer the universe when Isaac Newton figured out space travel? Suddenly things are looking a lot more interesting.
Living on a lonely little home floating not too far from their beloved Earth, young Art Mumby and his older sister Myrtle have only known Larklight as their home. After their mother disappeared a couple years ago, however, their father has become increasingly lost in his own private world. That all changes when suddenly when, without warning, Larklight and its denizens (robot servants and otherwise) are attacked by giant, vicious spiders. Art and Myrtle barely escape with their lives and in doing so come in direct contact with the infamous space pirate Jack Havock (approximate age: 14). It appears that there was always more to Larklight than met the eye, and when the siblings are split apart they must individually find a way to defeat a nefarious villain, save the British empire, and recover the ones they love. Pluck, in large quantities, is going to be necessary.
Really, colonialism in space isn’t necessarily a new idea either. Even Douglas Adams knew that. But to the best of my supremely limited knowledge, no one has ever created a sci-fi children’s novel where the essential premise is that space travel came to Earth early. Just extrapolate that a little further and you end up with Britain at the height of its let’s-grab-all-the-countries-in-the-world ideology, only transplanted into the universe at large and onto innocent planets (and their inhabitants). It’s seamless. With peculiar aliens brought to London for “research”, space colonists yearning to see the motherland, and a smattering of history alongside (the American colonies are still feisty but not, as of yet, beating England in the 19th century space race) the author turns the screw just a bit more when he makes the villain the biggest colonist of them all.
Reeve employs a skill that has stood him in good stead all these years; He can make any situation believable. I mean, have you ever read his “Hungry City" titles? Few authors could pull off the whole in-the-future-wheeled-cities-will-eat-other-cities idea. He can. Now, having conquered the future, he’s determined to bend the past to his will as well. And if along the way he’s able to package it all in a kind of boy’s adventure style, so be it. At times you can tell that the author is showing off too. To place this book thoroughly in its time period there are plenty of references to famous characters of the day. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. Andrew Marvell. Even a quick poem by Lord Tennyson that comes close to being almost too clever. And the boy’s adventure style actually works perfectly as the kind of tale Reeves wants to tell. Art is an upstanding fellow who, when his home has been attacked by gigantic spiders and his father undoubtedly killed, leads his sister to safety with a stiff, “I am afraid that something rather disagreeable has happened.” Do not assume that Myrtle is your typical faint and gasp heroine, however. That is the advantage of writing this kind of book today. First of all, she sports a natty little pair of glasses making her the best glasses-wearing sci-fi space traveler since Meg Murry in “A Wrinkle in Time.” Be that as it may, she’s an unapologetic loyalist. Myrtle only sees the world (at first, anyway) as society would have her see it. Art too, for that matter. For example, he mentions that the denizens of the moon were “discovered” by the British they, “were so primitive that they showed no interest whatsoever in the new arrivals.” And thusly does the p-word raise its ugly head. Myrtle, for her part, is particularly discomfited to hear of a British secret agent taking a Martian “native” as a wife.
Part of the reason I enjoy Reeve as an author is his sense of humor. He pulls off sentences and scenes that simply should not work, and all because he knows how to utilize a kind of inspired sense of style. For example, when it looks like all is lost for Art he says, “It seemed so unfair to have one’s father eaten by a spider and one’s sister devoured by a caterpillar on the same day (though I suppose flies must put up with that sort of thing all the time and you do not hear them moaning about it).” Or, in another instance, the alien shipmates are, “bellowing out a lusty shanty called, ‘Farewell and Adieu to You Ladies of Ph’Arhpuu’xxtpllsprngg’.” Or (and this is a single instance so don’t judge the book harshly for it) there is even a moment when the captain of a ship turns to one of his crew to ask for the impossible. The response? “I cannae do it, Captain. I’m an alchemist, not an engineer.”
It would be easy to miss the author's clever little dance is done around questions of religion and spirituality, I think. In part because it simply doesn’t fit in with the essential premise (i.e. gigantic “makers” who merrily go about creating the universe) but also because a man can only write a children’s book that’s so long. I was a little shocked to see that even with all the illustrations, “Larklight” only comes to a slip of 400 pages. By rights, it should be longer.
Speaking of the illustrations, pity me. I read this book initially without the final art. Even worse? I didn’t even know the sheer vast amounts of art that would appear in the final copy. I didn’t know that a David Wyatt would essentially bend over backwards to bring to life the perfect convergence of space and Victorian tales of heroism and derring-do. When I finally did get my hands on a final copy of the book I was stunned. I spent the better part of an hour pouring over the book again to see whether or not the images I’d conjured up in my head were anything like Wyatt’s. Sometimes they were. Myrtle, for example, was spot on. Ditto Art, his parents, and maybe even the villain (lips sealed on that one) near the end. Oh! And when a certain architectural structure becomes a nightmarish horror, THAT looked bloody brilliant! Sadly I wasn’t particularly taken with the views of Jack and the alien Ssilissa. They didn’t gel with how I’d pictured them, but that isn’t to say they weren’t accurate to the story itself. And Jack does kind of resemble a 14-year-old Humphrey Bogart. Whether you agree with the artist’s visions or not, the book may well be worth the price of admission alone based solely on the endpapers. A mishmash of Victorian newspaper ads mixed with space aliens and technology, I half wondered if Reeve had secretly written these as well. Watson’s Dirigible Domestic Aid. Hogwash (for cleaning one’s hoverhogs). Taylor’s Pure Icthyomoroph Liver Oil. And, most cleverly of all, “Rossetti’s Goblin Fair ‘Come Buy, Come Buy!’ 42 Stalls. Fruit, Berries, Treen, Owl, Wheedling, Country Crafts, Exotic Conserves, Bog Fettling, Scalding and Rummagin.” Someone give one of these men an award for this tiny ad alone, please.
All in all, it’s a romp. A show. A true example of sci-fi done to the maximum amusement of its readers. That this book isn’t well known to all children everywhere is a crime. But science fiction hasn’t hit the renaissance that fantasy has. As a result, we must push and push to bring books of this caliber to the attention of the world. I’ve done my part. I suggest you, on the other hand, just go through the motions of reading it. Once you have, sheer exuberance for how good it is should take care of the rest.
Notes on the Cover: For all my gushing, this is one aspect of the book that I’m not a huge fan of. Though I liked the silver stylized spiders on the corners, and I appreciate the way the book is trying to convey both adventure and space, I don’t think this is a very enticing jacket. Taken in and of themselves, each given element is perfectly nice on its own. I like the red of the cover. I like the art. The font is neat. However, the center image is too tiny to catch anyone’s eye and the title too large. A pity. Hopefully enough people will discover the book and learn to love it for its own charms, cover be damned. That said, it looks as if the paperback cover is a vast improvement. And at least the jacket of the sequel, Starcross, is much in the same style. Well done there.