This book is totally insane. It’s also absolutely gorgeous and I loved it.
While I think I had heard of Philip Reeve previously, I had never heard of this book before I saw it reviewed on someone’s blog (sorry, I didn’t bookmark the link and I no longer remember where it was – if it might have been you, drop me a note and I’ll add a link to your review). While a children’s book, it sounded like a lot of fun – and something being a children’s book has never put me off before.
Larklight almost defies description, but if I was forced to come up with one, it would be something like this:
Children’s Victorian Steampunk Boy’s Own Adventure with Space Pirates and Giant Spiders.
Arthur Mumby and his older sister, Myrle, live at Larklight, a house in orbit near the moon. They live with their father after their mother disappeared along with the aether-ship she was on. As the book opens, they hear that they can expect a visitor, a Mr Webster, and when it is a giant spider that appears at the door, Art and Myrtle find their adventures just beginning. Their father is wrapped in spider web and apparently devoured while the children manage to get away in an escape pod and land on the moon. There, they are rescued from becoming larvae-food for a space moth by the pirate Jack Havoc and his motley crew of aliens.
There is something of a Jules Verne feel to the book as steam-power runs space ships (like flying ships with an “alchemical wedding” chamber that provides the power), automaton servants and pretty much everything else including Larklight’s gravity machine. The inner planets of the solar system and their many moons are the homes of a wide variety of native species (many now “protected” by the great British Empire and her fine navy), while any ships that have attempted to explore past Saturn have all disappeared.
Art and Myrtle find themselves caught up not just trying to save themselves, or even the Empire, but the whole of the solar system itself. Art narrates most of the book (with the addition of extracts he’s copied from Myrtle’s diary without her knowledge) and he has a delightful tone that perfectly fits his age and determination to live out what he’s read in his Boy’s Own Adventure magazines. He’s suitably disparaging about any worthiness his older sister might posses, appropriately plucky, and his narration is wonderful to read.
The book is illustrated with lovely pen and ink drawings throughout by David Wyatt (I’ve included some of them here as they are worth sharing – and for the record Myrtle thinks Queen Victoria is a replacement automaton switched by the spiders as she knocks her over.) They help set the tone of the book perfectly and as fun as it might be without them, it is even more fun with them.
Reeve has written a book that is suitable for adults as well as children, and as such may be perfect for reading with one’s own children. I already want my own copy of this and the next books and when I rang the local children’s bookshop to inquire if they had them, the owner suggested they were probably most suitable for 9 – 12 year olds. (That was the point at which I had to interrupt and admit they were for myself, so reading age wasn’t really an issue.) All the same, the other reason I want to buy copies is so that I can share the fun with Marcus when he’s a little older.
There’s a touch of light irony in the text, as if Reeve knows he’s created an absolutely impossible world and he’s determined just to have fun with it. There are occasional references to things adults are more likely to pick up than children, which is part of the fun. Mars really does have canals, the great storm on Jupiter is sentient and known as Thunderhead, Venus is covered in rich plant life. Probably the most blatant example comes from an extract from Myrtle’s diary (where among other things she shows herself to hold true Victorian values).
I suppose few Martians could have imagined, in the first years of the eighteenth century, that intelligences far greater and yet as mortal as their own were observing them from across the gulf of space, and slowly and surely laying plans against them. It must have been a very great surprise to them when the Duke of Marlborough landed his army, and brought order and civilisation to their dusty, backward planet!
All in all, I found this to be a totally fun book and I’m looking forward to reading more of Art and Myrtle's adventures. They are weird, they are crazy and they are an absolute delight.
Larklight, Book 1