I’m sorry, I’m sorry. Okay, I’m only quite sorry… most of Philip Reeve’s books are at or above the top end of the 7-11 age range I set myself, but they are just too good not to write about. What a rare treat to find an author who combines such fabulously inventive, close-knit plots with such beautifully readable writing.
Mortal Engines, the first in the quartet now known as Predator Cities, first burst into readers’ awareness a dozen years ago, fully-formed like Athene, menacing and magnificent. Set centuries into the future, it would be reductive to call it a dystopia: there has, long before the book’s start, been a cataclysmic event recalled as the Sixty Minute War, following which the world has been redrawn. Oceans have been blasted dry, and our own familiar civilisation largely forgotten apart from a few confusing archaeological relics known as Old-Tech. Whole new civilisations have evolved in the ruins of the old, and for the past thousand years, cities have become mobile, surviving by scavenging and preying on each other, a system known as Municipal Darwinism. Within great city-machines like London are very human stories: Tom, the apprentice historian with his domineering guild-master and the sneering, bullying older apprentices; the buccaneering archaeologist and Head Historian, Thaddeus Valentine, and his beautiful daughter Katherine; the terribly disfigured Hester Shaw, who knows a shocking secret from Valentine’s past – although she doesn’t yet understand what it means for the future. When Tom tries to foil an assassination attempt, he finds himself cast out of London and on the run with Hester, fighting to survive in hostile country amongst slavers and pirates and the arcane community of aviators and air-traders, with Valentine on their trail all the while. As they struggle to return to London and reveal the truth about Valentine, Katherine begins to discover some unwelcome truths herself about her father’s terrifying plans, and the tension rises almost beyond bearing as the three try to prevent catastrophe.
Reeve may not have planned a quartet, but some stories just refuse to go quietly and settle, and over three more books, then three more again (I’ll explain), the Predator Cities became something progressively richer and deeper – I won’t say more fully worked-out, because (unlike so many fantasies or science fictions for younger readers) there is never any sense that anything has been cobbled together or patched over or less than fully imagined in the first place – but developed in compelling detail, with an insight and invention that never falters and a pace that never lags. Against the backdrop of the new world politics, insatiable Traction Cities and the fanatical Green Storm, Tom and Hester’s story plays out, and that of their daughter Wren: trust, betrayal, protectiveness, rebellion, abandonment and reunion and all the other loose endings of love. Around the principals is a terrific supporting cast of allies and rogues, murderers and saviours both human and machine, so easily mistaken for one another, and all building towards a brilliant, terrible, redemptive and fitting conclusion. An 11+ read, probably, and with plenty to engage and satisfy readers of all ages above.
For slightly younger readers, say 9+, the trilogy beginning with Larklight is a freewheeling (or freerocketing?) foray into space-steampunk – or perhaps it’s a brilliant compendium of all the stuff that was too weird for the Predator Cities. Arthur and his terminally annoying sister Myrtle Mumby live with their researcher father on Larklight, an asteroid in the form of a baronial mansion (or perhaps it’s the other way around), somewhere beyond the Moon. Myrtle practises the pianoforte and pores over the society pages of the Illustrated London News; Arthur prefers the Boys Own Journal, and dreams of discovering Species Unknown to Science, but they never, ever receive visitors – until the terrible day when Mr. Webster and his forces pay a call, and Myrtle and Arthur are forced to escape in a lifeboat. Landing on the moon, they are rescued by some very remarkable space pirates; are pursued by Her Majesty’s Britannic Navy and the repellent Mr. Webster; are separated across the Solar System; are variously traduced and rescued; are reunited with someone they never dreamed they would see again; and discover both a dastardly plot upon the life of Her Majesty and the true purpose of Larklight. Look, I never said it wasn’t mad – but it is great fun and brilliantly done, and continues across two more in the series, Starcross and Mothstorm.
From fantastical future and delirious Victoriana to a mythical but more tangible past… Here Lies Arthur is I would say a 12+ read; you don’t have to be familiar with Arthurian legend, but it adds another whole level of satisfaction to this Carnegie-Medal-winning story. King Arthur has fed the imagination of children’s authors for as long as there have been children’s authors – but never with such vivid, visceral, iconoclastic results. Gwyna is a sixth-century slave-girl, fleeing for her life as her lord’s hall burns in a skirmish, finding safety in the river and then an unlikely protector. Myrddin is the warlord Arthur’s bard and myth-maker, and he sees potential in the terrified Gwyna who becomes his accomplice, witnessing at first hand and sometimes playing her own part in the beginnings of the great stories. For Arthur is no noble king but a brutal, vain opportunist, fighting and bullying and extorting his way to greater power, with Myrddin to retell his actions in a better and more heroic light, and Gwyna to see how people are bewitched and subdued by the legend’s power. In time, Gwyna learns to shape her own stories, whether to play a trick on a leeching so-called saint, to ease the pain of a friend’s shocking death or to pay her passage to a new life. It’s a wonderful story about the power of story, and at the same time real and earthy with mud and sweat and cold and fear and survival and exhilaration and friendship. Outstanding.
I’ve written before about No Such Thing as Dragons, one of the best children’s dragon books I know… Perhaps by that time, though, the Predator Cities itch was itching again… For Fever Crumb and its two sequels, Reeve revisits Tom and Hester’s world a full thousand years earlier, before the cities had begun to move. London is a half-ruined place, still easily flaring into riots after the overthrow of the Scriven, the overlords with their patterned skin. Dr Crumb, the engineer, has better cause than most to remember the arrogant Godshawk for whom he once worked, and with whose daughter Wavey he fell, unthinkably, in love. Now Wavey is long gone, the Scriven have been eliminated and Crumb has suppressed all emotion in himself and taught his foster-daughter Fever to do the same, bringing her up amongst the dry, rational Order of Engineers to learn their trade and craft. Everything changes when Fever becomes a part of the archaeologist Kit Solent’s household, and gets a glimpse not only of a normal, irrational, close-knit family but also the dangerous madness of the London crowd. Fever becomes aware that she has knowledge, memories that could not be hers, and she learns that Dr Crumb has not told her everything about her past; but the London mob is closing in, and there are enemies beyond the city too – or are they? Fever’s London is as brilliantly-imagined in its own way as Tom and Hester’s, and it takes none of the pleasure or dramatic tension out of this superb story to know that the one will eventually become the other. A Web of Air, meanwhile, lays the foundations – if that’s the right word – for the great air community above the Predator Cities, while Scrivener’s Moon brings Fever back to London and the birth of the first Traction City. If I understand rightly from Reeve’s blog, there’s another Fever title in the making – I can’t wait.
Reeve’s most recent creation is 9+ boy heaven: the electrically green-jacketed and sparkily-told Goblins, with (chili red) Goblins vs Dwarves just out and a concluding volume also under way (my money is on imperial purple). Goblins is an inspired riff on a range of fantasy tropes, both straight and with a twist, from the Dark Lord in his tower to the would-be hero, from the magically-inept sorcerers to the princess who’s less than keen to be married off to the nearest presentable prince. It all begins, however, with the goblins, who are as greedy and brawling and dishonourable and smelly and stupid as any reader with a decent sense of humour could wish; all except Skarper, the junior goblin with a disturbing tendency to think and ask questions and possibly even have feelings. That sort of behaviour simply can’t be tolerated in a goblin, and the book is almost a much shorter one as Skarper is loaded into the ‘bratapult’ and fired from the ramparts of Clovenstone Keep… Just the sort of time when one might wish to be rescued by a passing cloud, throw in one’s lot with a would-be hero (rather dishy, if none too bright) and be taken in by a kind princess, no longer young and beautiful, but practical and wise instead and with a gift for bringing out the best even in goblins. (When I grow up, I want to be Princess Ned, although preferably without the stiff knees.) The book would still be quite short if it weren’t for the inept sorcerers and their talk of a secret passage into the heart of Clovenstone, its fabled treasures and throne of power; and suddenly Skarper realises that he knows better than anyone how to discover the secret way. Will he follow his goblin instincts and leave his new friends behind? Can he leave them behind? And what will happen when his goblin kin discover that he is still alive? The story is as brilliantly imagined and the writing as pitch-perfect as ever, and the glitter sugar on the icing on the cake is the chance to set up some wonderful comic stand-offs and irresistible asides and one-liners, earning a well-deserved shortlisting for the Roald Dahl Funny Prize.
I can’t think of another children’s author alive whose new titles – whether revisiting existing series or exploring new ideas –give me so much to look forward to, and so consistently meet and exceed expectations when they come in. Incidentally, despite the hopes of millions, to my knowledge Reeve’s books have never yet been filmed; but Goblins was optioned last year by Laika studios, makers of Coraline and ParaNorman, as an animated feature, with Marc Gustafson of Fantastic Mr Fox signed up to direct. Sounds promising!
There’s more Philip Reeve on a well-maintained official site, www.philip-reeve.com, and series sites www.larklight.com and www.predatorcities.co.uk, as well as blog http://philipreeve.blogspot.co.uk. All are made even more striking with illustrations from long-term collaborator David Wyatt – who, as it turns out, has also illustrated my friend Conrad Mason‘s two excellent Tales of Fayt books, and Usborne’s Battles of Ben Kingdom series, both of which are going down a storm with the resident ten-year-olds.