Thursday, November 15, 2012
Book Review: A Web of Air
Many years ago, while walking the floor of the book store that employed me, I spotted a kids book with an interesting cover (yes, book covers are important, no matter what proverbs might say; as are the stores in which you find them). It was Larklight, by Philip Reeve. Something about its Jules Verne-type 'adventure in space' style grabbed me and I devoured the book with a smile on my face. A bit of research told me that Reeve had also written a teen-aimed series, so I figured I’d give it a shot. I started reading Mortal Engines and was swept away. Here was a book that delved back into so much of the stuff I’d loved about science fiction since I was a kid. Great machines rolling across the world, ancient tech from a long-gone golden age, airships, dashing adventurers, dangerous women, unexpected twists, and really big ideas. I was hooked, and in fairly quick succession read the following three books that form Reeve’s epic tale of two broken people trying to find peace in a world shaking to its core. The ending of the last book actually brought tears to my eyes. Great stuff. And I’ve continued to read Reeve’s work, with two follow-ups to Larklight, the Arthurian tale Here Lies Arthur, and finally a couple years ago, a new book set in the world of Mortal Engines, Fever Crumb (I haven’t read No Such Thing as Dragons, yet).
I’m not generally a big fan of prequels. I’m not against them, but they seldom do much for me. The best prequels are removed from the original work by a good deal of time, develop some unknown factors, and while they may deal with similar issues, need to stand well on their own. Fever Crumb is one such prequel. The book deals with the days before London was mobile, and with some of the events that led up to that change. It introduces us to the titular character, a young Engineer discovering the truth about her own ancestry, while dealing with some other, most irrational problems. Though it pains me to say, I was actually pretty disappointed with the book. Sure, it was written well, and the pre-mobile London world, still well into the bleak future Reeve has created, is lavishly painted. But ultimately, I was never fully engaged in the story or the characters. And when the book was over, I felt more like I’d read the introduction to a novel than the novel itself. Perhaps I’d loved the four book ‘Predator Cities’ series too much and this prequel couldn’t live up. I don’t know. Certainly those books felt denser; packed with more story. Still, I picked up the following book when it came out, but let it sit on my shelf for more than a year, unread.
Recently, my ambient desire for more cool science fiction got a bit louder and less ambient. And, at the same time, the third book in Reeve’s Fever Crumb trilogy hit the stands. I pick up all of his books, so as I slid it onto the shelf next to A Web of Air, I decided now was the time to read the second book. I’m so glad I did. Right off the bat I found myself more engaged with Fever and her life with a traveling theater troupe. I liked the exotic location of Mayda, built inside a giant bomb crater. And the mystery of the reclusive inventor and his flying models pulled me in.
As with the tale of Tom and Hester told in the original four books, this story features several kind of cliché set-ups that prepare you for tried and true story progressions. Then Reeve cold cocks you, sending the story or character in another direction entirely. One character might get built up as a major player, only to die an ignominious death. Another may seem like a friend, only to be as vicious a villain as you could wish for. Happiness is found, only to be snatched away, making its brief appearance all the more precious. And unlike several other prequels I’ve read or seen, the knowledge of what will happen in the future doesn’t serve as a block to caring. It is an ominous dread that lurks in the shadow of events, but not a wall. It’s not like watching The Clone Wars, where you might think, ‘oh, man, that was awesome,’ only to remember that all these cool things are made moot by the idiocy of Revenge of the Sith. This book feels more like a pre-WWII tale, where you know war is about to break out, but what these people are doing beforehand still means something; even if their lives are swallowed up in the oncoming storm.
So, this second book in the Fever Crumb trilogy has reinvigorated my excitement with Philip Reeve’s work. It’s made me want to sit down and re-read Mortal Engines and its sequels. And I’m sure as heck interested in reading the third book now. While it may not be the next book in my rotation, I don’t think I’ll be waiting a year this time around. And something that struck me about A Web of Air, and Reeve’s more recent writing in general, is a refreshing sense of reality, rationalism, and scientific thinking; getting below the magical thinking of fantasy, religion, mythology, etc. and getting to the heart of the matter. This is explicitly illustrated in Fever Crumb’s dealings with Orca Mo in this book. Fever's disgust at the woman’s behavior and the general behavior of her followers, is deep and reasoned. At one point she says, “If you really want to stop people thinking, you don’t use guns or bombs. You use religion.” That is a line I can’t imagine reading in a youth-aimed book twenty years ago, and it made me so happy. In a time when even adult science fiction is filled with claptrap about how sometimes ‘you just need to believe’ or ‘some things can’t be known’ or are ‘beyond science,’ it’s so, so nice to see someone calling BS and standing up for reason, rationality, and science. It’s even more important that it be in books aimed at kids, because that’s the age people are most susceptible to and most targeted by religion and purveyors of magical thinking. My hat is off to Mr. Reeve for that. Plus, it's a darned entertaining read.
A Web of Air
Author: Philip Reeve
Publisher: Scholastic Press