Larklight – Philip Reeve

And we return to the world of books-of-words, with a jolly exciting tale of a boy’s romping adventure through space, saving the whole bally Empire while he’s at it. What larks!287892

Sorry. But that is sort of how Larklight is written. It’s so… utterly, ridiculously over the top in the whole Victoriana style of speech. And it’s insidious – I stopped noticing it by the end of the book, which is terrible, considering just how caricatured the style is. And I think this is what makes the book for me. You may recall I didn’t get on with steampunk when I read The Martian Ambassador? Well, apparently the cure for that is turning all the dials to eleven. Because I really, really enjoyed Larklight.

I mean, I also simultaneously was really worried about liking it/disapproved of it. I held both views simultaneously the entire time, even though they were conflicting. It was… complicated.

So. Here’s the thing. As a grown up, reading the book, I saw all the tropes it was parodying, and got all the digs at the silliness. But it’s a YA book (and it felt pitched fairly young for YA… I was convinced it was a kids’ book until I checked). And I’m not fully certain how clear those would be to someone reading it aged… I don’t know… 12. It felt like a book I’d have read aged 12, certainly. And I think a lot of it would have gone over my head. And if you don’t get all the digs and the jokes, it feels… too Victorian. Too misogynist, is what I’m really getting at.

The whole book is told from the perspective of a young boy, who has an older sister. His descriptions of her are all “how dull, she’s talking about dresses again” and about how useless she is because GIRL ugh. And I’m not sure 12-year-old me was smart enough not to take this all at face value. Possibly I do not give sufficient credit to pre-teens, but I doubt it. And if you take the book at that face value, there are a lot of really not good messages (not just gender-related, either). As an adult, they’re all there and pretty darn obvious… but the book isn’t meant for adults… and this just worries me. There’s a lot about Victorian culture that I’m quite glad is very much gone thank you kindly and can we never have that back please? I don’t know. The more I think about it, the more I suspect the author is wiser than me on what we can trust a YA audience to know or not know.

So moving on.

None of the rest of what the book does is exactly spectacular. The story’s great and the characters are fun, and there’s nothing wrong with them at all, they just aren’t standout amazing. What makes it is that ridiculous committment to the setting. Every tiny possible detail has been added to, twisted and made funny. I couldn’t help but smile every couple of minutes just because it’s… brilliant.

And, as an additional bonus, there are some pretty brilliant/stupid references. For instance:

2016-04-07

Which obviously made me very happy.

There are others much like it too, so I won’t spoil.

The narrator’s voice is absolutely wonderful, and the change of pace to his sister’s diary is both a brilliant contrast and a perfect continuation of the same. It’s just… a beautiful cliché of tone and I love it to pieces.

I say the characters aren’t standout, but they still are rather good. Because while they maintain that pseudo-Victorian stiff-upper-lip, we still manage to get a really good sense of them as people. To strike the balance between cliché (and they are all absolutely clichés) and plausible, likeable characters is quite skilful, and Reeve has done it without any sort of visible effort or difficulty. Even the bit-parts manage it.

The same balance is struck in the way he constructs his story, walking that fine line between “so obvious that it’s not obvious anymore” and the unexpected. You catch yourself thinking “no, he won’t, there’s no way he’ll do that… oh, oh my goodness he did it! Brilliant!”. And yet, wandering through this, you find the story leading you places you didn’t quite expect. It’s not what sells the book to me, but it definitely deserves recognition.

As someone who was becoming convinced she didn’t like steampunk as a genre, I hold up my hands and apologise. It’s a brilliant, ridiculous, terrible, wonderful book and I rather love it. Good job, book. Steampunk gets another chance, and I will definitely be reading more of this series.

Aaaand I just found out this is part of a trilogy and the third is called “Mothstorm”. God’s sake…

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About readerofelse

A student of a redundant, useless and thoroughly interesting subject and reader of many books, particularly fantasy, science fiction and plenty else besides.
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