Starcross – Philip Reeve

No sooner had I completed Larklight than I had the sequel thrust upon me (oh no, such a shame, how will I cope…?). I then proceeded to read it immediately which, as is often the case, turned out to be an error.

Like many sequels to inventive, unexpected or wonderful things, Starcross has the problem of how to follow up the success of its predecessor. Because Larklight really was wonderful… but a lot of the wonderful came precisely from it being unexpected. And how can you really replicate that in a sequel? Either you maintain the things that were excellent in the first one, and so retain the appeal but without the surprise (the problem with Red Seas Under Red Skies, in my opinion), or you try to go in a new direction, and risk it being vastly inferior (as in Children of God, where that risk was successfully avoided). Reeve has obviously chosen the first option. And while there’s nothing wrong with Starcross, because it’s not as shiny and wonderful and new as the first one, I couldn’t help but be a touch disappointed.

If anything, the problem is that Starcross is too perfect a replica of the recipe for excellence in Larklight. While the story of course is not the same, a lot of the elements, both aesthetic and narrative, are so very very similar that I find myself with very little to discuss about it. Because it does all the wonderful, clever and right things that Larklight does… but which I’ve already talked about once and don’t fancy repeating myself about at you. I’m not suggesting that I didn’t enjoy reading it – Larklight  was a wonderful, brilliant book and by following the same pattern, so is Starcross, and I would happily say that I loved it too. I didn’t want to put it down. I laughed aloud (or groaned) at some of the jokes. I spent several minutes staring at the endpapers (which are again covered in mock advertisements appropriate to the setting). But it’s not much of a different book to Larklight. So what is there really to say?

I suppose the only major difference is the handling of the romance plot between Myrtle and Jack… and to some extent the handling of Myrtle herself. Reeve introduces the necessary turmoil phase of their relationship, and they spend much of the book in separate places, or slightly at odds. The narrator (Art) also becomes much less oblivious of their emotions, since that conceit wouldn’t really work a second time around. And I guess this is one of the problems – watching Art be clueless as he narrated Myrtle/Jack was rather amusing, and now that aspect is no longer a joke at the narrator, it’s just not funny anymore. On the other hand, much of what bothered me in the first book was the portrayal of Myrtle (however self-mocking it was), and so her progression to become a slightly more autonomous character is very satisfying indeed. It’s not a huge step forward, but it is a step, and a welcome one… though once again, this undermines a lot of the narrator’s jokes about her and her uselessness.

Another thing I found interesting about Starcross was the choice of bad guy. Something I often find… if not uncomfortable then certainly awkward in fiction is choosing real life “bad guys” and then either using them straight off in the fictional world, or making such an obvious pastiche that you may as well be. However well it’s done, for one thing, it’s going to date (and probably badly). And even in the moment it’s just… nyrrr. If you pick the antagonist du jour… you wander into making real statements of ethics or politics and… that can be problematic stuff. But Starcross is set in the pseudo-past… and sufficiently far in the pseudo-past that the antagonist they picked is, well, the French. And I don’t know if it’s years of e.g. Shakespeare, or just it’s such an old trope that it doesn’t have any force anymore, but it doesn’t bother me at all. It doesn’t feel iffy or awkward, and it just… works. And the narrator can get away with being ridiculous and dismissive and talking rot about them because… well… there’s no substance to it as a political thing. It’s real enough to be appropriate and amusing, but not enough to have any negative force anymore. It’s great.

Like many second books of trilogies, Starcross feels like a slightly wobbly in-between step. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Mothstorm (*shudder*) is stunning and wondrous again, and entirely due to the character set-up that Starcross may have done without me noticing. But until I find that out, Starcross remains slightly inferior to what went before, and thus slightly disappointing. Still a good book, by all accounts. Still a wonderful, gripping, fun book that I really, really couldn’t put down. But not as good.

Oh, and one more very important comment. At one point, the story describes the flying pig-creatures (hoverhogs) wearing tiny top hats. But the illustrator has not deemed it necessary to depict this CLEARLY GLORIOUS SIGHT. I am deeply aggrieved.

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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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