Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Larklight (Philip Reeve)

Philip Reeve
Fiction, YA Fantasy
**+ (Bad/Okay)

DESCRIPTION: Ever since Sir Isaac Newton's remarkable discoveries, the British Empire has dominated the spaceways with its monopoly on aethership travel, with Her Majesty's Realm extending from its Earthly holdings to the moons of Jupiter. Even in the great, dark reaches of space, however, the orbital manor house of Larklight is a quaint backwater, the sort of out-of-the-way place where nothing ever happens. Here, Art and Myrtle Mumby live with their father, a grief-stricken man who buries himself in studies of icthyoform animals that swim in the aether of space. Myrtle yearns to visit London, to learn to be a proper lady, while Art secretly longs for the kinds of adventures he reads about.
Then, one morning, Art woke to find the house blanketed in spiderwebs, with a bloated arachnid calling itself Mr Webster knocking on Larklight's door. With their father captured, Art and Myrtle escape, but their adventures are only just beginning. Before they're through, the Mumby children will have survived the horrors of the lunar Potter Moth, endured captivity among space pirates, visited the deserts of Mars and the storms of Jupiter, and peered into the mysteries of the Cosmos while fighting enemies older than the Earth itself.
And all without a decent spot of tea...

REVIEW: I read glowing reviews on Amazon, and the premise looked intriguing. The first chapter establishes a marvelously inventive universe, with Victorian ideas of the nature of space (as a life-filled "aether" between the stars) and such. Ink illustrations by David Wyatt add a certain old-school charm. Unfortunately, in Chapter 2, invention began giving way to silliness, and I started growing weary of the protagonists. Art and Myrtle epitomize the principles of the Victorian Englishman and -woman, stuffed to the gills with pompous superiority and little but disdain for any class, nation, race, or species other than their own. Throughout their many adventures, they remain firmly mired in their British mindset, with only the smallest hint of softening in their stiff upper lips and ramrod spines - not even when aliens save their worthless little tails time and again. I understand that Reeves was writing a parody of Victorian adventure tales, that the over-the-top Britishness of Art and Myrtle (and other characters) played into that. It didn't make it any easier to suffer through the story with them. Meanwhile, the plot quickly devolves into bluster and noise, full of silly details and even more silly alien life-forms that dance and caper across the pages with the simple lines and levity of a cartoon. Nobody good (or even neutral) actually dies, for all the danger and gunfire; in a universe where taking a stroll in outer space won't kill you, I suppose not much will. This pulled the teeth from the tension, not to mention its attempts to build a sympathetic past for its persecuted pirate crew.
In the end, while I can appreciate the wild imagination and the attempts at humor, Larklight overstays its welcome with unsympathetic characters and a plot that simply won't let the good guys fail.

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