Infernal Devices by Philip Reeve (2005) 336 p.
Predator’s Gold had a cosy and happy ending. Anchorage had escaped Arkangel and found refuge in the green parts of America, the city’s ordeals were over, and Hester was pregnant with Tom’s child. Terrible things had happened to Anna Fang, and there was a dark implication that war was coming to the world… but that would never trouble Anchorage, which was secret and safe.
In Infernal Devices, sixteen years have passed, and Tom and Hester’s teenage daughter Wren is bored of her backwater life and aching for the same adventures her parents had. When a group of Lost Boys arrive from Grimsby, seeking the mysterious Tin Book of Anchorage, Wren is enchanted by their sense of romance and danger, and agrees to help them steal it in exchange for taking her away with them. But as with any of Reeve’s books, charming strangers turn out to be less altruistic than they appear, and it’s not long before the blood and violence comes and Tom and Hester are drawn back across the ocean to rescue their kidnapped daughter.
The largest change here is clearly the shift from Tom and Hester to the younger generation: their daughter Wren, and the slave-boy Theo whom she later meets in captivity. Tom and Hester are still vital parts of the book (and Hester’s character arc is still the most important one) but it still feels something of a shame; Wren is cut from Tom’s mould, a naive character swept up in events beyond her, and Theo is not particularly interesting either. There are two major characters from previous books returning, however, to make up for this. Shrike is found and resurrected in the opening chapter, raised from the grave he was left in on the Black Island in Mortal Engines and turned by the Green Storm towards a hidden agenda; and Pennyroyal also returns, not having been punished by the gods for his actions in Predator’s Gold, but rather having risen to a position of weath, power and luxury. (Speaking of antagonists, Infernal Devices‘ villain of the day is probably the weakest of the series; Nabisco Shkin, a stereotypical cold and cruel slave trader, not as interesting as the megalomaniacal Magnus Crome or the tragic hero Valentine or the pampered show-off Masgard or the dashing yet fascist Wolf von Kobold, from A Darkling Plain).
The first half of the book starts off slowly, as though Reeve himself was having trouble adjusting to the sudden chronological jump. There’s a lot of shuttling back and forth in limpet subs, and we revisit both the sunken city of Grimsby and Caul’s story arc from Predator’s Gold; both of which I felt were covered fairly well in the second book and didn’t need to be repeated. Infernal Devices hits its stride in the second half, as Tom and Hester arrive in the floating pleasure resort of Brighton, where Wren has been sold into slavery. The Green Storm’s assault on the city at the climax of the novel is probably one of the high points of the entire series, sparkling with spectacular imagery as chaos and violence erupts in, around and above Brighton. Featuring airships, fighter planes, cyborg troops, a floating palace under attack, a slave revolt, and several characters running about in the chaos trying to accomplish their own ends, Reeve very successfully brings the big-screen mayhem of a battle to life on the pages. It is awesome, in both the contemporary and the old-fashioned sense of the word.
Not wanting to be caught up in the stampede, Theo pushed Wren into the shelter of one of Pennyroyal’s abstract statues. They huddled together and watched moon-lit exhaust trails billow in the sky around Cloud 9 like skeins of spider-silk as the Flying Ferrets buzzed and tumbled, hurling themselves at the Storm’s airships. It was as if each ship had a seed of fire inside it, and the Flying Ferrets were patiently probing for it with streams of incendiary bullets. When they found it the airship would begin to glow from inside like a MoonFest lantern, then blinding patterns of light would chequer the envelope, and finally the whole thing would become a dazzling pyre, casting eerie shadows from the cypress groves as the wind carried it past Cloud 9.
But the airships were fighting back, and so were the clouds of Resurrected eagles and condors which flew with them. The birds descended in flapping black clouds upon the Ferrets’ flying machines, slashing at the wings and rigging and the unprotected pilots, and as the Ferrets struggled to evade them they made easy targets for the airships’ rocket and machine-cannon. Wings were shredded, fuel tanks blew apart, rotor-blades came flipping and fluttering across the Pavilion’s lawns like bits of an exploding venetian blind. The Bad Hair Day, its wings ripped off, plunged burning into the cable-car station. The Group Captain Mandrake veered sideways into the Wrestling Cheese and both machines crashed together through the flank of a Green Storm destroyer and went down with it, a vast barrel of fire sinking gracefully towards the sea.
Against the backdrop of this greater violence is Hester’s own developing bloodlust, as she raids the Shkin corporation’s headquarters and cuts down those who stand in her way with a passion. At first others begin to question it…
“I’m sure Hester only did what she had to,” said Tom, a little uneasily, because he wasn’t sure of that at all.
… and are later appalled by it:
“You enjoy it,” he said. “Don’t you? Like when you killed all those people at Shkin’s place, you were enjoying it…”
Hester said, “They were slavers, Tom. They were villains. They were the ones who sold Wren. They sold our little girl. The world’s a better place without them in it.”
She shook her head and gave a cry of frustration. Why could he not understand? “Look,” she said, “we’re just little people, aren’t we? Little small people, trying to live our lives, but always at the mercy of men like Uncle and Shkin and Masgard and Pennyroyal and… and Valentine. So yes. It feels good to be as strong as them; it feels good to fight back, and even things up a bit.”
Tom said nothing. By the light of the instrument panels she could see a fresh bruise forming on his head where it had struck the chart table. “Poor Tom,” she said, leaning over to kiss it, but he twitched away again, staring at the fuel gauges.
Hester fails to understand that Tom does not take issue with her killing – which she can usually justify – but with the disturbing fact that she takes pleasure in doing it.
Unlike most children’s fiction, Reeve’s world is morally grey, and no characters are all good or all bad. Despite Hester’s terrible attributes, she still has good in her, and the reader sympathises with her. Even Tom, when he meets Pennyroyal again, is somewhat capable of hate and anger. And it’s hard to tell what to make of Pennyroyal himself: a liar, thief, scoundrel and all-round selfish bastard, who still manages to seem charming and vaguely likeable, even to the reader. Indeed, at the climax of the novel, he helps the characters escape his burning city alongside him. There’s a character inthe film The Mummy called Benny, who is a snivelling weasel of long acquaintance with Brendan Fraser’s protagonist, and who sells him out at every opportunity and aligns himself with the evil mummy. And yet when they’re all fleeing the City of the Dead at the end, and are escaping from the ol’ descending-roof trick, Brendan Fraser still sticks a hand out and tries to save him. Not because he’s better than Benny, or has forgiven him, but because they’ve been through so much crazy shit together that they still have a sort of ill-defined camraderie. That, in a way, is Pennyroyal.
I mentioned in my review of Predator’s Gold that the actions of the characters have much wider and more complex repercussions than in most young adult fiction, or indeed any fantasy, sci-fi or adventure novels. That’s apparent even more in Infernal Devices, particularly with regards to Hester and the Lost Boy named Fishcake. While much of what happens in the novel revolves around the MacGuffin of the Tin Book, more subtle chains of cause and effect are unfolding in the background. Hester’s betrayal of Anchorage to the Huntsmen, which seemed so neatly resolved in Predator’s Gold when she told Freya, becomes very important towards the climax of Infernal Devices.
When I began this re-read I was particularly interested to see what I would make of the second two books. The series can be easily divided into two halves, one with a young Tom and Hester deeply in love, and one with an old Tom and Hester who have a kid and a marriage built on routine. There is a part of me that wishes we had five or ten books of Tom and Hester in their early twenties, flying around the world getting into adventures on the Jenny Haniver. But Reeve, to his credit, is not interested in pumping out colour-by-number adventure books. He’s interested in writing rich, detailed and exciting adventure books, which also explore deeper themes and have excellent characterisation. There is a faint sense that something has been lost – that if he was going to pass the torch to a new generation of characters, he could have made them as interesting as Hester – but Hester is still there, and still wonderful, and one fascinating character is more than most young adult books can offer. Infernal Devices is yet another beautiful entry in my favourite adventure series of all time.
(And I particularly love the cover for this one, with Tom and Hester flailing at the controls of a submarine. HOW DO YA WORK THIS CRAZY THING?!)
Infernal Devices at The Book Depository