A Darkling Plain by Philip Reeve (2006) 533 p.
God damn, this is a great series.
A Darkling Plain is the final installment in Philip Reeve’s beautiful, creative, swashbuckling adventure series Mortal Engines. For some reason there is a statistical spike in the fourth book of a series being huge. Wizard And Glass, Harry Potter And The Goblet of Fire, and now A Darkling Plain, which clocks in at over 500 pages and is nearly twice the length of any of the previous books.
Infernal Devices was the first book in the series to end on a cliffhanger, with Tom and Hester parting after Hester’s bloodthirsty rampage aboard Brighton, and Hester being taken out into the desert by her old friend and enemy, the Stalker Shrike. A Darkling Plain opens six months later, with a ceasefire in place between the Green Storm and the Traktionstadtsgesselschaft. Tom and his daughter Wren have returned to the Bird Roads aboard their old airship the Jenny Haniver, and Tom is trying hard not to think about his old wife.
Anyone who hasn’t read the previous three books would be befuddled by that paragraph; as with any series, the final book is not really the ideal entry point. All finales build upon what came before them, but I was impressed with how Reeve managed to touch upon nearly all of his previous inventions here: Stalkers and Old-Tech, the clash between cities and “mossies,” Lost Boys and limpets, Brighton and Airhaven, Pennyroyal and Sathya and Khora and the Stalker Fang, and even London itself. When I read this book for the first time, I felt like I was revisiting a familiar and much-loved old house, and I felt the same way the second time around. In Mortal Engines and Predator’s Gold, Reeve crafted one of the most original and intriguing worlds young adult fiction has ever seen; in Infernal Devices and A Darkling Plain, he tears it apart with all the reckless, theatrical zest of a Hollywood director, laying waste to people and airships and entire cities. It’s incredible stuff, and Reeve has a beautiful visual talent with words, whether he’d describing a tranquil mountainside pasture or an enormous city being obliterated by an orbital weapon.
Yet Reeve’s skill is much more than just stage-magic; the Mortal Engines series also displays his knack for understanding and expressing complex emotions. Fishcake is perhaps the most wretched and pitiful character in the book, a Lost Boy ruthlessly abandoned by Hester at the climax of Infernal Devices, who clings to the only love he can find by rescuing and repairing the damaged Stalker Fang. Anna Fang’s memories are caught within the Stalker’s harsher mind, and Fishcake finds himself trapped in an abusive relationship as she switches between Anna, the loving mother he never had, and the Stalker Fang, a heartless machine.
He did not remember calling anybody that before. “Mummy.” He was crying, and the Stalker comforted him, stroking his head with her clumsy hands and whispering an old Chinese lullaby that Anna Fang had heard in her own childhood, on the Bird Roads, long ago.
And Fishcake slept, and did not wake up until she turned into the Stalker Fang again and stood up, dumping him on to the floor.
Shrike, too, is one of the novel’s strangely empathetic characters. A robotic Stalker, he seeks love in Hester Shaw, a reliable companion, patiently waiting for her to die so he can have her resurrected like himself. Yet Shrike is more than a single-minded character; in spite of his obsession with Hester, or perhaps because of it, he also cares about others. As the novel approaches its climax, he clearly and simply accepts that he has a role to play in saving the world, without any selfish ulterior motives, and attempts to carry that role out for no reason other than it being the right thing to do.
“THEY WOULD NOT BELIEVE US,” said Shrike. “THEY THINK WE ARE PAWNS OF THEIR ENEMIES. I MUST GO TO ERDENE TEZH AND SEARCH FOR HER MYSELF.”
“Is that your idea?” asked Hester suspiciously. “Or is one of Oenone’s secret programmes still running in that brain of yours?”
Shrike turned to look at her. “I DO NOT KNOW. BUT DR. ZERO REBUILT ME FOR A PURPOSE. I AM THE ONLY ONE WHO CAN DESTROY THE STALKER FANG. I MUST SEEK HER OUT AND REASSASSINATE HER.”
“Thought you couldn’t kill anybody.”
“STALKERS ARE NOT ALIVE, SO IT WILL NOT BE KILLING,” Shrike said patiently. “EVEN IF IT WERE, IT WOULD HAVE TO BE DONE.” He waved one massive hand at the windows, at the mountain burning in the south. “IF SHE IS ALLOWED TO CONTINUE THIS DESTRUCTION, MILLIONS OF ONCE-BORN WILL PERISH.”
While we’re on the topic of characters, I must note that I was disappointed (as I was the first time around) by Tom and Hester’s reconciliation. Hester reveals to Tom that Valentine was her real father, and blames her bloodlust on genetics. Tom, by and large, accepts this as a reasonable answer. I felt this was a cop-out, one which undermined not only Hester’s violent character arc, but also the schism between herself and Tom, which was handled so terribly well in Infernal Devices.
Not to matter, though, because at that point in the book so much other stuff is happening that it’s easy to forgive Reeve’s slip-ups. Like Infernal Devices, A Darkling Plain begins slowly but soon kicks into high gear, and the climax of the novel is astounding, a fitting capstone to the previous thousand pages of this wonderful world. There are books where you care deeply about the characters, who are well-crafted and express all the foibles and sufferings of real people; and there are books of high adventure, where the characters make a crazy and desperate bid to save the world in a series of action set-pieces in exotic locations. In very few books do these two things overlap. A Darkling Plain, along with the other books of the Mortal Engines series, is one of them. The climax is split into two parts, one taking place in the ruins of London and one in a lonely house on a lake in a Himalayan valley called Erdene Tezh. I want to avoid spoilers in this review, but suffice to say that while the London climax is more action-packed, the Erdene Tezh climax is intensely more moving. There is one particular scene – Hester, Tom, Fishcake, Pennyroyal, a knife and an airship – that is flawlessly executed. Every word falls into place; the story barrels forward with an unstoppable momentum. The culmination of Tom and Hester’s story is a beautiful, terrible, heart-rending kick in the guts. And the final chapter, in which Shrike arrives at Erdene Tezh too late, is the perfect finishing touch to a fantastic series of novels. There are stark few stories where the characters grow on you so much that tumultuous events in their lives can affect your own, at least to the point where you don’t want to read any other stories for a little while, as you reflect and digest. A Darkling Plain is one of these rare, beautiful few.
I recall thinking the first time I read A Darkling Plain that it was badly paced; that the chapters taking place in the ruins of London were too bloated, too stretched out, that they compromised the novel. Reading it the second time I was surprised that they didn’t seem too stretched out at all; they don’t really take up all that many pages. They do, however, lack something. I couldn’t put my finger on what exactly. Some kind of sparkle or shine; possibly any interesting characters, since the background cast of Londoners feel like cardboard cut-outs. Reeve did a great job at creating limited characters who appropriately filled a background (nothing more and nothing less) in Anchorage in Predator’s Gold; in London, he doesn’t quite manage it, and as a result the London chapters feel a bit tedious. Maybe it’s something else, too – in any case, I was always happy when a London chapter finished, and a new one began in Erdene Tezh or Batmunkh Gompa or Murnau. On the topic of the book’s length in general, it can sometimes feel disjointed or bloated, and the first half moves at a slow enough pace that the book as a whole, despite its size, doesn’t actually seem to contain much more than any of the previous three books did. But no matter – the previous three books were all brilliant, and so is A Darkling Plain, even if it has a bit of empty space in it. By the time I reached that perfect climax, I no longer cared about any fiddly little faults anyway.
I think it’s clear that I love these books too much to offer an impartial review. But I also feel that, beyond my own blinding love and nostalgia, they are genuinely some of the best young adult novels that have ever been written. Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy may have greater literary merit, and JK Rowling’s Hary Potter series may be far more popular, but while I loved both those series, neither of them made me care as much about the characters or feel as deeply engaged with the story as Mortal Engines did. Philip Reeve is forever destined to be an underrated author, because nothing short of Harry Potter levels of hype and prestige would do the Mortal Engines series justice.
Reeve has written several prequel novels – Fever Crumb, A Web of Air and Scrivener’s Moon – which take place a thousand years earlier, at the dawn of the Traction Era. I haven’t read these before, and I’ve bought all of them in preparation, but the thought of reading them fills me with dreadful anticipation. I’m concerned, of course, that he will never live up to the astronomical standard set by the Mortal Engines series. We shall have to wait and see. I need a good gap between them, so that I can properly digest A Darkling Plain.
Such terrific, wonderful books. I’m sad to have finished reading them again, but I know that I’ll revisit them many times throughout my life.
A Darkling Plain at The Book Depository