Black Light Express by Philip Reeve (2016) 303 p.
Railhead ended with interstellar thief Zen Starling and his robotic friend and lover Nova escaping the encroaching forces of the Network Empire by riding their train through a newly-built teleportation gateway to an entirely alien railway network. That sentence sounds completely bonkers if you haven’t read Railhead, but the general gist is that it’s a space opera set in a far-future universe where people travel on intelligent trains, moving between different star systems by virtue of a network of mysterious gateways; there’s some confusion as to whether they were built by a long-vanished alien race, or by the Guardians, the pantheon of god-like AIs who have exercised benevolent rule over the human race for centuries now.
Black Light Express is a fast-paced, enjoyable sequel to Railhead. Reeve has a lot of fun in Stark Trek mode during the first half, inventing all kinds of bizarre alien species for Zen and Nova to encounter as they travel upon what turns out to be the original interstellar network. As always, he shows a great flair for creating morally grey characters, and for expanding upon characters who were seemingly introduced to serve purely as villains – like Kobi Chen-Tulsi, a spoilt rich jerk in Railhead but somebody a bit older and wiser now. I also enjoyed seeing more of the Guardians, which were brushed upon in Railhead but are explored more thoroughly here.
Reeve also explores the concept of unconventional love, whether it’s Zen and Nova or the even stranger relationship between Malik (one of those morally grey antagonists from Railhead) and the human “interface” of the Guardian Mordaunt 90. This is a particularly interesting thing to see in the YA genre, in which authors these days are very cognisant of the fact that their target audience includes what you might call at-risk teenagers. The obvious example I’m thinking of is the need for closeted gay kids to see valid, celebrated gay relationships on the page and on the screen – but it’s quite easy to just throw in a couple of gay characters. Instead, by depicting unconventional relationships with a sci-fi slant that will never apply at all in the real world, Reeve has come up with a creative and thoughtful metaphor that young readers can interpret more broadly: a statement that love knows no boundaries, is not necessarily linked to sex, and can manifest in surprising and unexpected ways.
But that’s just a small part of it, one which I thought was particularly original and worth noting – Reeve’s not writing some manifesto on love. Black Light Express is still mostly adventures and explosions and all-powerful AIs and alien ruins and snarky trains. I don’t love the Railhead series quite as much as I loved the Mortal Engines series, but I’m pretty sure that’s just the nostalgia factor. These books are brilliant examples of YA sci-fi which deserve a place in every school library, and Reeve remains of Britain’s most criminally underrated authors. I hope we get a third entry in the series next year.