Monday, May 18, 2009

Larklight by Philip Reeve

Where on earth do I go with this. Such mixed feelings. I really wanted, really really wanted, to like this book. And a lot of people really do. It's won rave reviews all over, including by bloggers whose taste is close to my own and whose opinions I respect. It leads me to wonder if I maybe just didn't read the book in the right frame of mind, because I really should have loved it and I didn't. Not entirely.

I started out really liking it. But there's one point in my journal where I write: "Currently, my favourite character is the Duke of Wellington:
'Shoot 'em!' shouted the Duke of Wellington, losing patience with us all. 'Shoot the whole d-----d lot of 'em!'
Because I sympathize with the man."

Probably not good.

Towards the end, though, things were looking up enough that I felt I could enjoy reading a sequel, just to see if the characters had indeed grown in the way they seemed to be showing signs of germinating in the last two chapters.

The story (as advertised, "A Rousing Tale of Dauntless Pluck in the Farthest Reaches of Space") is told primarily through the diary of twelve-year-old Arthur Mumby, who has grown up in the space-house Larklight with his father and elder sister, Myrtle. Their mother vanished with a lost aethership when Arthur was four, and Arthur and Myrtle have essentially raised themselves since. At the beginning of the book, Larklight prepares to greet a strange visitor, and what follows is a very imaginative, old-school adventure through this wonderful alternate Victorian fantasy world.

Here's the thing: I loved the world of Larklight. I loved the idea that space is basically like a giant ocean full of strange and wonderful space wildlife like aetheric "fish" and wind-whales; that the British, in addition to exploring and colonizing many portions of Earth, have explored and colonized much of the solar system as well. The world that Reeve has created is just fascinating. It has that same faux-futuristic feel that the [thoroughly enjoyed by me] movie Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow did, but far better execution. His creative imagination runs rampant, giving us sometimes hilarious, sometimes awe-inspiring creatures and environments, and they're all well-detailed and fully believable within the context of his world. I'd love to live in it and I really wish it were real.

The problem is, I'm pretty sure I wouldn't want to live in it with many of his characters.

Arthur grew on me. At first I found him quite annoying (and honestly, I do suffer a little bit from finding most twelve-year-olds a bit annoying). But he really did grow on me and I'm glad he did, since the vast majority of the book takes place in his diary. Arthur's sister Myrtle, however, drove me nuts. I (like Art) wanted to boot her out into space for most of the book. I have no patience for her at all.

I had hoped this was just twelve-year-old-boy biased perspective that caused me trouble, but no -- it turns out, when we get a few chapters from Myrtle's perspective, that she's every bit as irritating, weak, cowardly, foolish, tactless, pious, patronizing and pompous as Art thinks she is. I hated that, as the only human female in the book, she was so useless. Now, inevitably and predictably, some of that changes as we get further into the book; but not enough for my taste, frankly. She's one of the characters I can possibly see actually growing in a good direction in the next book, as I think a large part of her problem is that she needs to grow up. Still -- spending time with a character who frustrates me so much is not exactly what I was hoping for in this book.

Many of the secondary characters, particularly those on Jack Havock's ship (including Ssilissa, whom I wish we'd seen more in depth, and who is not evil) and the Martians, are really cool. Much too cool to put up with Myrtle for long (but they do, which was harder on my suspension of disbelief than hoverpigs and Changeling Trees). Their back stories are interesting and their characters are well-defined, even if somewhat two-dimensional in most cases.

This may have been the part I was taking too seriously, brought on by an acute case of Myrtle-itis: I haven't read a lot set in Victorian times, or a lot of novels written in the Victorian era. And from what I know of Victorian times I really wouldn't have enjoyed myself very much then, at least among certain society. Colonialism (and the idea that everyone not born in Britain was stupid and in need of British "protection" and "education") was rampant and expected. Lots of things that I have trouble with, like whaling and scientific collection and dissection and inhumane experimentation, were pretty rampant and expected in Victorian times. I think part of my problem with this book is that Art is well indoctrinated into this culture and spouts off a lot of things that make me cringe. Though the fact that I'm cringing over his patronizing attitude towards Ionians (humanoid, but with four arms, and from the Jovian satellite Io) goes to show how well the world is built...

Finally -- and I can't talk very much about this as there would be spoilers, although anyone should be able to see them coming -- there were a number of things that happened towards the end of the book that seemed either rushed, too convenient, or somehow less imaginative than they could have been. After such a creative book, the things that don't fit (or do fit but are just sketched in as opposed to thoroughly explored) stick out. Now, this is a kids' book -- and some of my disappointments would hardly be noticed by a twelve-year-old boy. So if you can just barrel though (by the time the end hits, the pace of the book is breakneck) and keep your twelve-year-old-boy mindset, you won't be mildly annoyed by various predictable happenings or completely unsold plot developments.

There are parts that are quite funny, it's a good adventure, and I'm not sure I can stress enough how fabulous the world-building is, because the book's worth reading just for that; but you may, with regularity, want to punt various (or all) characters into the uncharted depths of space. Also, if you like spiders, or even think spiders might be okay as long as they're not in the same room with you, try to remember that these giant space spiders have 12 legs, not 8, and are therefore not related to our lovable little earth arachnids at all, and try not to feel just slightly injured that spiders get such a bad rap.

To end the review on a high note:

"Among my mother's books I had once discovered a volume of stories by a gentleman named Mr Poe, who lives in Her Majesty's American colonies. There was one, The Premature Burial, which gave me nightmares for weeks after I read it, and I remember thinking there could be no fate more horrible than to be buried alive, and wondering what kind of deranged and sickly mind could have invented such a tale. But as I lay there immobilised in a jar on the wrong side of the Moon with only a ravening caterpillar for company I realized that Mr Poe was actually quite a cheery, light-hearted sort of chap, and that his story had been touchingly optimistic."

And yes, I will certainly read Starcross, second in the trilogy. I want to hang out in the aether for a little longer.

Other people who liked this better than me:
Books & other thoughts
Abby (the) Librarian
Saving my Sanity


Nan said...

I love the way you ended this - 'people who liked this better than me.' I laughed right out loud. I'll never read it, but your review was fantastic!

Unknown said...

I think I was maybe just in a bad Myrtle-mood when I read it. So I hope that people on the fence will read those other reviews too. :) But thank you -- I spent a lot of time on this review, because especially when I don't like a book as much as expected, I want to figure out why.

Ana S. said...

I wonder how I'd feel about this. The world sounds fascinating, but I suspect the characters would annoy me too. I know what you mean about Victorian social attitudes. I actually love reading modern novels set in Victorian times, but part of the fun is that they're almost always subversive. People complain that their protagonists aren't realistic, and maybe not, but then again I bet there were people back then who thought differently from the majority. And they're more fun for me to read about.

Unknown said...

Yes! That's always the way I've preferred my characters, when faced with society I find repugnant -- I want to see them defy it, or work around it, and still thrive. What's interesting here, though, is that I think Reeve is trying to show how ridiculous certain attitudes are (such as colonialism and sexism) and deal with them that way, but I mostly found it annoying because I already agree with him.

I suggest trying it despite the characters, just for the fantasy world. Arthur really isn't that bad. And I do feel like they're all going to smarten up a bit in the next book -- but I'll let you know. Perhaps Larklight is one to borrow before buying?