A Darkling Plain by Philip Reeve
Reviewed by Martin Lewis
09 May 2006
"Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night."
—Matthew Arnold, "Dover Beach"
This far into any series—this is the fourth and final book of Philip Reeve's Traction Cities series—there is a wealth of backstory that cannot be readily explicated for the newcomer. Suffice to say the story takes place in a post-apocalyptic far future where vast moving cities battle the airborne armies of mountain fastnesses for reasons that are as much ideological as resource based. As the book opens, an uneasy peace exists between these two factions, the Traction Cities and the Green Storm—or the townies and the mossies, as they derogatorily call each other—but, as always, peace is not to everyone's advantage. Factions on both sides pursue their own agendas whilst the Stalker Fang (the cyborg reincarnation of a Green Storm general encountered in previous books) seeks to bring the Sunless Country of death to all of them. In the midst of this intrigue Reeve's protagonists continue to fight for personal, rather than political, reasons.
For this reason the plot is not too far removed from the previous books. Wren Natsworthy (the heroine of the previous book, Infernal Devices, and daughter of Tom and Hester, the protagonists of the first two books, Mortal Engines and Predator's Gold) and Theo Ngoni are caught up in grand events beyond them but over which they soon wield great influence. There is much leaping from the frying pan into the fire, and there are many daring rescues, unlikely escapes, betrayals and the like. This might harken back to Boy's Own adventures, but the feeling is tempered by the book's pluralist, post-colonial sentiment. As with all such stories it relies rather heavily on coincidence, but though slightly preposterous, it is told with such verve that you cannot begrudge it this.
So it is an adventure both traditional in execution and modern in attitude. Above all else, though, this is a romance. The epigraph from Arnold is apposite because, as in "Dover Beach," here love is the only light in a hostile and baffling world. The romance between Tom and Hester is what drives the first two novels, and as Wren and Theo move centre stage they replicate this earlier relationship. In this there is some sense in which Reeve is repeating himself; however, since he embellishes the old thread whilst simultaneously reinforcing it through the doubling, this is not too pronounced. The only area that is noticeably repetitive is the slightly moralistic point that sexual attraction should not be mistaken for love. In Reeve's world the sexually alluring (such as the dashing but fascistic Wolfram von Kobold) are often actively dangerous. It is true that looks aren't everything and that the sooner you realise this the better, so the lesson is admirable ,but the cumulative effect over four novels is that Reeve does lay it on a little thick.
Whilst the two central pairs are the heart of the book, Reeve takes as much care with his supporting cast, who span both geographical and political compasses. Of these, Fishcake is perhaps the most subversive character in the book. An orphan, he is fuelled by a hate for Hester, who abandoned him at the end of Infernal Devices. This hate manages to find its outlet towards the end in an act of vengeance that Reeve pointedly does not condemn. There is no black and white simplistic morality in this series. Before this, Fishcake also struggles to find love. He plays nursemaid to the grievously injured Fang and in return seeks the mother he never had in her. This is problematic because although she retains some of the personality of Anna, the woman she was, the murderous cyborg portion of her consciousness dominates. When so plainly stated this sounds hackneyed, but the scenes in which the personality of Anna reasserts herself are extremely touching. Throughout all this, though, Reeve maintains a vein of ambiguity. Fishcake prays for Fang to be destroyed leaving Anna behind, yet later when the Stalker praises his work in creating her he cannot help but feel pride. These sections showcase two of Reeve's chief skills: his ability to create extremely empathetic characters and a refusal to elide the complexity of emotions.
Fishcake finds his twin and opposite in the most tragic figure of the book: the Stalker Shrike. As Fishcake seeks a family in Fang, so Shrike looks for the same in Hester. This is not an easy proposition:
Once-born were so fragile; so disposable. Loving one was agony. (p. 302)
Shrike's pain is echoed, in different circumstances, by Hester herself:
She had promised herself she would never care about anyone again, and she should have stuck to it, but no, her stupid heart had opened up for Theo, and now she was dead, and she was paying the price for having loved him. (p. 340)
Although this is a romance it certainly cannot be described as soft-headed. This is a defining feature of Reeve's writing, and his sophisticated and pragmatic worldview is mirrored in his prose. It is witty, sly, and honest, peppered with nice turns of phrase like "Wind turbines dotted the steppe, flailing their long arms like idiot giants." (p. 145) He also repeatedly inserts both politics and satire into his writing. This takes the form of broad critiques, such as the parallels he draws between the Green Storm and the Cultural Revolution, as well as throwaway references, such as a shop sign saying No Dogs, No Mossies.
Recognising this honesty and political awareness does lead us onto the question of exactly who Reeve's audience is, a question further muddied by the modern publishing industry's increasing blurring of the lines between child, young adult, and adult fiction. Though the Traction Cities books are usually shelved in the Teen section of bookshops, the contradictions of theme, execution, and even marketing make the age group Reeve is writing for slightly unclear. For all its liberal attitude to young adult relationships, the sole sexual reference is a wry aside when Wren is being searched for weapons: "(surely they must know that you can't hide anything very dangerous inside your bra?)" (p. 439). This is far less than we would expect from any contemporary-set Teen novel. Instead the shelving is presumably based on the respect Reeve shows his audience and the large amount of bloodletting that takes place on the page.
The two previous sequels, Predator's Gold and Infernal Devices, both suffered slightly from truncated endings. At over five hundred pages, A Darkling Plain certainly has the space to bring the story to a proper conclusion, but length has never been an indicator of successful resolution. As it turns out, although his final volume is just as action-packed as the previous books, Reeve does manage to engineer a deeply satisfying conclusion. Without resorting to simplistically pairing up couples like models on a wedding cake, he gives each of his characters a deserved closing. In particular, Shrike gives the novel an ouroboros coda where the reader finds the tail of the story firmly in its own mouth. This is a device that can seem too coyly self-referential, but here it works perfectly. Bound up with this, Tom and Hester, the engine of the series but apart for the majority of this novel, find a believable ending for their careworn but undefeated love. Love does not conquer all, but at least it enables you to go fearlessly into the Sunless Country.