There’s a certain age where stories reach their peak potency for readers. I’d wager it’s around the early teen or preteen period. Sooner than that, young readers lack the developmental sophistication to really get under a book’s metaphorical skin. Later on, they’ve enough experience with an array of titles that the magic of literary discovery has evaporated. But slip the right book in front of a child at that perfect time and you can fire his imagination for life. For me, that happened with John Christopher’s The White Mountains, the initial volume in a post-apocalyptic science-fiction series in which twelve-year-old boys have to fight for freedom in a world gone to ruin. It had a quasi-feudal, far-future setting, real-world geography simultaneously familiar and strange, and a depiction of the dreams and feelings I was experiencing at that time. That book got into my blood and is there still. I suspect that Philip Reeve’s Larklight might do the same to children of this generation.
It is the 19th century, Victoria sits upon the throne of Britain, and her young subject Art Mumby lives with his family in a floating space manor called Larklight. Yes, the history of Art’s world took something of a detour from our own when Sir Isaac Newton discovered the secret of space travel. Thanks to him, the British Empire has expanded across the solar system, borne on flapping wooden ships powered by mysterious alchemical reactions. Space itself is also a bit different, what with vestigial amounts of atmosphere suffusing the near-void, fish taxonomically dubbed Aetheric Icythyomorphs that swim through the emptiness, and native populations on Venus and Mars. It’s these fish that Art’s father spends his days studying for the Royal Xenological Society, hoping to find a new one that will secure his reputation in the scientific annals. He and Art and Art’s sister Myrtle will indeed make an exotic discovery—a most unfortunate one. Soon a horde of white space spiders will descend upon Larklight, forcing Art and Myrtle to flee without their father and embark on an adventure filled with man-eating moths, magnetic confidence tricksters, and a ferocious spacefaring pirate named Jack Havock.
Allow me a moment to catalog a few of the imaginative wonders in Larklight. Crystal flowers that sing. A sentient thunderstorm. Floating pigs that hoover up space crumbs in zero-g manors. Cactus assassins whose sole weakness is hearing hymns sung. Reeve just keeps serving up outlandish invention after outlandish invention until the book is absolutely stuffed with them—and then he plonks a few more on our plates. Action comes fast and furious, with almost every chapter offering a confrontation (although the body count stays age-appropriately low). What keeps the proceedings from getting ridiculous is that they’re cloaked in the faux-seriousness of a Victorian penny dreadful. The characters always keep an appropriately British stiff upper lip, and the chapter headings run toward verbose formality. (The flyleaf shows that the actual title is Larklight or The Revenge of the White Spiders! or To Saturn’s Rings and Back! A Rousing Tale of Dauntless Pluck in the Far Reaches of Space.)
Despite its excellencies, the novel isn’t without reproach. Christian parents may find themselves concerned by a half-dozen-or-so redacted uses of a mild profanity and the fact that the plot’s climax turns on an evolutionary premise, even sneaking in a subtle dig at traditional theology on origins. Still, the title offers so much good that some may choose to treat these issues as teachable moments rather than avoid them entirely. I hope they do. Larklight can spark young minds to imaginative brilliance.
(Picture: Copyright 2006 by David Wyatt; used under Fair Use)