They say science fiction for kids doesn’t sell. They say a lot of things, but this particular belief is pretty widespread. Space may be the final frontier, but as far as kidlit publishers go, literary reaches for the outer limits aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on. Still, there is some sci-fi that simply must turn a profit. Take Philip Reeve, for example. This is the guy who conjured up the YA “Hungry City” chronicles. Who single-handedly found a way to combine gross colonization and space travel in the seemingly effortless children’s title, “Larklight”. You simply cannot look me in the eye and tell me that an author as talented as Mr. Reeve isn’t going to get at least a couple fans here and there. And if sci-fi doesn’t sell then why on earth are we lucky enough to see the sequel to “Larklight” on our bookstore shelves? Yes, “Starcross” is here and fans of the intergalactic adventures of Myrtle, Art, and Jack Havock are bound to be pleased as we see them tackle their toughest enemies yet: The Moob.
When last we saw our heroes, siblings Myrtle and Art were living peaceably once again in their house (which happens to be a bit of highly dangerous alien handiwork, though that’s neither here nor there), Larklight. Peaceably might be a bit of a stretch, actually. At the moment decorators have descended on the old home and no one is getting any rest. After a mysterious invitation arrives inviting the family to the beautiful and otherworldly grand hotel Starcross, the family picks up and leaves only to find things very mysterious indeed. Their old friend Jack Havock is there in disguise, paying close attention to the lady guest Miss Beauregard (and you can imagine how happy that makes Myrtle). Guests appear to have disappeared from the surroundings, and then there are the black top hats. Not merely elegant headgear, the hats turn out to be horrid alien creatures from the far future called Moobs. With plans for universal domination, they intend to open a portal to the future and allow more of their kind through so as to take over and dominate the world around them. It’ll take some pretty fancy footwork for our heroes to overcome this mind-controlling threat and save the day once more.
You know you’re in safe hands when you find the term “Amanuensis” on the very first page. Those of you who were fans of “Larklight” will find much to love in this story as well. Favorite characters return (though they have a nasty tendency to either get their minds chewed on or their bodies turned into trees), and villains outdo themselves in sheer nefariousness (not a word, I know). As per usual, Mr. Reeve is juggling a series of different genres. The Victorian boys adventure novel. Science fiction. Penny dreadfuls. To this mix you may now add “drawing room mystery”. The secret of Starcross plays out like a humdinger of a game of Clue (though you might want to remove the top hat from your game of Monopoly and add it to the list of murder weapons for this particular game).
Anglophilia is a must with this kind of story, however. Reeve isn’t afraid to include out-of-date Britishisms that may serve up a giggle or two for American audiences. For example, I know what the term “horny-handed sons of toil” means, but no one should be too surprised if a reader here or there misinterprets. The book is so unapologetically English that Reeve has even managed to find a way to sneak railroads into intergalactic space travel. And let me tell you, that is no mean feat though it makes for an odd read when you’re a Yank. I mean, by dint of our own history, we are inclined to sympathize with a French villain’s motives and plans. Plus the idea of a world in which the Yanks were never able to get out from under the yoke of Mother England may be a pleasant fantasy for Brits living and breathing today, but even the least nationalistic American amongst us has to chafe a little at the thought.
Still, it truly is the author’s language that sucks you in. Not only does he create consistently amusing and diverting new worlds, but he also has the verbal skills to back them up. So it is that you hear about the planet Vestibule, “which is hollow, and inhabited by people who live upside down upon its inner surface, and Abnegation, which was woven out of brown string by Presbyterians.” Heck, the bawdy music-hall song titles are worth the price of admission alone. Songs like, “Dearest Margaret, You Are Danish and Your Dog’s Not Very Well” and “My Grandfather’s Sqallaxian Bogusoid Was too Tall for the Shelf.” I hate it when my review decomposes into me simply repeating a book’s clever sentences, but Reeve has that effect. A reviewer simply cannot resist statements like, “my army consisted of me, two elderly gentlemen who were not feeling quite the ticket, a grumpy goblin, two anemones, a large crab and a blue lizard of the gentler sex.” Perhaps I’m a loon, but I find sentences of that sort simply irresistible.
(CONTINUED IN PART TWO)