Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Book Review: Larklight by Philip Reeve

This is one of my son's FAVORITE books (actually, it is the first of a trilogy).  It is set during Victorian England times, with the premise that Sir Isaac Newton discovered not only gravity, but also space travel.  With that technological advantage, not only did England win the American Revolution, so that America remains a British colony, but it has extended the British empire into space as well as across the globe.

Therefore, the story is told by two main protagonists:  a young boy and his older sister, who are trying to grow up as proper Victorian citizens, but while living in a mechanical house in space where their father conducts scientific research.   They are attacked by giant space spiders, which sets off a chain of events that ends up with Victorian England facing the biggest challenge imaginable.

However, the books are more comical than horrific, so they are suitable for middle schoolers who don't like stories that are too dark, gory, or intense.  And this book has something for everyone--monsters, a plot to take over the universe, space ships, pirates, spies, all sorts of creatures--some adorable, some not so much--plus, of course, plucky adolescent leaders who save the day!

The book is written as a kind of diary, with the two siblings taking turns writing their version of what is happening in their separate voices (with sister Myrtle still trying to be a proper Victorian lady, even when fighting off space aliens, while brother Arthur prefers telling a ripping adventure).  Their language is not too obscure, but tries to evoke the Victorian style.  For example, here are some chapter titles:

  • Chapter Three:  In Which We Make Good Our Escape, but Find Ourselves Cast Adrift upon the Uncaring Aether
  • Chapter Five:  In Which We Find Ourselves Imprisoned on the Plain of Jars and Contemplate a Ghastly Fate (Again!)
  • Chapter Fourteen:  Another Dip into My Sister's Diaries, Which May be Welcomed by Readers of a Sensitive Disposition as a Sort of Break or Breathing Space from My Own Almost Unbearably Exciting Adventures
(And just FYI, Reeves wrote Larklight several years before Riordan used a similar storytelling technique in his Kane Chronicle books.)

There are a lot of little touches like that--subtle ways that Reeves incorporates information about Victorian culture--that I think lifts this series above the generic space adventure books that have proliferated for this age group.  The book is also enhanced by the delightful illustrations by David Wyatt, which also have a Victorian flare to them, whether they show a steampunky 19th century space ship, one of the imaginative denizens of other planets, or a faux advertisement for a Victorian-era space product.  Finally, there is some actual historical content incorporated into the story.  For example, one climactic scene takes place at the opening of the Great Exhibition in the Crystal Palace in London! 

So we've really enjoyed all three of these books.  They aren't fine literature, and may seem too light for those who prefer some of the more intense series for this age (which my son and I tend to find too dark for pre-teenagers).  But if your children are fans of the Percy Jackson or Kane Chronicle books, they would probably like Larklight, if you can convince then to give Victorian England a try as a break from ancient mythology.

UPDATE:  Oh, and I forgot to mention that they are making a movie of the book.  The director is critically-acclaimed Shekhar Kapur, who led such films as Four Feathers, Elizabeth (the one with Cate Blanchett), and Elizabeth:  The Golden Age....which bodes well for the quality of this cinematic adaptation.

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