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Thomas Bloor

Monday, November 13, 2006

A DARKLING PLAIN by Philip Reeve

What a book! This is the final volume in the MORTAL ENGINES quartet. Unlike some series, which can fade as they approach the finish line, A DARKLING PLAIN is, I think, the best of what was already one of my favourites among the many trilogies, quartets and septets published for young people in recent years. The book deals with matters as weighty as the end of civilisations, mutually assured destruction and apocalyptic environmentalism. Then there’s fanaticism and faith, war and peace, and love, above all else perhaps, love in all its forms. And alongside love comes a range of other emotions, from hatred and jealousy through to grief and despair. In short, the quartet could be seen as a rattling good adventure containing a series of meditations on the nature of human beings (What are any of us but a collection of memories?) and this last book brings all these various strands together and binds them into a truly satisfying conclusion.
Amidst the sprawling plots and subplots of A DARKLING PLAIN, a multiple narrative delivered with Dickensian panache, there is always a little time for humour. Throughout the quartet Philip Reeve displays a lightness of touch that allows for some highly enjoyable deadpanning. Julie Burchill crops up as a New Brighton place name, for instance, and the god of unfettered municipal Darwinism is known as The Thatcher. My favourite is probably Wolf Kobold’s innocent inquiry, when showing Wren around his armoured suburb, a mobile fortress designed to harvest other towns by force of arms, “Is this your first visit to a harvester?”
The final cathartic scenes include a stop-frame style sequence(possibly influenced by the ending of the John Boorman film Zardos?)in which a hundred years pass within the space of a paragraph, leading to a denouement in which the entire epic quartet turns out to have been a tale told by a storytelling machine. The book ends with the mechanical creature Shrike intoning the opening lines of the first book in the series, MORTAL ENGINES. This conclusion put me in mind of a Shakespearean closing couplet (“We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little lives are rounded with a sleep.”) It is a metaphor as old as story itself - the course of a narrative as a parallel for human life. Memories are stories we tell ourselves about our lives. And what are any of us but a collection of memories?


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