I’m a huge fan of Philip Reeve’s Hungry City Chronicles, a series that has always seemed under-hyped and underappreciated to me. The first four books, beginning with Mortal Engines and ending with A Darkling Plain, are simply fantastic, set in a far future after the world has been destroyed by war and where Traction Cities roam the planet consuming all they come across (including smaller cities). More recently, Reeve has plumbed the depths of the world just on the cusp of entering the mobile city era. Fever Crumb, the first of the prequels, was a good start, with rich characters and an interesting multi-stranded plot (I gave it 3 ½ stars), but it was not quite as strong as the original series. With the second of the prequels, A Web of Air, Reeve has fully found his touch again.
A Web of Air picks up a short amount of time after Fever Crumb. Fever has left London (which is preparing to make itself mobile) with the two children who became orphans due to the events of that first novel and is working with a traveling theater group as their technician, something she feels is not really fulfilling her years of training as an Engineer. When the Lyceum stays for a few nights in the city of Mayda, however, Fever’s life takes a sudden turn as she soon gets embroiled in the attempts by Arlo, an eccentric young man whose family and home were destroyed by a tsunami in the book’s eye-popping opening, to construct a flying machine.
While this is the major storyline, Reeve tosses in a handful of issues to spice up the story: semi-intelligent sea birds, an attractive Engineer from London who has let his Guild back home know he’s found Fever Crumb (Fever’s parents have been wondering about her), an assassin who seems to be picking off anybody involved in research into human flight, the Mayda crime syndicate, the possibility that Arlo’s family and Fever’s family have some connections in the past, rumors of a mysterious and lethal spider-like creature associated with Arlo’s family, “funicular houses” that move up and down the steep sides of Mayda (built inside a large impact crater), and the conflict between religion and reason. Along with this are the character conflicts: Fever’s growing conflict between her obsession with reason and rational behavior and her ever-more powerful emotions, and Arlo’s conflict between his sense of isolation and his need for Fever’s help. Fever is a great character — independent, smart, resourceful, loyal — and one made better by her flaws. As readers, we can chuckle fondly at her own lack of insight and enjoy the ride as she slowly opens up to herself and others.
The plotting is tight, suspenseful, fast-paced most of the time but slower when necessary, and has its share of twists and turns, including an especially complex and painful one at the very end. As always with Reeve, the characters are vivid, rich, and complex, from the main characters all the way to those who barely appear on the page. And as is often the case with Reeve, there is a lot of grey in the “bad” characters. Did I mention it was tight? I love the concision of this book; Reeve chisels it down to the essentials without sacrificing richness or complexity with regard to character or atmosphere. The city of Mayda, for instance, is a simply wonderful creation, one you stop reading for so you can enjoy some moments just visualizing how the city must look.
As mentioned, the ending is quite painful. Reeve has never shied away from the bittersweet (or just the bitter), and the same holds true here. For those who think YA means “easy emotions,” Reeve’s work is the perfect counterpoint.
There are a few some flaws here and there, but really nothing to distract from the sheer pleasure of the read. As I said in my review of Fever Crumb, I still think it best to read the Hungry City Chroniclesfirst and then tackle the prequels. First, because I think the first four sweep you off your feet more quickly and more thoroughly (though A Web of Air matches their quality) and are more “epic” in scale. Another reason is that having them in your background will allow you a little frisson of delight when Reeve throws in little tidbits that you can recognize as elements of or direct precursors to events or objects or people in that series. Strongly recommended.