A Web of Air: Reeve manages the perfect balance

Philip Reeve Hungry City Chronicles A Web of Air, Scrivener's MoonYA fantasy book reviews Philip Reeve A Web of AirA Web of Air by Philip Reeve

You Can’t Murder the Truth!

The second of the prequel trilogy to Philip Reeve’s wonderful Hungry Cities series continues Reeve’s imaginative, exhilarating, unpredictable story of life in a post-apocalyptic world where seagulls have rudimentary communication skills, people live in houses that can be hoisted up and down hillsides, and an ominous event known as the Downsizing has left technology beyond the understanding of the human population.

In this brave new world lives Fever Crumb, an engineer who has left the city of London in order to join the traveling theatre known as the Lyceum, escaping her newfound parents and caring for two children orphaned during the course of Fever Crumb. Though she enjoys her independence, she feels that her talents are wasted in lighting the stages of a theatre troupe. Her upbringing among the engineers of London means that she’s been raised to reject the fanciful and to embrace everything rational. As such, she feels she has never quite belonged among the colorful performers, though she has no desire to return home to London where it’s said that the new ruler is rebuilding it as a gigantic, tracked vehicle.

Taking a dim view of romance and religion, Fever is even more uncomfortable in the beautiful city of Mayda, where ships sail in and out of the harbor, mansions rise and fall thanks to funicular rails on the cliff-tops, and religious fanatics demand worship of the sea. But things are about to change. A chance meeting with an engineer and the discovery of a glider during an evening walk leads Fever to the reclusive Arlo Thursday, a man who is rumored to be building a flying machine.

Flying machines have long since been dismissed as legend and flight deemed impossible, but Fever is intrigued despite herself — especially when she meets Arlo, a young man who can talk to the sea-birds, who lived a month in solitude on Thursday Island after his entire family was swept away by a freak tidal wave, and who may well have a connection to Fever’s own strange family. Fever is just the engineer he needs to complete work on his flying machine, but unbeknownst to both of them, there are plenty of enemies out to steal their creation, or to destroy the secrets that they’ve uncovered.

Once again Philip Reeve delivers a near-perfect story of suspense, invention and excitement, one that opens up questions about the human condition and the future of mankind. Sometimes it’s hard to believe that this is technically a children’s book. Just as Fever Crumb dealt with identity and growing up, Web of Air takes a shrewd look at the power of religion and bases its denouncement on sacrifice, betrayal and a great lie. Although Fever herself is an atheist who describes religious belief as “controlling knowledge and standing in the way of progress,” the concept of religion is not totally condemned, for at the conclusion of the novel Fever understands the very real need that people have for something larger and more meaningful than themselves.

As always, Reeve’s world-building is incredible. The setting of this story is the city of Mayda, built in a bowl-shaped island crater, (beautifully rendered on the cover by David Wyatt in the British publication) vividly described and populated by a melting pot of cultures with a dark underbelly, where the theater troupe perform the tale of Niall Strong-arm and the Conquest of the Moon and a traveling market is known as the Rolling Stone. The novel is positively littered with little in-jokes like this, demanding a second read just to pick them all up.

As a protagonist Fever Crumb is endearingly oblivious to her own vulnerability, whilst still displaying intelligence, resourcefulness, bravery, and a dry wit that is cultivated over time. Gentleness isn’t something that comes naturally to her, but over the course of the story we see her heart open to new possibilities and new people, and it makes for rather heart-breaking reading when she’s finally called upon to weigh up her integrity against her heart. Reeve has always been a master of creating morally ambiguous characters and placing them in a story where the good guys can be ruthless, brutal and oblivious to the pain they cause; and bad guys can be gentle and amiable and genuinely loving to their families. It’s rich, deep, thought-provoking stuff and it is best never to trust your first impressions of a character.

As a prequel we get a few more puzzle-pieces clicked into place, including the first look at the Jenny Haniver (I got a tingle down my spine) and news of the engineering feats in London that will eventually end in the world’s first Traction City. Story-wise there are a few glitches: Fever is perhaps saved one too many times by a deus ex machina, and the poignancy of her decision at the end of the book is somewhat undermined by the fact that we know humankind has regained the ability to fly in the original series, but the bittersweet note of the final chapter is both promising for the third and final book, and memorable on its own terms. I can’t wait for Scrivener’s Moon.

Reeveis a brilliant writer and it continues to baffle me that there are so few reviews for his work. He manages the perfect balance between likeable characters, unpredictable plot and fascinating setting, with a female protagonist that easily stands alongside Garth Nix‘s Sabriel and Philip Pullman‘s Lyra in terms of sheer resourcefulness and competence.

~Rebecca Fisher


YA fantasy book reviews Philip Reeve A Web of AirI’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.

~Bill Capossere


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REBECCA FISHER, with us since January 2008, earned a Masters degree in literature at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. Her thesis included a comparison of how C.S. Lewis and Philip Pullman each use the idea of mankind’s Fall from Grace to structure the worldviews presented in their fantasy series. Rebecca is a firm believer that fantasy books written for children can be just as meaningful, well-written and enjoyable as those for adults, and in some cases, even more so. Rebecca lives in New Zealand. She is the winner of the 2015 Sir Julius Vogel Award for Best SFF Fan Writer.

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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