A Darkling Plain by Philip Reeve
Whatever becomes of us, we’ll be together…
I read the first installment of THE HUNGRY CITY CHRONICLES back in 2003 with Mortal Engines and now I finally come to the end of the four-part story with A Darkling Plain. There is still a prequel to enjoy, but for all intents and purposes, this is the last chapter of Tom Natsworthy and Hester Shaw’s adventures in a world filled with airships, traction cities, predator suburbs, static communities and terrifying animated human corpses fitted with robotic parts called Stalkers. With the title derived from Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach,” (“and we are here as on a darkling plain, swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, where ignorant armies clash by night”) a line which perfectly encompasses the tone and content of the story, A Darkling Plain begins with a reasonably tranquil scenario.
An uneasy peace has been formed between the Traction Cities and the Static Communities, ending years of conflict between the various factions of the Traktionstadtsgesellschaft (cities that adhere to the city-eat-city policies of Municipal Darwinism) and the Anti-Tractionist League (which includes the terrorist organization of the Green Storm). The truce has been secured mainly due to the efforts of Lady Oenone Naga, who disposed of the Green Storm’s fanatical leader Anna Fang by programming the ancient Stalker Strike to destroy her. However, her actions have made her several enemies, and dissenting members of each side are determined to end the stalemate between townies and mossies through espionage, terrorism and assassination.
If you have yet to discover the steam-punk, sci-fi, post-apocalyptic world that Philip Reeve has created, then there’s no use starting here. A Darkling Plain is the accumulation of the three previous books and their steady build-up of character and situation. Six months after the explosive events of Infernal Devices, Tom Natsworthy and his daughter Wren are living as aviators and traders when Tom recognizes a familiar face from his past: Clytie Potts, who lived in his home city of London, which was presumed to have been totally decimated years ago. Teaming up with a dashing but prejudiced young lord of a strange tunneling city, father and daughter cross the lines and sneak into enemy territory in order to investigate rumours of life in the destroyed remains of London.
Meanwhile, their estranged wife and mother Hester is traveling with Shrike as an assassin-for-hire, only to get caught up in events when she stumbles across the survivors of an attempt to sabotage the truce. With such a painful reminder of her duties to her family, Hester reluctantly throws herself into the ensuing battle.
Finally, the Stalker Anna Fang (not as dead as some might have hoped) makes a journey of her own along with Fishcake, one of the final Lost Boys who holds a grudge against Tom and Hester. Devoted to Anna, Fishcake follows her as she undertakes a secret mission into the mountains, carrying in her mind the coordinates of a satellite that orbits the planet and which has the capacity to destroy all life on earth. There are other plot-threads too, concerning familiar characters such as Theo Ngoni, Nimrod Pennyroyal, General Naga and Shrike (sadly Freya and Caul do not appear here and we learn nothing of them; although there are a couple of bittersweet moments that recall Katherine Valentine and Bevis Pod, way back from the first book).
Reeve weaves these storylines into a magnificent whole as the world veers dangerously close to a second apocalypse, and at twice the length of the first book, A Darkling Plain is certainly a book to savour over several nights. As with the end of all long-term sagas, the ending comes with a fair amount of satisfaction, bittersweetness and sadness that it was over; even though I know I can read it again, I’ll never be able to read it again for the first time.
Possibly the most noteworthy aspect of Reeve’s worldview is that there is no clear-cut good or evil in regards to the two opposing sides of the conflict. Rather, the Traction Cities and the Static Communities (or the “townies” and the “mossies” as they dismissively call each other) each have idealistic leaders, worthy opponents and dangerous fanatics. Just as the ideology of Municipal Darwinism is reminiscent of Western focus on materialism, consumerism and globalization, the otherwise peaceful Eastern Anti-Traction League have a discordant terrorist element in their midst that isn’t above employing dubious tactics in order to destroy its enemies. There is no good or bad side to this war: only people with opposing world-views that refuse to compromise, in which bad situations are made worse by the greed and hatred of a powerful few.
It would be wrong to give too much away in terms of plot-lines and character development, as half the joy of this series is the element of discovery, as well as the unexpected twists that Reeve litters throughout (he is certainly not afraid of killing off major characters when the need arises). There are a few missed opportunities that I was disappointed that Reeve didn’t take (there is no much-deserved reconciliation between mother and daughter), but I can say with a fair amount of confidence that once you read any book in this series, you will never forget it. It has the raw creativity and rich world-building that only the most consummate storytellers can create and sustain, and this series combines the very best of adventure, romance, suspense, character development, tragedy, pathos and sacrifice into an unforgettable reading experience.
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