Black Light Express by Philip Reeve
Black Light Express (2017) is Philip Reeve’s just-as-good-as-the-first-book follow up to Railhead, continuing the exhilarating romp while expanding the universe and its inhabitants, as well as digging a bit more deeply into the hidden history of the created world and offering up some more page time to some of the first book’s secondary characters. Warning: there will be some inevitable spoilers for book one (you can just stop here with the take-away that I recommend the duology). First spoiler begins in the very next line!
So at the end of Railhead, Nova and Zen had opened a gate to a whole other set of worlds, these inhabited by an inventively wide assortment of alien species. Taking on the role of “ambassadors” (being unwilling to admit they can’t go back to their own worlds due to being fugitives, and thanks to the gate they used being destroyed), the two travel around as traders, giving Reeve the opportunity to show off his alien-creation skills. As they travel, they learn of a horrific cataclysm called the “Blackout,” which seemingly led to the destruction of the race that created the rails and gates. It’s a taboo subject amongst the aliens, but solving the mystery of the Blackout, or at least exploring it, may lead, Nova believes, to a way home for the two of them. Unfortunately, to do so they’ll have to find a way around an aggressive reptilian species that is after Nova for what she might teach them about advanced technology.
Meanwhile, back in the human-dominated part of the universe, things aren’t going so well with the ruling family, and thanks to the ongoing political turmoil, we get to spend a lot more time with Empress Threnody, as well as her current handmaiden-former criminal Chandni (a seemingly throw-away character from book one). We also revisit Threnody’s former fiancée Kobi, who finds hidden depths that were hinted at a bit in the first book, and Zen’s sister’s friend Flex, who also grows in complexity here. In fact, these two minor characters from the first book have some of the most moving moments here in Black Light Express. One of my favorite aspects of the sequel is that Reeve didn’t play it safe by focusing on the two main characters but is happy to leave them behind for long stretches to let others have the stage. In general, characters here are also nicely complicated, with “good” characters often frustrating readers hoping for a bit more solidly steady sense of ethics. And as with the first book, the cast of characters is not limited to the organic, as one of the most enjoyable characters is Ghost Wolf, though we meet several other trains with strong personalities as well.
As one expects by now with a Reeve novel, the plot zips along via clear prose, though Reeve gives us a bit more description, having opened up a whole new “Web of Worlds” filled with wonderfully non-human species. The concepts as well as the geography are bigger, and we learn much more about the creation of the gates, the role of the Guardians, and why the gates have remained a mystery for so long. Meanwhile, Reeve continues to explore issues of identity and humanity, AI, the impact of technology, and the safety of stagnation versus the dangerous benefits of growth. Speaking of danger, Reeve isn’t averse to killing off major characters, and there are several wrenching moments (some involving death; some not), including a painfully bittersweet ending that is all the better for being pretty inevitable from the start.
Inventive, taut, quick moving, with the ability to move you or make you uncomfortable at any given moment, Black Light Express brings the story begun in Railhead to a strong close, though I’d be more than happy if Reeve found a way to return to this universe for more stories.
Short version: What Bill said.
Slightly longer version: Black Light Express is a great sequel to Railhead, continuing everything that I enjoyed about the first book while expanding on the character- and world-building that make this duology so interesting. Though the pace seems to slow a little while Zen and Nova are in the Web of Worlds, especially in comparison to the flight-for-their-lives Threnody and Chandni are caught up in, their two storylines come together in a satisfactory way.
I liked the character work in Black Light Express because there were unexpected developments for each of the primary characters, and the secondary characters added depth and interest far beyond providing impetus for the plot. Though some resolutions felt a little inevitable, they still came across as the logical and best endings, and were no less poignant — especially because of the way the characters react to their changing circumstances.
Introducing the Web of Worlds and the Black Light Zone was, as Bill says, as good way for Reeve to show off his imagination and explore possibilities for different types of life that might be seeded throughout the universe. I’d been curious as to how a lot of this technology and humanity’s migration from Earth came about, and Reeve supplies absolutely satisfactory answers to those questions, along with leaving the way clear for further exploration should he choose to expand this universe beyond the RAILHEAD duology. (Which I definitely hope he does!) This is a great space-exploration duology, as well as a smart examination of individual identity, self-determination vs. predestination, and personal morality/ethics. Railhead and Black Light Express might be marketed toward YA readers, but there’s plenty for adults to enjoy as well. Highly recommended.
The second book in Philip Reeves’s RAILHEAD trilogy does what every good sequel should: it expands on the world-building, throws new obstacles in front of its characters, and continues to take the plot in fresh and interesting directions.
The Network Empire is built on the intergalactic train system that carries people from station to station, world to world, stretching across a hundred or so planets. It’s beautiful and mysterious, and run by sentient trains that sing to one another as they pass through the K-gates, all of which was constructed by the Guardians, god-like programmes that reside in cyberspace (or “the datasea”) and watch over humanity.
But in the previous book, the young thief Zen Starling became embroiled in a heist that cast doubt on the true origins and nature of the K-bahn and its litany of trains, which in turn lead to the creation of a brand new K-gate, one that promises to take him to a galaxy unexplored by humankind.
Along with a Motorik (or android) called Nova, Zen boards the train and heads into the unknown — an open and exhilarating finish to Railhead that left most readers desperate to know what would happen next.
Truly there was no greater challenge Philip Reeve could have set for himself than “make up a brand new galaxy”, but he delivers with a range of exotic locales and life-forms, creatures and cultures. Half the fun of reading one of his books is seeing what his amazing imagination has come up with, and how easily he inserts the weird and wonderful into the text. For example:
There was a stone bench overlooking a chess garden: a chequerboard lawn with topiary chess pieces clipped out of yew. The yew had been spliced with crustacean DNA, and the pieces moved slowly to and fro on crab-like roots, laboriously playing out a game of chess.
Everything had seven shadows, cast by the seven brightest stars. In that strange light the place seemed still more dreamlike. A blue-furred worm went by trailing a sort of bird on a silver chain, and Zen could not tell which one was the pet. The leaves of the windmill trees spun softly in the night breeze. There were food stalls giving off smells like chemical factories, and engine shops whose fumes smelled of peanut sauce. There were things so far outside his frame of reference that his brain refused to take them in and his gaze glanced off them, baffled.
Who thinks that up?! It’s just one of many wonders at work in Black Light Express, in which Zen and Nova explore the galaxy beyond their own, gradually learning more about the mysterious dark zone that nobody seems to know anything about. Meanwhile, young Threnody Noon is adjusting to her new position as Empress, surrounded by enemies and allies and unable to tell the difference.
If the previous book was a heist, then this one is certainly a political space-opera, with a side order of intergalactic adventuring. Naturally Zen and Threnody’s stories eventually coincide, and there’s all-out war before the final chapter.
Based on that synopsis, it should be obvious that you really need to read the first book before tackling this one, if not just for a basic understanding of the characters and their elaborate, ingenious world. Reeve has always been excellent at world-building, and if you ever need a primer on how exposition can be ground up and scattered throughout the narrative, or how incredible concepts can be effortlessly explained to the reader, then you need to see how Reeve does it.
From the headsets that connect everyone to the datasea, to the Guardians that are worshipped as gods of humanity’s own making, from the corporate families that operate like old-world monarchs, to the freezer jails that cryogenically imprison their inmates, this is a trilogy bristling with inventiveness and wonder.
For such a prolific, creative writer, Reeve deserves to be more appreciated.
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