September 2003
© 2003 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu
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Predator's Gold by Philip Reeve
Scholastic (UK) HCVR: ISBN 0439978890 PubDate: 09/01/03
Review by John Berlyne

314 pgs. List price $ 14.99
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Can you recall that excitement, that very real sense of adventure and wonder that stories used to fill you with when you were a kid? I think I can – but the truth is that as we grow older and accumulate the weighty baggage that life experience loads us with, that unconditional, pure and unadulterated sense of thrill becomes contaminated; diluted by cynicism and a sense of “I know better”. Our ability to truly suspend our disbelief sadly diminishes as the years pass.

My own effort to cling on to that quality in my reading is undoubtedly one of the major reasons why I read science fiction and fantasy. These works in their many varied forms are such flights of fancy and sheer escapism that they stimulate my thrill centres, their concepts and creations causing me still to marvel and wonder - and that’s as near to that pure childhood reading experience as I think we can get. I think this is part of what accounts for the phenomenal success of the Harry Potter franchise (nee books) and I did touch upon it in my review of The Order Of The Phoenix a couple of months ago (See Review).

Nowadays there is a grey area, an obfuscation that occurs when defining the boundaries between adult and children’s books – or more specifically, “young adult”. My own childhood reading was dominated by Roald Dahl and Lewis Carroll, by Andres Maurois’ Fattypuffs And Thinifers (an absolutely glorious book), by the Oz books and by the adventures of the eccentric Professor Branestawm – but all these were identifiably children’s books. Nowadays, the Rowling phenomenon has closed the distance between what grown ups and kids read. For example, Philip Pullman’s wondrous His Dark Materials trilogy is a superb adventure for young readers – but it is also a harsh argument against Christian dogma. See too the recent by Shadowmancer by G.P. Taylor (reviewed in last month’s issue), which, like the Pullman, is sending a message (albeit a very different one) of faith via its narrative.

There are some superb writers contributing to this market at the moment, and (thankfully) not all of them are preaching parable from the pulpit. Less overt and with no such controversy at the core of their work you’ll find such writers as Chris Wooding, Michael Molloy, Eoin Colfer and Philip Reeve, all of whom are writing punchy adventures that I, at thirty-five, can enjoy just as much as I might have at fifteen.

Reeve’s Mortal Engines was published in 2001 by Scholastic. An innovative science fantasy centred around the concept of “Municipal Darwinism” it deservedly won the coveted Nestlé Smarties Book Prize. This central concept is a grand and brilliantly executed idea – in an unspecified far future, the cities of the earth are mobile, roaming the continents on tracks or wheels in search of others of their kind, the aim to capture and consume the enemy. Natural resources are long gone, and each city subsists only on what it can find and recycle. “Old Tech” is highly prized, and adventurers and archaeologists return from expeditions with various artefacts, the true meaning of which is long lost in history, ever since the Sixty Minute War destroyed the civilised world long ago.

The tech level of this world of hungry cities is a wonderful mix of Victorian steampunk and Fritz Lang mad scientist. Airships buzz around in the skies above the crawling cities, the aviators themselves heroes to the population. And in the museums, bits of old machines are fruitlessly studied by stuffy scholars who try to divine their original use. (This is a great source of fun in Mortal Engines, as we see these so-called experts try to divine the use of some of our most commonplace, everyday items. Generally they don’t have a clue!)

Against this rich setting, there are the adventures of Tom and Hester, two troubled youngsters. They are brought together through the terrible betrayal of Thaddeus Valentine, on the surface a great adventurer and hero, but in truth a weak and murderous pawn in the Machiavellian politics that kept the great city of London moving.

At the start of Predator’s Gold, the superb new sequel to Mortal Engines, Tom and Hester have been traveling together for two years. Following the events of the first novel (which I won’t relate here in case you want to go back and read it – you should!), they now scratch a living as traders aboard their airship, scurrying goods over the vast distances between the cities. At one port of call, they pick up a passenger – one Professor Pennyroyal, a famous adventurer and author, he is one of the few people to have traveled to the Dead Continent, America. The puffed up Pennyroyal is a wonderful character, a charismatic fraud full of bluster and comic cowardice.

Eventually the protagonists arrive at Anchorage, a ghost city with only a skeleton crew. The ruler of this great but aimless city is the Margravine Freya, a petulant and slightly deluded young girl. Her family has recently been wiped out by plague along with most of the rest of the city (old tech recently uncovered proved to be biological in nature) and she has been thrust into an unfamiliar world without servants or reliable counsel. Unknown to her, the city is being plundered by the Lost Boys, a silent and sneaking group of high-tech robbers. Freya knows of Pennyroyal though, and of his explorers’ prowess and experiences in America (she’s read his books – all were fiction!) and she decides that her city must make the dangerous, unprecedented trip to the Dead Continent. With other predator cities on their tail, it is, though doubtless a dangerous choice, the only choice she has left.

This is rip-roaring, old-style adventure with the most modern of appeals. Gritty and harsh at times, but fuelled throughout by some often breath-taking writing. Reeve makes no concessions to the target age group he’s writing for. His characters experience real suffering - physical, metal and emotional. They exhibit scars inside and out and, most surprising of all, are capable of almost staggering cruelty. Predator’s Gold is a novel that will hook you good and proper, one filled with grand themes and grand schemes and as such it is a brilliant and fitting sequel to Mortal Engines, building as it does on that solid foundation and taking the reader on another true journey of high adventure. Highly recommended.

© 2003 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu
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