As the story opens we could be at the start of any Victorian adventure-to-be: Art is complaining about the state of their jumbled old house, his older sister’s attempts to become a gentlewoman, the servants, his scientist father’s devotion to his studies in the service of some Royal Society. But then we discover that the house is hanging in space just outside the moon, that the servants are brass-and-steam creations, and that Mr. Mumby is studying icthymorphs – fish which fly through space – for the Royal Xenological Society.
This is how Philip Reeve introduces us to his second take on retro-tech. A very recognisable Victorian milieu, but one where Isaac Newton has discovered The Chemical Wedding, the closely-guarded fusion of certain chemicals which enables sailing ships to travel through the aether. Britain has an Empire whose colonies are not only in the New World, but on new worlds entirely: Venus, Mars and Jupiter.
The story is tremendously enjoyable. Art and his sister Myrtle escape (inside the delightfully low-tech escape capsule) when their house is invaded by intelligent giant spiders, led by a Mr. Webster in a bowler hat! They land on the moon, are taken by a carnivorous Potter Moth, rescued by the young Jack Havock and his mixed band of aliens. They are attacked by the British Navy off the moon, flee to Venus where Jack was born, and where Myrtle is kidnapped. She is taken to Mars while they travel to Jupiter to consult Old Thunder – the storm which has raged for a million years.
The whole story is told in Art’s words (with occasional interjections from Myrtle’s diary) which gives a freshness and a personality to the story which might otherwise have been lost in a knowing third-person narration. Art is young enough to be excited by adventure and piracy, and to scorn his sister’s girly affectations. (And not to spot the budding romance between her and Jack). But when she’s kidnapped, he curls up in her bed, hoping that something of her scent will have remained. There is an unspoken thread of equality and multiculturalism throughout the story.
Tim Golden is a computer programmer in London. He is also the editor of the Good-to-Read website.