Sunday, 22 April 2012

Fever Crumb

I've written before about Philip Reeve's Mortal Engines quartet. I made the minor mistake of thinking that the Fever Crumb prequels weren't also a quartet, and so I'm frustrated and beached, three books into a four book sequence with the fourth one still hung up somewhere between Reeve's mind and the bookshop. It's hard to know whether what I've read will wrap up in as satisfying a way as the original four books, or whether the vague feeling of disappointment is a herald of bigger disappointment in a year or so.

It's not that the books are bad, nor that I didn't have fun reading them. Reeve is still juggling whimsy with grimness and mostly getting away with it. And there are big solid chunks of imagination in there; the venue for the second book, Mayda, is nicely sketched in. Still, there's always a problem in prequels; the author's imagination is hemmed in by the fact that the future is already determined. On a bad day, the action's just running on rails to a destination the reader already knows too well; on a good day, a set-up that doesn't seem to have anything to do with the pre-ordained future is cleverly revealed to be all about it. Those good days are very rare, no matter how good an author is, and when the clever reveal doesn't work, it feels clunky and contrived. One of the best characters in Mortal Engines is Shrike; and his origin story forms part of the narrative for Fever Crumb. Should be brilliant, somehow ain't. Shrike doesn't need to be explained; Reeve should have learned from watching the Phantom Menace how it's not a good plan to show us where the fascinating robots come from.

These are quibbles, me grumbling about a good writer not quite living up to my expectations. The steely hardheadedness is still there, both in the willingness to kill off characters who would have lived through most other books and in the way in which characters get worse. Fever Crumb's saga doesn't hold a couple as interesting as Tom Natsworthy and Hester Shaw, but it's fascinating to watch the development of Charley Shallow in the story so far; he keeps getting more and more unpleasant and selfish; I can't recall the last time I've read a children's book which goes to so much trouble to build a villain up from an initially relatable character. Knowing Reeve, I'm not betting on redemption for Charley Shallow in the fourth book; neither am I betting on his getting his comeuppance.

I had put off heading into the books for a while, fearing that I might be disappointed, and so it came to pass. How much of it was the inevitable problem of writing a prequel and how much of it was me setting my bar too high, I really don't know. Next year we will, touch wood, see how the threads get knotted together.

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