Book review

Black Light Express by Philip Reeve (2016)

Part 2 of the Railhead trilogy

Can you imagine, just for a moment, being a little parcel of information flung down the lines in the world wide web? You enter the web from someone’s tablet on the kitchen table in the UK and pop out a few seconds later on someone else’s laptop in a cafe in downtown New Jersey. That’s the world wide web as we know it. In this story there is literally a Web of Worlds. The worlds might be galaxies apart but they are connected by rails which carry amazing sentient locomotives. All the engine has to do is pass through the K-gate from one world and enter through the K-gate on another world. The loco does carry passengers but it also carries information through the gates from world to world uploading the latest information into the local data rafts.

It was always a problem, what to do with old trains. You couldn’t just scrap them when they became outmoded. Trains were at least as self-aware as people. So you kept them running for as long as possible, upgrading and reconfiguring, rehousing old brains in shiny new bodies. And if there was really no way they could be kept on the rails – if they were hopelessly antiquated or eccentric, or if they were designed for war and there were no wars going on – then you stored them. There were facilities all over the Network where old trains dreamed away their retirement in slow-state sleep, or surfed sections of the Datasea designed to please them: virtual tracks and railway playgrounds, strange chatrooms where the ancient locos could discuss their adventures and grumble about the fancy new-fangled models which had replaced them.

It’s lucky for us that there are a few spare old locomotives knocking about in the Web of Worlds for our favourite characters to commandeer when they need to escape in a hurry, although it’s really a joint agreement. If the engine doesn’t consent to carry you, you won’t be going anywhere. This time Chandni and Threnody are in a spot of bother. Chandni thinks she favours the Courageous Snipe, nice and inconspicuous, shabby little freight train. But when the brutal-looking armoured loco of their enemies noses into the train store it isn’t Courageous Snipe who volunteers for action:

...a black wall slid across her view.
The Ghost Wolf had rolled forward, putting itself between the Prells and their quarry.
‘Get aboard,’ it said, in a big, hard voice. A narrow doorway opened in its armoured hide.

Sooner or later they’re going to meet up with Zen Starling and Nova somewhere in the void on their rescued engine the Damask Rose.

And’s another character who isn’t human but easily as self-aware as any human and obviously far more competent. Zen and Nova are in love but that isn’t supposed to happen between human and motorik. It’s difficult for Zen.

He’d been wondering a lot about what made someone human, and he had been ready to believe Nova when she said she was. But it seemed to him now that maybe an important part of being human was that you had just one life, and that when someone took you to bits you died. Or, at least, you minded. So thinking of her as a human being wasn’t going to work any more. He had to accept that she was something very different, and that he still loved her anyway.

There are all kinds of dilemmas in this story but the most interesting one of all is the big one...What shall I do next? What kind of person am I? There are three main human characters here, Zen, Threnody and Chandni. Not one of them is evil. They all make plans but things never really turn out as predicted. All they really want to do is survive onto the next page of the book. To do that they will have to make alliances and work together, and maybe learn to trust each other.

Chandni scrambled up into one of the smashed gun-nests on the top of the train and did her best to keep out of the way. She had the uneasy feeling that the Kraitt had bitten off more than they could chew. She hated being on the losing side. But chunks of ice as big as freezer-prisons kept falling down through the mist from the ceiling of the dome, reminding her that she always ended up on the wrong side in the end.

It is an all-action adventure story, scrambling across galaxies, and you will collect a few injuries as you go. But if you do make it alive right through to the end of the book you’ll find you’ve picked up some interesting ideas to think about later.

Threnody kept looking out of the window. She couldn’t afford to hate him. She needed him too badly. She couldn’t afford to hate him yet.
‘Just get me home,’ she said. ‘Then we will be even.’

What can I read next?

This is book 2 of a trilogy. Read them in order:

  • Railhead
  • Black Light Express
  • Station Zero

I love this series. It’s a vast imagined world with frankly-drawn characters facing terrible dilemmas. I found I really cared what happened to them. If you haven’t already come across Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines quartet have a look now:

You might also enjoy the Wyrmeweald trilogy by Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell. At the heart of this story is an ordinary boy having an extraordinary relationship with a kind-of non-human girl:

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