'It's a town-eat-town world.' (p 120)
Fans of Philip Reeve's Mortal Engines* sequence will warmly welcome this new volume. And I most certainly count myself amongst that huge number. For any who don't know them, these SciFi-fantasies originally published between 2001 and 20011 and still very much in print, are amongst the most imaginative and thrillingly entertaining of children's speculative fiction from the early 21st Century. I am sure there will be further hoards of fan shortly, when a major movie is released, but the wonderful books themselves should most certainly not be overlooked.
New stories for familiar worlds
Over the years, many famous authors have added short stories to the main volumes of their highly successful fantasy creations, right from Lloyd Alexander (almost 50 years ago now) through to Philip Pullman and Sarah Green. Most of these addenda allow us fascinating extra glimpses into the relevant worlds. They often provide illuminating insights into incidents and lives not revealed in the main works, without actually recapturing anything like the stature and power of the full novels. This is very much the case with the three additional stories about the world of Mortal Engines that now make up Philip Reeve's Night Flights. Their main focus is aviatrix and spy Anna Fang. Whilst she is not exactly an insignificant character in the main books, those novels do not principally tell her story, and what we know about her life before the events of Book 1 comes only from hint and inference. Night Flights fills in much of this gap, as well as making us aware of a few other significant precursors to later events. As such, it makes a valuable and welcome extension to readers' appreciation of the whole sequence.
Something old, something new
In fact, of the three stories that make up this latest volume, the central, and longest, one, is not completely new. In an earlier version and under the title Traction City it was published in the UK back in 2011, half of a special 'World Book Day' offering.
However, this is not just a reprint The present version, retitled Traction City Blues, has been substantially edited and in some parts completely rewritten. It now has a much clearer focus on Anna, showing how she grew through the experiences its events and characters provided. The preceding, completely new, story reveals how she escaped her early life of slavery and took to the 'bird roads'. The third one, also new, is is a further adventure which adds yet more to our understanding - and hers.
The life lessons which she learns, like the societies through which she moves, are not always easy and comfortable ones. These stories are part of a life that has made her hard as well as soft, that have made her who she is - the remarkable and fascinating Anna Fang.
Philip Reeve's use of language is of his trademark high standard, viscerally engaging and emotionally affecting. Every now and then, too, flashes of an impish authorial humour, particularly in the naming of people and places, add an extra little frisson to the telling.
Haunting images, beautiful book
These three main tales are held within a framing narrative, not a story in itself, but linking them to each other and, in a delightful way, to what readers of the full series already know is to follow. Philip Reeve is such a fine writer that he does in miniature here what he does superlatively in his more recent masterpiece The Railhead Trilogy**; he creates a whole that is far more than the sum of its parts.
In fact this little book is much more even than its words. It is a most handsome volume in every sense. The original Traction City was illustrated by the author himself. Philip Reeve is a talented artist as well as a writer, so the 2011 World Book Day publication remains well worth seeking out. However Night Flights is also a magnificent triumph for its current illustrator, Ian McQue, whose superb greyscale images add enormously to the new volume. Many of his larger spreads are breathtaking, particularly in the wonderfully detailed and evocative portrayals of this world's fantastic cities and airships. He captures 'spacescape' and atmosphere beautifully too, as well as characters and action, both dynamic and chilling. My favourite of all his depictions is the portrait of Anna herself which appears on page 73. It seems to capture both her outer bravura and inner, often well hidden, vulnerability - Anna to a T.
Added to the welcome stories of Anna Fang's background, its illustrations, and indeed its overall fine design, make Night Flights, a quite wonderful book to have and to hold.
*It was formerly given the series title Predator Cities in the US, but in the most recent editions seems to have reverted to the original, Mortal Engines, presumably because this is the film title.
**See my review on this blog from May '18.