Book Reviews Web of Air

Published on April 10th, 2013 | by Michaela Buckley

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‘Out of Steam’ – Review of Philip Reeve’s ‘A Web of Air’

I’ve often wondered why there isn’t more Steampunk themed media and why all current Steampunk stuff (Steamboy, His Dark Materials, Sky Captain etc.) is mostly aimed at young adults.
Steampunk isn’t the most hailed or abundant genre in literature and the closest I’ve ever read to one is probably Northern Lights by Philip Pullman which just goes to show how loose the criteria is.

It doesn’t come as a huge surprise then that one of the most prevalent steampunk novels of the current generation is Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve, the first of a set of novels set in a post-apocalyptic world turned cusp of a new techno-industrial revolution.

A Web of Air is part of the futuristic Mortal Engines series, but set many years in the past. The main character is Fever Crumb an eccentric 16 year old girl who is an Engineer, a group of people who operate in London and appear to have Asperger’s-like traits and an obsession with rationality and learning about mechanisms.

Crumb has left London however, and is pursuing the life of a light attendant on a theatre ship which travels from town to town. Lights and electricity are pretty hard to operate in this world and backwards cities like Mayda-at-the-World’s-End have quasi-religious anti-technology tendencies.

After becoming embroiled in a mysterious plot, Crumb must escape the clutches of evil cartel and a mysterious killer whilst attempting to uncover the theory of flight.

Considering this is a steampunk novel, there’s not a lot of steam going on, with the more interesting stuff basically being “magic”. The cast of characters are diverse but not exactly the richest and most gripping. Fever exhibits traits of Engineers and humans and appears to struggle with the two, giving the book an unusual turn for a YA novel, however her crude thought patterns and her lack of taking control of situations often means that she feels less of a likeable, strong and troubled woman, and more like a cheap unlicensed film figurine of Spock that you found at a boot sale, it looks like him, it sounds like him, but there’s an unnerving hint of uncanny valley going on.

The map that appears at the beginning of the book, presumably for the kinds of people who use satnav and haven't had to think about navigation before.

The map that appears at the beginning of the book, presumably for the kinds of people who use satnav and haven’t had to think about navigation before.

Other characters include irritating child with unusually mature realisation of romantic feelings for the main character, he’s 10 years old, there’s the “sudden but inevitable” traitor, complete with lack lustre exposition and red herrings big enough to fill an entire Wagamama, there’s the “fat is always evil” drug cartel lord, masquerading as a genteel aristocrat and would probably be just as convincing if he wore a second hand unitard with lace trimmings.

The world feels detailed and important even outside of Mayda, with the main character’s past in London and various details about how the world presumably reached its current stage. This is all probably because it is actually a sequel to Fever Crumb, in which the titular character has some form of adventure in London and meets the irritating child and ends with joining the theatre ship, however I did not find this out until after I had already read the book and like with Lair by James Herbert, I found that this gave the current story a good amount of depth and in the case of this book, made it a lot less patronising than it could have been considering it’s a Young Adult novel, which I usually avoid for this very reason.

Unfortunately as a YA novel it also has boring and generic YA themes, like the parent-revolt, the slow and agonising falling in love lark and all the confusions and inner turmoils one usually expects when met with this tired trope and most annoyingly the main character steals the show after many convenient plot developments allow her to. I call this “Girl gets the Car” after Cruel Intentions where a character gets something that is important or allowed some form of privilege that they shouldn’t by rights have, either because they didn’t earn it or they don’t care about it, purely by virtue of being a female main character.

However, I feel obliged to mention that there are a couple of instances that were mildly surprising and some of the aspects of this novel weren’t as grating as it could have been, most of which are spoiler-y, so I’ll spare you those, but there is a lot of mechanical description and a good level of physical detail of the inventions helping them to come to life, you have to stop thinking emotionally as one usually does when reading and start to think more logically, which kills a little of the immersion but does wonders for Crumb’s appeal as you join her nutty mindset.

I wonder if the demographic can follow this Hard-Sci fi approach to in-book gadgetry, but then I expect that the lack in detail of some of the creation is another matter entirely. The whole of Steampunk as a genre is completely ridiculous and unbelievable which is probably why it gets relegated to such a young age group to begin with, most of the kids that read this kind of thing probably move onto Alternate History stuff when they get older.

How steam might look today.

How steam might look today.

There’s nothing particularly wrong with this book and I can see myself recommending it on many occasions, however the lacklustre approach to an unusual theme is very disappointing considering the potential, the story is cookie-cutter, the character development is nonsensical and the book can’t escape its own target audience haunting its every sentence, ringing of dull pretension.
But what I see through those faults are an interesting and diverse world with strong ideas for Steampunk inventions that tread nicely on the useful line without dancing precariously too much on the gaudy, which is what a writer is often wont to do when broaching teens, especially considering previous Steampunk media.

This is an author who almost has to dumb down the entire novel because, perhaps, a couple of ideas aren’t up to scratch with adult fiction and the market is so bloody difficult to seduce.

Like Aeon Flux, I feel like something is being held back from the immature audience and as a result loses a lot of integrity, coming out less like Indiana Jones on wings and more like Professor Layton dancing with death.

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