Review: Black Light Express by Philip Reeve (Spoiler-Free)

[Warning: This is a spoiler-free review, but I will be referencing some events from the first book in the series, so if you haven’t started it at all yet, beware. Click here for my review of Railhead.]

Zen and Nova have escaped from the Network Empire aboard the Damask Rose, and must now make a new life for themselves in an entirely new world, unknown to humans, but far from uninhabited. Meanwhile, Threnody – now Empress – releases the criminal Chandni Hansa from her frozen prison, in hopes of learning more about the plot that resulted in her father’s death.

Black Light Express has something of the middle-book-syndrome about it; it started off very strong, and the final section was fantastic, but the entire middle of the book was spent on travelling the Web of Worlds, which – as a new system, with loads of new species and cultures to encounter – ought to have been really exciting, but was actually mostly quite dull. Nothing really happened for the majority of the time that the characters spent there, and Zen and Nova seemed barely to even interact with any of the Web’s people… The Kraitt, who served as the only real antagonists during this arc, were at least decently worrying villains, but showed up kind of out of the blue near the end of the arc, and then disappeared just as quickly. I expect that they will return in the next book, but their introduction here was somewhat lacking.

What I did really like about the Web of Worlds was the alternative perspective that it provided on the history and mythology of the Network Empire, as the Web’s own stories fit together with the Empire’s to present an interesting picture of what is presumably the true history of both systems. Towards the end of the book, we already begin to see some game-changing revelations, but there is still presumably much more to come!

The slow pacing of this part of the book also allowed for excellent relationship development for Nova and Zen. The challenges of a romance between a human and a Motorik were not glossed over at all, and I really enjoyed their struggle to figure out how it should proceed, and whether it was important enough to them to work through their wildly different goals in life…

The end of the book was amazingly action-packed (and will hopefully set the tone for the series’ conclusion), but so too were the early parts of the book set in the Empire. Threnody has become one of my favourite characters, and Chandni makes an excellent addition to the cast. I yo-yoed back and forth a lot over whether I liked Chandni, but came down more often on the side of liking her than not, and her practical cynicism made an excellent foil for Threnody’s more naïve, privileged worldview. (Their tentative friendship was one of my favourite things about this book.) We also got a small part of the book from the perspective of Threnody’s ex-fiancé Kobi Chen-Tulsi, which was interesting despite its brevity, and contained a great deal of the kind of political manoeuvring that I most enjoy in fictional high societies.

It was really difficult to give this book three stars – even reminding myself constantly that three stars is not a bad rating – since I loved Railhead so much, but in truth, much of Black Light Express seemed very filler-y… It does do an excellent job of setting things up for the next book, however, and Station Zero looks like it’s going to be incredibly exciting. I get the impression that Black Light Express is a book that I’ll probably appreciate more on re-reading once I’ve finished the series, and am able to see more of what this has all been building up to.

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