Black Light Express, Philip Reeve (Switch Press 978-1630790966, $17.95, 352pp, tp) August 2017.
Philip Reeve’s absolutely incredible world building again takes center stage in Black Light Express, the sequel to Railhead. The second book picks up soon after the events that brought Railhead to a stunning close, with former thief and unwitting catalyst Zen Starling having fled the Network Empire along with Nova, his android girlfriend. Meanwhile, completely against her will, Threnrody Noon, the Paris Hilton of the empire-controlling Noon family, has assumed the position of Empress. She is only a pawn of more powerful interests, however, and is virtually trapped in the palace attending a haze of pointless engagements while her former fiancé, Kobi, is on the other side of the galaxy about to be forced into a corporate-approved marriage with someone he has never met. Basically, the fallout from Railhead is reverberating across all the lives of the major characters while, unknown to them, it’s about to get a lot lot worse.
Black Light Express takes what Reeve introduced in Railhead, sentient trains, corporate rule, and the frustrations of several young people with little control over their lives, and ratchets up the pressure and the action in multiple ways. While Kobi uncovers a plot to overthrow Threnrody’s family and Threnrody seeks to find out where Zen and Nova have disappeared to (and what they knew before they left), Zen and Nova have become explorers with their train, Damask Rose, on a long-lost rail line. While they would contentedly travel as far as the line can take them, events back home soon bring the chaos of corporate warfare into their new lives. As multiple plot threads spin and whirl at once, with several different points of view employed, Reeve’s talent at keeping all of the narrative balls in the air is never less than impressive. The action moves along at a steady clip (not unlike a train barreling down the tracks) until a mighty battle is joined, sides are chosen for the final time, and everyone figures out just who they have been up against all along. Reeve nails the good and bad guys (obvious and otherwise) with exactly the skill his readers will expect, providing a most satisfying, although hardly traditional, ending.
Thinking about Railhead and Black Light Express, I’m rather surprised that these books are not better known. The characters are diverse, smart, and clearly relatable teenagers, the plot is steeped in war-spawning political unrest that is, unfortunately, going to be all too familiar to modern readers, and this universe is never less than dazzling. Best of all, nothing that happens in these two books is predictable or mundane, and the author’s ability to keep readers on the edge of their seats (and make them care an awful lot about the fate of trains) cannot be overstated. Just like Railhead, Black Light Express is exactly what excellent science fiction is supposed to be and certainly deserving of a very wide readership.
Colleen Mondor, Contributing Editor, is a writer, historian, and reviewer who co-owns an aircraft leasing company with her husband. She is the author of “The Map of My Dead Pilots: The Dangerous Game of Flying in Alaska” and reviews regularly for the ALA’s Booklist. Currently at work on a book about the 1932 Mt. McKinley Cosmic Ray Expedition, she and her family reside in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. More info can be found on her website: www.colleenmondor.com.
This review and more like it in the December 2017 issue of Locus.