It has been sixteen years since the events of Predators Gold, and the Traction City of Anchorage has been peacefully settled on the Dead Continent for years, undisturbed by the war that rages throughout the rest of the world between the adherents of Municipal Darwinism and a terrorist faction of the Anti-Tractionist League.
Okay, if you haven't read the previous two books in The Hungry City Chronicles, then you probably didn't understand a word of that sentence. To recap, Philip Reeve has created one of the most vivid and exciting fantasy worlds in recent fiction, a post-apocalyptic world where massive itinerant cities roam the wastelands, preying on smaller cities and static communities. Those that want to put a stop to this dog-eat-dog world, as well as protect their homelands from the predator cities and "bring back the green" are known as Anti-Tractionists. Though their goals may be noble, they have long since resorted to questionable tactics in order to see win the war, including resurrecting dead bodies as mindlessly obedient soldiers known as Stalkers.
With its multi-tiered traction cities, deep underwater complexes, floating aerial cities, and plethora of submarines and airships that travel between all three, it's only a matter of time before someone makes this series into a visually splendid film. But Reeve does more than create a fictional world that is right up there with (and perhaps even surpassing) the likes of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials Trilogy and Garth Nix's The Abhorsen Chronicles. This is a gritty, realistic, steam-punk world where difficult decisions have to be made, where there are no clear cut "goodies and baddies," where life and relationships are precious and difficult, where characters fight for a dystopian world that may or may not be worth the effort, and where our protagonists Tom Natsworthy and Hester Shaw have no real commitment to either side, but are just trying to keep themselves and their family intact. The greater conflict of the world around them is microcosmically recreated in their own relationship, as each comes to terms with how far they are willing to go in order to survive.
Since the last novel, Tom and Hester have married and had a daughter, Wren. But like most teenagers, Wren is restless and bored with life upon Anchorage-inVineland, and longs for adventures like the ones she's read about in Professor Pennyroyal's memoirs. A very strained relationship with her mother doesn't help matters either, and so it is like a gift from the heavens when Wren sees a mysterious submarine landing on the shores by night. A charming and handsome pirate is willing to whisk her away from her mundane life, if only she does him a little favour: bring him an object from Anchorage's library.
To say anymore would be to give away one too many of the plot twists and turns that course throughout "Infernal Devices". As always, Reeve delivers a story that is chocka-block full of action, danger, excitement, mystery and suspense; fairly generic words when used to describe a story, but in this case, entirely accurate. Reeve can keep a story racing along like no one else can; the biggest problem is finding an appropriate place to try and stop.
The McGuffin of the story is an artifact known as the Tin Book. Nobody knows quite what it is or why it's significant, save for the person who wants it so badly: the Stalker Fang, leader of the Green Storm. From the shores of Anchorage to the submerged realm of the Lost Boys, to the floating resort paradise of Brighton, the Tin Book and its pursuers eventually converge in an action-pack climax that sets everything up for the forth and final book in the series: A Darkling Plain. Up until then though, Reeve masterfully weaves several plot-strands that involve Tom and Hester's search for their daughter, Wren's attempts to escape from slavery, and the resurrection of the Stalker Strike by a doctor with her own agenda; all against the backdrop of an escalating war.
Also noteworthy is Reeve's careful character development and sense of humor. There are moments of levity throughout the book, including several comic characters and even a sly reference to Pride And Prejudice, all of which helps to offset the darker aspects in both the world and in the characters' souls. Struggling with greed, fear, hate and difficult moral decisions, Reeve certainly doesn't make it easy for his protagonists and often he makes the brave decision to make his protagonists downright unsympathetic at times. Just as many villainous characters can have misguided or understandable motivation, Hester Shaw has a rather callous nature, as well as a very dark side to her that even comes to resent her own daughter's existence. Likewise, Wren herself is annoyingly stupid at the inception of the book, though naturally she grows leaps and bounds throughout, after realizing that she's not half so clever as she thought she was. Be that as it may, Reeve's characters are always fascinating, but sometimes difficult to easily *like*.
"Infernal Devices" is not my favorite in the series: two promising characters are killed very early on in the story, and the idea of Brighton as a holiday-resort city doesn't quite seem to mesh with the brutal nature of the rest of the world, plus by the end of the book you realize that most of the last-quarter has been setup for the final installment, but the depth of the story, weightiness of the issues it raises and the sheer creativity at work here means that it can be nothing less than a five-star book. Depressingly though, "The Hungry City Chronicles" seem to be all but unknown among the annals of children's literature. At the time of this review there are only five other recommendations for "Infernal Devices." Seriously...five? You honestly don't know what you're missing.