I received this book for free from the Publisher in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.Black Light Express by Philip Reeve
Series: Railhead #2
Published by Switch Press on August 1 2017
Genres: Young adult, Science fiction
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The nitty-gritty: Magical, exciting, emotional and full of human truths, Black Light Express takes what Philip Reeve started in Railhead, expands upon it, and makes it even better.
Zen sat awkwardly watching, with Nova’s head on his lap as if it were a bag or something. He had imagined finding Nova alive, and he had been afraid of finding her dead, but he had not prepared himself for finding her in pieces. He’d been wondering a lot about what made someone human, and he had been ready to believe Nova when she said she was. But it seemed to him now that maybe an important part of being human was that you had just one life, and that when someone took you apart you died. Or, at least, you minded. So thinking of her as a human being wasn’t going to work anymore. He had to accept that she was something very different, and that he still loved her anyway.
Last year I was blown away by a little book that I had never heard of called Railhead. When I finished it, several things occurred to me. One: Why had this amazing book not been on my radar? Two: Why isn’t anyone else reading it? and Three: When is the sequel coming out? I can’t answer the first two questions, but I can answer the third question and tell you that Black Light Express is now out in the world. I’m always a little worried about follow-up novels, especially when the first book holds such a special place in my heart. But I needn’t have worried. Black Light Express is just as good. Reeve has created a unique science fiction world where a seemingly infinite number of stars and planets are connected by trains. Yes, you read that correctly. Sentient trains no less! This second book is a sequel in the truest sense of the word: you must read Railhead first in order to understand what’s going on. Having said that, there are minor, unavoidable spoilers for Railhead in this review, so new readers beware.
The story picks up about nine months after the explosive conclusion to Railhead. Zen and Nova, having escaped through a brand new K-gate, have been traveling the worlds of this new galaxy in their sentient train, the Damask Rose. They’ve ended up on the planet of Night’s Edge, home of the giant, whale-like Night Swimmers, and life is very good. Having accepted the fact that they can never return home, the two have not only embraced the strange and sometimes dangerous worlds of this new network of planets, but they’ve fallen in love. Never mind that Zen is human and Nova is a motorik, a nearly human android. True love has no boundaries, as they have come to find out.
Back in the Network Empire, the political situation has stabilized, but unrest is brewing just below the surface. Threnody Noon has been appointed Empress, even though her arranged marriage never happened due to the tragic events on the Noon train at the end of the last book. A thief named Chandni Hansa has just been thawed and released from the freezers, a prison where criminals are frozen for the length of their confinement, and she’s been assigned as a lady-in-waiting at the palace. And elsewhere, Kobi Chen-Tulsi, the ex-betrothed of Threnody Noon, is on his way to meet his future wife (although he doesn’t know it yet). But when he discovers a plot by the Prell family to start a war and take over Threnody’s throne, he knows he has to warn her.
As all these stories converge, a mysterious new world is about to be discovered, and the beliefs about the origins of the Great Network could be shattered for good.
Many of the characters from Railhead are back, including my two favorites, Zen and Nova, but there are some new characters as well. My favorite of these is probably Chandni, a career criminal who’s spent at least fifty years on ice for various crimes, and because people don’t age in the freezers, she appears to be a teenager (although she’s actually much older). Chandni is the kind of person who looks out for herself first, but I loved the way she adjusts her attitude over the course of the story and starts to actually care about the people she meets.
Nova continues to be one of my favorite characters ever. She’s a machine who has trained herself to act and look human, because being human is what she desires most in the world. When she and Zen begin to fall in love, she’s worried that Zen won’t ever be able to truly love a machine, but the growth in their relationship was so satisfying. There’s even a brief mention of an old favorite character of mine from Railhead, Flex, who isn’t exactly alive, but nonetheless is still part of the Damask Rose. (You really should read Railhead and then all my cryptic comments will make sense!)
You say you want to hear about the bad guys? Oh there are plenty in this story, never fear! Black Light Express is filled with all kinds of alien lifeforms, because the story takes place on many different planets. One of the creepiest is a race called the Kraitt, humanoid beings that sort of look like lizards or dinosaurs. They have razor-sharp claws and the females are the warriors in the family. They also take a keen interest in Nova when they discover that she’s a motorik, and those were some of the most nail-biting chapters in the story.
And it wouldn’t be a Railhead story if there weren’t some amazing train characters. I didn’t think Reeve could surpass himself, because the Damask Rose and the Thought Fox from Railhead were such wonderful trains. But he does! In Black Light Express a new train called the Ghost Wolf helps Zen, Nova and Chandni escape the Prells and the Kraitt. Ghost Wolf had a wonderful personality that was completely different from the Damask Rose, and I wanted to hang out with him. Really, I just want my own sentient train, let’s be honest!
Reeve delves deeper into the mysteries behind the Great Network and the K-gates. In this world, beings called the Guardians are thought to have created the rails between worlds, and they’re worshiped like gods. But Zen and his friends are forced into new places and presented with new ideas about the creation of the Network, and so they must adjust their beliefs about what is true. One of the things I love so much about this series is that the world is so big and intricate, and the story possibilities seem endless.
If you’re thinking to yourself, “Gee, I don’t really like young adult books, and talking trains? I’m not really interested in a story about talking trains. That sounds so juvenile!” Well, you’re dead wrong. This book may be written for the young adult crowd, but as an “older” reader I can tell you that I was mesmerized by Reeve’s imagination, characters and plotting from start to finish. And just as he did in Railhead, the author gave me goosebumps with his keen observations of relationships and what it means to be human, story qualities that transcend genre and demographics.
For everyone who loves a great story, do yourself a favor and read this book. Or read Railhead if you haven’t started the series (see my review below). Reeve has created a rich world with endless possibilities, and I can’t wait to see where he takes us next.
Big thanks to the publisher for supplying a review copy. Above quote is from an uncorrected proof and may differ in the final version of the book.