Author: Philip Reeve
Originally Published in 2006
Review by Miriam Atkinson
A Darkling Plain is the fourth and final book in Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines Quartet.
Set six months after Infernal Devices, A Darkling Plain starts with our protagonists separated from each other. Tom and Wren are air merchants, Hester and Shrike are scavengers amongst the vast sand plains, and Theo has returned to his family home in Zagwa. Whilst all of the separations are voluntary none of the characters feel completely happy in their new lives. As the characters struggle to adjust to the lives they have chosen for themselves, they are constantly in danger from the world around them.
The Green Storm has been split into two factions – those that follow the new leadership of General Naga and Oenone Zero and those that still worship the Stalker Fang. While Naga’s followers look to make a tentative peace with the Traction Cities in an effort to end the war, Fang’s loyalists are determined to use violence to ensure the war continues forever.
Unbeknownst to everyone, former Lost Boy Fishcake has secretly repaired the Stalker Fang. The stalker plans to destroy humanity and bring everlasting peace to the world using ODIN (an orbital weapon of mass destruction). For much of the story it appears only the stalker’s split personality and memories of Anna Fang’s life may save humanity.
In a separately plotline, Reeve brings his series full circle when Tom and Wren return to the ruins of London. There they discover that London is not as deserted as previously thought and the old city may hold the key to stopping the fighting between the Green Storm and the Traction Cities.
A Darkling Plain is the largest book in the series and its plot it packed with interweaving narrative threads as the characters’ journeys cross over each other and several key world events. It’s important to remember that Tom, Hester, Wren and Theo are ordinary people in this world. Their lives shouldn’t overlap with high ranking military generals and leaders of vast traction cities. Yet when they do Reeve manages to make all of these moments feel like a natural progression of the story.
I love all of the exciting plotlines and the physical and emotional journeys we get to see the characters go on, however they do have one downside – due to their complexity they take time to set up. For example – Infernal Devices starts slowly because the characters are in the idyllic yet quiet Anchorage-in-Vineland. When the drama increases so does the pace of the story. A Darkling Plain starts slowly because it has to. The characters haven’t reached the locations they need to for the truly dramatic elements of the story to begin. Although the extended build-up in no way spoils the novel it does become noticeable when it takes ten chapters for Hester and Shrike to be introduced.
I confess I was nervous when I reached the final chapters knowing that this time absolutely anything could happen and no one was safe. The ending is satisfying in the sense that Reeve gives both the book and the Quartet a definite conclusion. Everything is resolved and nothing is left ambiguous. The finality of the last chapter leaves no one in any doubt that we are reading the end of the series. That being said there are a couple of gut punch moments that I don’t think I’ll ever get over (for those who’ve read this book – you know what I mean).
For me the one truly unsatisfying moment in the finale was the conclusion given to my least favourite character – Fishcake. The Quartet has amazing heroic characters, brilliant love-to-hate-them villains, and some fascinating morally ambiguous characters. To me Fishcake falls into the annoying category. Even though we’re supposed to feel sympathy for him at times, due to his outcast status, I don’t find him a redeemable character – this is made worse by the fact that Fishcake is given one of the happiest endings in the book.
So as the conclusion to the Quartet, how does A Darkling Plain do? There’s plenty of action, dramatic moments, and characterisation on top of the usual wonderful world building. Once the story really beings to build it doesn’t stop; with every action and decision having a consequence which is then explored. Even the couple of moments I wasn’t as keen on didn’t stop me from enjoying the novel and don’t stop me from loving the series every time I read it. A Darkling Plain ensures that the Quartet ends with a very exciting bang.
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