I have a special soft spot for authors who take risks. It would be easy, especially if you’ve had success, to keep turning out similar books, staying within your comfort zone. But the best writers are the ones who move away from the safety net and give readers something new and exciting – and so it is with this book, Black Locomotive by Rian Hughes.
I raved about XX, Hughes’s debut book last year, a mind-boggling science-fiction graphic novel that mixed scintillating plotting with big ideas and elements of typography and design that blew my socks off. Black Locomotive has some superficial similarities to its predecessor – certain design elements and a speculative fictional universe – but it a more mature and emotionally engaging piece of storytelling.
The novel is set in London, and it could be argued that the city is its main character too, as Hughes digs deep (literally) under the surface of what makes the capital tick. A top-secret extension to the underground network is being built, but progress is halted when workmen discover a strange anomaly, a cavernous space that has archaeologists confused.
As the anomaly is explored, first by workers on the project, then by a rogue artist-in-residence within the team, the implications for the city become profound. And when power fails across the whole of London, one of the men in charge has to recruit a mythical secret society of steam train enthusiasts to help avert catastrophe.
All of which might sound a little out there, but trust me, the book is a lot more out there than that spoiler-free summary gets across. The genius of Hughes is that he pulls off these wild flights of fancy with a swagger and confidence that are utterly convincing. As the narrative switches between the anomaly and the rescue party, Hughes expertly ramps up the tension to breaking point, casually throwing in more big ideas on every page, and grounding the whole thing in an emotional reality that really pulls the reader along. If only all fiction was this adventurous and original.
The Black Locomotiveby Rian Hughes is out now (Picador, £16.99)