A secret extension of the Crossrail project is tunnelling underneath Buckingham Palace when it hits a strange anomaly and grinds to a sudden stop. This is how a novel by Rian Hughes opens and reveals, well, it would spoil the plot to say what was found underneath Buckingham Palace, but safe to say it’s very big and has been down there for a very long time.
And it’s nothing like Quatermass, so put that thought out of your mind.
In any story, the plot is king, but this book goes beyond words on a page and has expanded the story into design, illustrations, typography, even QR codes in the book that lead you to audio experiences.
It’s a curious mix of illustrations as conceptual punctuation marks through to diagrams of urban machinery, but you may notice as you read that the typography seems all over the place. Until you realise that each character in the novel is not only given individuality in what they say and do, but their presence on the printed page is equally unique – they all have their own font.
For this reader, that made one slightly irritating character rather easier to read as the text is in a larger font, but it’s mainly a clever and interesting way of giving a tone of voice to the characters that a uniform typeset would have lacked.
Although fictional, the author, Rian Hughes, has clearly done his tunnelling research as his dropping of terminology into the text shows. There are references to things such as Tally Huts, which are routine in building sites, but not often written about outside of training manuals. Where the book might be a bit difficult to follow in a few places is the presumption of familiarity with London’s geography, with references to places being driven past without a general indication that they are in a part of London.
The main characters are Auston, the Crossrail site manager, and Lloyd, an official artist with a very odd train of thought, along with a number of supporting characters, such as the project manager, Georgia. The tension between the methodical engineer and the dreamy artist is quite expertly played out through the book.
Oh, and a secretive almost masonic fan club for people who like steam trains, of which front covers of their Smokeboxer magazine look realistic enough to make you stop and wonder why you’ve never seen them before in railway magazine racks. There are larger versions at the back of the book.
The steam train society seems to be a sidetrack in the story, until later when things start to go wrong.
Overall, this is a novel that is both a delight for the rail fans but it’s more than just a book thanks to the inventive design and layout within the pages. Even the edging on the pages is black to match the title, and there’s a design surprise under the dustcover.
Described as “a love letter to London, technology, architecture and design, where the past and future combine for an extraordinary climax”, the graphic novel is excitingly different and enjoyable.
The novel, The Black Locomotive is available — best in hardcover for the illustrations — from Amazon, Foyles, Waterstones, or direct from the publisher Picado Books. The author also sells Smokebox Club t-shirts, if you want to show off your membership of that secretive group of train geeks.