A while back 2000AD was publishing these as single issues, reformatting them as they were originally published in the 2000AD magazine between issues 1800-1811, 1850-1861, and 1888-1899 of that publication. I made it a few issues in when I decided I would just pick up the eventual collections, and so here we are with the hardcover which gives us the story arcs of The Wheel of Worlds, The Diamond Age, and Floating Worlds. As far as I can tell the final two chapters, Motor Head and Engine Summer, have yet to be collected into a similar format.
The main set up is that the known human universe is actually a clock work orrery of worlds, one that is slowly winding down. The story starts on the planet Hind Leg, which is beginning to feel the results of this shut down as the weather is cooling and resources have started to dwindle. However, the dogmatic and tyrannical government denies this as it may reduce their power on the world. Our main character is a young girl named Wren, who's about to be set on a quest to hopefully restart the sun.
Wren's quest quickly moves her off planet Hind Leg as she begins searching for parts of a key to kickstart the sun. Along the way she meets Conductor Seventeen, a young monk who is part of a sect that maintains and operates the railways between worlds. It's revealed through his sect that the worlds went to war years ago over control of their mystical keys, and the resulting destruction had cut them all off from another and the truth of their existence was long lost to time and myth.
Edginton and Culbard really build an interesting and well defined universe, infusing each planet with plenty of imagination and their own set of rules. For example, the first world visited is The Keep, a planet that is essentially considered to be one entire palace. Cities, towns, and villages are actually rooms, apartments, kitchens, and so on. The world was controlled by one royal family that fell into war with itself and has been splintered ever since.
Basically each arc spends its entire time on one planet, which is both the strength and weakness of the storytelling for me. The world building and concepts are really engaging, so you want to spend that much time with each unique location and explore the mythology. And it really works for the first chunk as we start on Hind Leg and see Wren off the planet to start her quest. The trick is the second arc makes a time jump and doesn't seem to know what to do with itself for a while. We get some more development of The Keep and the politics of that world, but it just feels a little rushed. We're quickly tossed into a civil war of sorts and then it's time to get the hell off of that world.
The third section takes place on the world called Hot Air, a gaseous planet with plenty of airship action to be had. Again, fun idea, but that arc does another time jump where our main character has been physically scarred on the face and she and her band of allies have been working as a pirate crew for some time. The time lapses are a little jarring, at least in this single hardcover format. As there were chunks of time between each arc was released in the 2000AD Magazine I imagine it worked out a bit better and the transition felt smoother with the wait time.
Regardless of those pacing issues, I really enjoyed the overall package. Ian Edginton's passion in developing this world shines through and there's just a lot of fun ideas bouncing around. While not all of his characters have the most unique voices in the scripting, the plotting and storytelling carry the rest of the weight well. Plus I'm always a fan of I.N.J. Culbard projects and visually he's a great fit for this type of steampunk fantasy sci-fi.
It's been a good seven or so years since this edition came out, but you can hunt it down fairly easily. Original retail was $25 which is really great for the oversized hardcover format and for the 208 page count, and I think you can get it for bit cheaper now actually as well. As I said though, the rest of the story hasn't been released in a matching format just yet, so if you don't want to wait you'll need to hunt down the magazine issues.