Posted on July 29, 2018
27. ‘Mortal Engines’ by Philip Reeve
You might have seen that Mortal Engines – Philip Reeve’s futuristic, steampunk, YA series from the early 2000s – has been made into a movie. It’s out in December this year, and I wanted to read the first book before I saw it (because the concept is so cool). Fortunately my brother read the entire series when he was younger, so he has lent me all the books!
Mortal Engines starts off in London, but this isn’t the London you know. In the past, the world was changed forever by a brutal, and short, chemical war. It caused massive upheaval, reshaping the landmasses and turning the planet into a wasteland. But many cities survived, thanks to the Traction Movement – they were dismantled and rebuilt as cities on wheels. Now these cities travel constantly across the ruined land, feeding on smaller towns and always looking for the next big prize. In this setting we meet Tom, a Londoner born and bred, who loves his city and revels in her victories. But when he meets Hester, a non-Londoner with a mysteriously scarred face, he learns the terrible price of keeping his beloved London moving.
From the first page, Reeve’s thrilling concept jumps off the page, from the many-levelled city of London with St. Paul’s Cathedral sitting at the very top, to the museum of now-redundant artefacts including CDs and computers, to the concept of Municipal Darwinism (i.e. only the strongest cities survive). There’s a quote from the Daily Telegraph on the back cover of my copy of Mortal Engines: “seems to have leapt fully formed from a startling imagination”. That’s exactly right – this world feels real from the very beginning.
The main characters are quite simplistic to begin with, but they certainly develop as the story goes on. There’s Tom, our ‘everyman’ hero, who learns the truth about his city and starts to question whether it really is as great as he always believed. There’s Hester, who learns to move on from her tragic past and her own anger as the story progresses. And there’s Kate, daughter of the great explorer Valentine, who comes to realise that her father’s perfect image has been built on lies. There are also some really cool side characters, including the kick-ass aviatrix Miss Fang (I hate flying, but god I’d like to be an ‘aviatrix’) and the honestly terrifying ‘Stalker’, Shrike.
I’m not entirely sure what age this book is aimed at. On the one hand, the central ideas are fairly straightforward – good vs. evil, one person can make a difference, friendship overcomes all – but on the other Reeve doesn’t shy away from killing characters pretty violently. Ultimately, though, reading this YA series as an adult is enjoyable. There’s real peril here, and complicated emotions (the characters agonise over death and killing, and wonder about their place in the world). It’s all packaged in a really engaging story, with characters I liked, some really pacy, descriptive writing, and a thoroughly brilliant central concept. I’m really looking forward to reading the rest of this series and seeing where Reeve takes his story.
“He was sick of being swept to and fro across the world by other people’s plans.”
Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts!
If you want to read it, you can buy Mortal Engines here.
[Disclosure: Above is an affiliate link. If you buy a book through that link, I get a small cut, at no extra cost to you.]