When Cities Walked the Earth (Mortal Engines Reviewed)

And now, for my 1500th blog post, a book review:


I’ll say this about Philip Reeve: he knows how to hook the reader straight from the first line.

“It was a dark, blustery afternoon in spring, and the city of London was chasing a small mining town across the dried-out bed of the old North Sea.”

Erin: Say what?

Me: You heard me.

Centuries in the future, the American and Chinese “Empires” remodelled the face of the planet with a conflict that came to be known as “the Sixty Minute War”. And I mean, really remodelled it. Europe is now a maze of active volcanos. A new mountain in the Himalayas/Caucuses called Zhan Shan easily tops Everest’s old record as being the tallest in the world. The Middle East is a series of new inland seas and swamps and South America is an island continent called Nuevo Maya. Australia doesn’t appear to exist and North America is referred to as “the dead continent”.

Since then, no less than two civilizations have risen and fallen in Eurasia and Africa, leaving their marks on the world. And then, eight hundred years before Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines begins, scientists in the remaining cities of the world get the idea of putting their settlements on caterpillar tracks and crawling around Europe and northern Asia (now rechristened “the Great Hunting Ground”), hunting for resources, and consuming each other in a process known as “Municipal Darwinism.”

This is all backstory, and not (thankfully) presented upfront at the beginning of the book. Instead, at the start of Mortal Engines, fifteen-year-old Tom Natsworthy, third-grade apprentice to the Historians Guild of the Traction City of London, celebrates with the rest of London as the city consumes the mining town of Salthook. London literally swallows Salthook within its great jaws into the bowls of its “Gut” and people wait for the citizens of Salthook to emerge and form queues to register themselves as new London citizens. Once this happens, other workers start to take apart Salthook to use for parts.

Tom is a naive young orphan, taken in by the Historians after his parents (themselves historians) were killed in an accident. He lives a boring life dusting and polishing in the London Museum, but he dreams of adventures, spurred on by Thaddeus Valentine, an archeologiss whose tales of trips to the haunted deserts of America searching for Old Tech, has made him a hero among London’s residents, and has gotten him appointed to the Head of the Historian’s Guild by London’s Lord Mayor, engineer and dictator Magnus Crome.

Tom is so naive, you could shake him, but don’t worry: he has his feet swept out from under him soon enough, and several times over. When Valentine comes down to the Gut with Tom to witness the dismemberment of Salthook and to pick up any historical artifacts that might be waiting, a horribly disfigured girl (a scar across her face has removed one eye and most of her nose) attacks Valentine with a sword. Tom, hoping to be a hero to Valentine’s beautiful daughter Katherine, chases the attacker through the Gut. When he catches up to her, he learns her name is Hester Shaw, and she wants revenge against Valentine for some reason. Then she jumps down the waste disposal chute and escapes the city. That should have been the end of it but, when Valentine arrives, realizes that Hester has told Tom her name, he pushes Tom down the same chute as well.

Thus Hester and Tom, two fifeen-year-old orphans, are left to fend for themselves in the Out Country of the Great Hunting Ground. Hester is adamant that they get back to London so she can kill Valentine in revenge for his killing her parents and disfiguring her. Tom resolves to help her — not to kill Valentine, but to get the truth out, in the naive hope that justice will prevail. Hester is more than dubious: Valentine is Magnus Crome’s man. Magnus wants Valentine for something, and sure enough, Magnus sends a robotic resurrected soldier (essentially a Cyberman; Reeve cribs shamelessly from Doctor Who here) to make sure that Tom and Hester are dead.

Hester and Tom’s journey is further complicated by visits to other cities, and assistance by the mysterious Anna Fang: an airship-flying agent of the Anti Traction League, representing the static settlements of Africa, India and what’s left of China, who oppose the whole practice of Municipal Darwinism. She and a lot of other people want to know London’s secret plan, and what it was that Valentine killed Hester’s parents for. London has spent the last few years hiding in Wales because the prey in the Great Hunting Ground is starting to run out, and the big traction cities are looking at each other as possible meals. Now, however, London has emerged from hiding and is heading east, through the Great Hunting Ground, straight for the Shield Wall that guards the only pass through the Himalayas, separating the Anti Traction strongholds from the realm of the Traction Cities. Why?

Philip Reeve weaves a fascinating world of airships and tank-like cities, intrigue and romance, action and adventure, without getting bogged down in the details of the world that Tom lives in. Despite the post-post-post apocalyptic setting, this is light reading. There are moments of wry humour, and well-paced action. And Philip occasionally produces a brilliant turn of phrase that stops me in my tracks.

That isn’t to say that it’s perfect. Far from it. Reeve has a flawed writing style that refuses to engage the reader with a consistent voice. Points of view jump from character to character within sections and, I’m sorry, but since I’ve had my head taken off for engaging in ping pong point of view, I don’t see why Reeve should get off so easy. Occasionally, the narrative switches from past tense to present tense, apparently just to annoy me.

But that’s easily overlooked by the drive of the story here. Reeve engages in some cliches, but deliciously twists others. For instance, when Tom and Hester are taken prisoner aboard the pirate suburb of Tunnbridge Wheels, Hester just happens to know the Lord Mayor, and tries to use that to get out of her predicament. The readership groans at the convenience of this, but it doesn’t work. Delightfully, their salvation comes out of nowhere; Reeve pulls a nice bait and switch.

And while some characters are cardboard, many are not. Tom is occasionally so naive as to not be believable, but that’s made up for by the fact that he gets an education in a hurry. The various characters of London, especially young Katherine, Valentine’s daughter, who investigates and discovers the truth about her dad, are engaging enough, but Reeve’s brilliance lies in the character of Hester. This poor, damaged, driven girl is ugly in every sense of the word: brutally disfigured, brutally violent, brutally cynical about the world around her. And yet Tom (and the readers) is able to discover a harsh beauty within her, in her clarity of purpose, in her determination, and in the occasional emergence of the shy girl that existed before Valentine slashed her face open. Her violent nature threatens to create a rift between her and Tom, but the story of their relationship is the engine that drives this series.

Mortal Engines is the first of the four-part Hungry City Chronicles that follow Hester and Tom’s life through to middle age (the books are, in order Predator’s Gold, Infernal Devices and A Darkling Plain). The last two books feature Tom and Hester’s fifteen-year-old daughter, Wren who, having had the benefits of a parental upbringing, unfortunately has little of the street sense her mother possesses. The four books focus on the growing conflict of the increasingly starved Traction Cities, and the increasingly alarmed Anti-Traction League. I haven’t read the fourth book, but I’m told that Philip Reeve wraps things up very well, which is an oddity for multiple book series, sometimes.

But Mortal Engines stands quite well on its own, providing both a satisfying resolution and stopping point to the story. If you are in the mood for some light post-apocalyptic reading, then you should give Mortal Engines a try. You might be drawn into the rest of the series.

Further Reading

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