Predator’s Gold, set two years after the events of Mortal Engines (see my review here), sees Tom Natsworthy and Hester Shaw, now 17-year-old lovers, piloting the late Anna Fang’s airship, the Jenny Hanniver.
They’ve made a decent life for themselves as air traders. After the events of London’s failed attack on the Anti-Traction fortress of Batmunkh Gompa, Tom and Hester decided that discretion was the better part of valour and toured the world, visiting Africa, the oil-drilling rigs of Antarctica, and the ziggurat cities of Nuevo Maya (South America). They’ve grown rich on their cargo, and then poor after they had to jettison a load in order to escape air pirates.
Hester, still horribly disfigured after a sword-blow across her face cost her an eye and most of her nose when she was a child (she’ll carry this injury for the rest of her life, both physically and mentally), has almost allowed herself to believe that she’ll have a happy life with Tom. For the past two years, she has expected him to dump her at the earliest opportunity, but that hasn’t happened, and she has fiercely fallen in love with his city-boy innocence and naivet√©. Things start to unravel, however, when while visiting the flying port Airhaven, near the arctic circle, they take on a passenger by the name of Professor Pennyroyal. Tom knows the name: Pennyroyal is a maverick historian famous for the potboiling tales of his adventures, including a visit to the dead and toxic continent of America which he claims is not nearly so dead as is generally believed.
Then the Jenny Hanniver is attacked by airships bearing the logo of The Green Storm, a fanatical Anti-Tractionist faction that have grown alarmed and militant over London’s near destruction of the Batmunkh Gompa fortress, and the loss a year later of the last static settlement of the Arctic (Spitzburgen) to the vicious preditor city of Arkangel. The Green Storm worships the memory of Anti-Traction agent Anna Fang, and they believe that Tom and Hester stole the Jenny Hanniver after somehow betraying her. Tom, Hester and Professor Pennyroyal manage to escape, but the Jenny Hanniver ends up damaged, and floating dead over the wastes of the high Arctic. Only a miracle can save them which, of course, happens; this is fiction, after all.
Tom, Hester and Professor Pennyroyal find refuge on the ice city of Anchorage — possibly the only city in this world that can legitimately trace its history to America before the Sixty Minute War (so far as we know. There is an ocean-going city by the name of “Puerto Angeles”, but it doesn’t get more than a mention in the first book). Anchorage’s margravine, Freya Rasmussen, is a direct descendant of the first margravine, Dolly Rasmussen who, legends tell, had a vision of her city’s destruction and led her followers into the wilderness before the Alaskan panhandle was vapourized. The survivors took on the habits of the Inuit to make a living in the high arctic, until Municipal Darwinism arrived in the north and Anchorage packed on gigantic skids and took to the ice.
Tom, Hester and Professor Pennyroyal arrive in Anchorage in the aftermath of disaster. A year before, a piece of old tech taken aboard the city unleashed a Sixty Minute War “battle virus” that killed all but fifty of its inhabitants, including Freya’s parents, before mutating into something harmless. The streets are deserted. The Margravine herself, born into a position that’s hidebound in tradition, has had to learn how to dress herself, and makes do with one servant (Smew, the Margravane’s dwarf — it’s a tradition) acting as cook, footman, official greeter, chauffeur, you name it (Smew has separate uniforms for each position, and has to perform several quick changes as he drives guests to the Winter Palace and walks them to the margravine’s chamber.
The people of Anchorage open their arms to Tom and Hester and especially to Professor Pennyroyal. In the two years since Mortal Engines, the unsustainability of Municipal Darwinism has become even more pronounced, with predator cities like Arkangel now offering rewards in gold to airshipmen willing to reveal the location of potential prey cities. Arkangel in particular sends out scouts to invade and subdue their prey, forcing inhabitants to turn their towns around and march into Arkangel’s jaws — a practice that the ever naive Tom objects to as “unfair”.
Anchorage has never kept slaves; never engaged in predation, and it was rewarded by streams of tourists and considerable trade. But now with the smaller towns gobbled up, the city is prey, with cities like Arkangel lusting after its hyper-efficient engines (cobbled together from old tech). The fifty remaining inhabitants of Anchorage cannot hope to stay free for long and so Freya, inspired by Professor Pennyroyal’s bestseller America the Beautiful, orders her navigators to cross the ice and “take us home”. The arrival of Professor Pennyroyal has to be a good omen, and she immediately appoints him chief navigator.
Except that, as Hester suspects, Pennyroyal is a sham, a charlatan. He never went to America, and made up its verdant forests and its noble savages from the poolside deck of the floating city of Bristol. He is more than a little alarmed that his book has sent Anchorage — and, more importantly, him — on a voyage to destruction.
But things are worse for Hester, as the spoiled Freya sets her pretty eyes on Tom, and Tom is forced to admit that he misses living on board a city. He wholeheartedly supports Freya’s move to return Anchorage to America, and he doesn’t suspect Pennyroyal’s deception until it’s too late. Hester’s jealousies mount and, when she catches Tom and Freya sharing a kiss, they push her over the edge into doing something she’ll regret for the rest of her life. The title says it all.
Philip Reeve’s second book in this series is as uneven as the first, containing brilliant characterization and turns of phrase alongside cliches and sloppy narrative. The Green Storm are an example of all of the above. Their plot threads are almost an intrusion into the narrative of Predator’s Gold, but vital for the development of the series, as it introduces elements that will be taken up in the remaining two books. The character of Sathya, Anna Fang’s protege, is very uneven — at times nuanced and interesting, but at other times over the top in her self-loathing for letting her mentor die.
The worst offenders have to be the series of characters that Reeve sees fit to introduce over one-hundred pages into the book: the thieving Lost Boys of the sunken city of Grimsby; some of whom have latched onto the underbelly of Anchorage and are now pillaging its deserted streets. The connection that their leader, the Fagan-esque “Uncle”, has with the narrative is clearly pasted on and held in place by the most unbelievable of coincidences. But even here, there are redeeming features — the boy Caul — very Tom-like in his way — is increasingly uncomfortable with his thieving lifestyle, and longs for the stability offered by Anchorage. His internal conflict is interesting, well-developed, and its resolution a pleasant surprise.
Freya, on the other hand, is worth the price of admission alone. The spoiled young girl, thrust into the position of leadership, grows considerably in this story, eventually casting aside all the silly traditions that bind life in Anchorage. Her resolution is pat in places, but still a delight. In the end, she is able to turn the tables on Hester in a way that truly shows her newly developed inner strength.
But Predator’s Gold is Hester’s story and it is told in bold colours. All of her actions proceed with the inevitability of a Shakespeare tragedy, not because he’s dealing with well-worn cliches, but because Hester has been so well set up, both here and in Mortal Engines. She’s fighting against the forces of inevitability that threaten to cost her Tom and her soul, and it is extra joyful that, despite going through the wringer, she’s able to come out with both (mostly) intact.
Predator’s Gold is marketed for teenagers, but like Mortal Engines, it may not be for younger readers. There is a grim torture scene that Reeve does not flinch away from, and Tom and Hester’s relationship is very physical. Further, when Hester returns to Anchorage to take out the huntsmen of Arkangel, who have taken the city in advance of the approaching predator, she kills them ruthlessly in a sequence that would not be out of place in The Matrix. That said, I would have no problem offering this book to a well-read thirteen-year-old.
At the end of Mortal Engines, Hester tells Tom that she can’t promise that they’ll live happily ever after, but they’ll live for a while and be all right. This theme is taken up again in Predator’s Gold. The resolution promises interesting developments on a number of fronts, but you are content to put the book down, and hope that Hester and Tom get a little breathing room. They do. They live happily; just not ever after. And you’ll have to read the third book to find out why.