When we last saw our heroes, at the end of Predator’s Gold, Tom Natsworthy and Hester Shaw had escaped the Green Storm and returned to the traction city of Anchorage just in time to help save it from the predator metropolis of Arkangel on the ice of the high Arctic. As Arkangel crashes through the ice to its doom, Anchorage floats away, presumed by the world to be dead, and makes it to the dead continent of North America, whose ecology is finally rebuilding itself, millennia after the Sixty Minute War.
If the above paragraph makes no sense to you, then there’s two books you need to read. Don’t worry; you’ll enjoy them. They are Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines and its sequel Predator’s Gold. In these books, collectively known as the Hungry Cities Chronicles, Reeve describes a world that was reshaped millennia ago by the Chinese and American “empires” in a conflict that came to be known as the Sixty Minute War. North America has been severed from South America (now known as Nuevo Maya) and is now dead. Mountain ranges higher than the Himalayas separate India and the what’s left of China from the rest of Europe and Asia. And in among the maze of swamps, lakes and newly active volcanoes, the surviving cities have put themselves on caterpillar tracks and are charging around what is now known as the Great Hunting Ground, consuming each other in a city-eat-city practise known as Municipal Darwinism.
The first two books focus on 15 year old orphan Tom Natsworthy, an orphan being raised by the Guild of Historians in the traction city of London. When he encounters the hideously scarred Hester Shaw, who is seeking revenge against the head of the Historians’ Guild (who turns out to be her father), he’s thrown out of London and is taken on a worldwind tour of the Great Hunting Ground, swept up in events as London uses a piece of “old tech” from before the Sixty Minute War to try and break through a great wall guarding India and the remnants of China (known collectively as Shan Guo) to consume the staunchly anti-tractionist settlements there.
Of course, London’s plan fails spectacularly, but the scare shocks the people of Shan Guo, and a militant faction known as the Green Storm takes over, to wage a kamakaze war against the traction cities and “make the Earth green again.”
When Hester and Tom manage to make it back to Anchorage at the end of Predator’s Gold, and the peaceful non-predatory town returns to America, there is a definite sense that the two have been saved from the events of a world about to go crazy once again (or, rather, even crazier). But sixteen years on, the world comes calling for Anchorage, and for Hester, that call can’t come soon enough.
The Hungry City Chronicles features all sorts of gadgetry and gimmicks that would make any science-fiction lover salivate. There’s the post-post-post apocalyptic world. There’s mountainous cities racing about a continent on huge caterpillar tracks. There’s airships. There’s weapons left over from the Sixty Minute War and the two civilizations that have risen and fallen since. There’s stalkers, essentially Cybermen, who are old soldiers from millennia ago who have been resurrected and turned into brutish, immortal killing machines through the use of technology. It’s a crazy, crazy world, and Reeve knows how to keep the action going.
But what separates the Hungry City Chronicles from other science fiction novels in its sub-genre is the character of Hester Shaw. Brutally scarred as a child, both mentally and physically, after witnessing her mother’s murder, she is hard as diamond. She wears an eye-patch, her nose is missing and her mouth is twisted, and she is extremely cynical about the world and the people in it. She has a quick temper, and knows how to fight. And push her enough, she can go all Trinity and Neo on the bad guys’ ass (see the first Matrix movie when they go in to rescue Morpheus).
She falls in love with Tom because the kid is so naive, believing in defiance of the evidence around him that there is some sense of fairness and justice out there by which the world should be run. And being a passionate, almost bi-polar individual, she clings to that love with a ferocity that is frightening. From that love, she agrees to marry Tom, and raise their child in the peaceful confines of Anchorage. Even though peaceful confines are completely alien to her. By the time the third book in the series, Infernal Devices rolls around, she is chaffing at her boring existence. She hates the fact that the people of Anchorage remain a little frightened of her. And she particularly hates the fact that her daughter Wren, now your average teenager, is ashamed to be seen around her mum what with mum’s disfigured face.
We don’t spend much time in Anchorage in Infernal Devices. A group of thieves from the Faganesque city of Grimsby arrive in Anchorage, looking for the Tin Book, an ancient code book that was long ago copied out on sheets of tin, bearing a representation of the seal of the President of the United States. They befriend Wren Natsworthy, and seduce her with takes of excitement and the prospect of seeing the world outside. In the end they kidnap her, and steal the Tin Book, and Tom and Hester have no choice but to pursue.
Hester frankly appreciates the challenge. She relishes the thrill of the chase, and the prospect of bashing some heads in. Her journey out from Anchorage brings back memories of the two years she and Tom spent travelling the world in an Airship. She wants those years back, and is hurt by the fact that Tom is so totally focused on rescuing Wren. She is jealous of her husband’s love for her daughter.
It’s a subtle point of character — one of the few subtle things that Philip Reeve accomplishes here. In comparing Hester with her daughter Wren, we come to understand what Wren has and what exactly it was that Hester lost. After one of the many fights between mother and daughter, Tom tries to placate Hester by saying, “it’s just a phase. You know what it’s like to be a child,” except that Hester doesn’t. She never had a childhood. And while Wren seems frustratingly passive in dealing with her enslavement (though she does show a remarkable talent for lying in order to save her skin), that too is a character point: Hester grew up quickly in the wilds of the Hunting Ground and knows how to fight her way out of things. Wren grew up in the peace of Anchorage in the love of her parents (especially Tom), and is unused to tackling problems on her own.
I didn’t realize until I looked it up recently, but Mortal Engines was Philip Reeve’s first published novel. I bring this up because his writing style has matured greatly since then. He still breaks point of view with the impunity of a bull in a china shop and he still has the tendency to tell rather than show, but he is developing a deft touch in his narrative. There are moments of wry humour and even whimsy as he describes in greater detail the odd social practises of the highly structured societies of the Traction Cities. And, of course he knows how to convey action very well and he plots with the force of a freight train.
Sixteen years later, the world has gone to hell in a handbasket. The Green Storm have ended up uniting the fighting Traction Cities and total war wages across the eastern flank of the Great Hunting Ground with no resolution in sight. The Green Storm are looking for Anchorage’s Tin Book, thinking it might be the key to an old tech weapon that can tip the balance in their favour. Once again, Tom and Hester are caught up in international political events they barely understand, as Reeve pushes inexorably to a conclusion to be revealed in the fourth and final book in the sequence, A Darkling Plain.
But again it’s Hester that keeps me reading. Her growing love of violence is as shocking and horrifying as it is exactly in her character, and the cost to her is well played. There is a delicious discomfort in reading her scenes; we share her glee, almost, as she forments a slave revolt in the floating city of Brighton, but then Reeve shakes us with little details about the actual human beings Hester is putting to death. And we realize that Hester is, ultimately, a monster. It is a riveting piece of tragedy that this reader couldn’t turn away from, and I am looking forward to seeing to its end.