Mortal Engines

Mortal Engines was written by Philip Reeve and first published in 2001. It is a dystopian science fiction novel, set in the far future when cities have become mobile. The novel forms the first part of the Mortal Engines Quartet and is followed by Predators Gold (2003), Infernal Devices (2005) and A Darkling Plain (2006). More recently, Reeve has also published a prequel series – titled the Fever Crumb series – and a film adaptation of Mortal Engines is due for release later this year.

Following the Sixty Minute War, the world fell into chaos. Faced with earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, most cities were transformed into hulking traction engines in order to protect the people who lived within. Now, they follow the credo of Municipal Darwinism. The successful cities are the ones that hunt and devour others, harvesting them for precious resources and slaves. The weaker cities are quick to fall.

As prey becomes scarce, London is forced to venture out into the dangerous hunting plains. Tom Natsworthy is as excited as anyone when she manages to capture the small mining town of Salthook. It even gives him the opportunity to meet his hero Thaddeus Valentine – head of the Guild of Historians. However, his luck soon turns when Valentine is attacked by one of the citizens of Salthook. Although Tom manages to save Valentine’s life, he learns that he is responsible for the brutal scarring of his would-be assassin’s face. And unfortunately this is a secret that Valentine would prefer to remain hidden.

Although Tom survives, he finds himself ejected from London in the company of the assassin – Hester Shaw – a bitter young woman who thinks of nothing more than her revenge. As the two search for a way back into the city, they learn a horrifying secret. The Lord Mayor of London has gotten his hands on an ancient weapon and soon plans to unleash it on the world…

At the time of its release, Mortal Engines was an utter hit. It won both the Blue Peter Book of the Year Award and the Nestlé Smarties Book Prize, and was shortlisted for the Whitbread Award. However, this was seventeen years ago and since then, dystopian novels have had a boom in popularity. Reading this novel in 2018, I personality felt that it was a bit of a mixed bag. In some ways, it really stood out. In others, it just felt a bit over-familiar.

To begin with the positive, the thing that I loved the most about Mortal Engines was its world building. I have reviewed a lot of novels now and the concept of mobile, predatory cities was certainly something that I’d never seen before. Most of the novel is set in London, which takes the form of a multi-story behemoth topped with Saint Paul’s Cathedral and governed by several trade guilds. Reeve’s writing never gets bogged down by science, making his steampunk dystopia feel really accessible.

The result is that Mortal Engines is incredibly memorable, carrying echoes of The Wind Singer, A Brave New World and Mad Max. It’s an interpretation of future London that will certainly strike a chord with a modern reader. One where foreigners are snubbed, history comes second to progress, and those in power are willing to do terrible to things to restore their city’s “greatness”. While this can sometimes be a little grim, you can certainly draw parallels between this novel and the current state of the world.

While this striking premise caught my attention from the very first sentence, the novel unfortunately had its share of problems. I personally did not think that the plot held many surprises. It was fairly easy to predict the direction that the story would take and this was not helped by the fact that the narrative was choc-full of exposition. Reeve has a bad habit of telling the reader how his characters feel, rather than showing it.

I also felt that the focus in the novel flitted around a bit too frequently. The narrative in Mortal Engines is entirely told in 3rd person but the perspective alternates between Tom, Hester and Katherine (Valentine’s daughter). While this didn’t seem so offensive at first, it became incredibly frustrating over the climax. Over this section, the pace increased to the point where only a few paragraphs were spent with each character, making events a little difficult to follow.

Still, at least the book did have a strong ending. The final chapters nicely wrapped up this stage of Tom’s adventure, leaving no noticeable loose ends to be tied up in the sequel. The only real issue I had with this was the incredibly high body-count. While there weren’t many deaths in the first half of the story, the last couple of chapters tore through the major cast and only left a couple alive for the sequel. I have to admit that I wasn’t expecting Reeve to be quite this brutal and it left me really uncertain as to where the series will go from here.

Mortal Engines is also a bit of a variable in terms of characterisation. While I did find each of the protagonists to be likeable, they were not without their flaws. Tom’s inability to see that London isn’t a paradise, even after Valentine tried to murder him, was incredibly frustrating. It wasn’t until particularly late in the tale that he began to grasp to concept of Utilitarianism. Yet I found Hester’s mercurial moods to be a stage worse again. While I could understand her lust for vengeance, her abrupt mood swings still made her an incredibly difficult character to understand.

Yet, the female cast did do a lot better than the men on the whole. I fell in love with the charismatic aviatrix, Anna Fang. She was one of those supporting characters who seem to be far more interesting than the primary cast. I would love to read a novel about her epic backstory. I also really enjoyed reading Katherine’s mission to uncover her father’s secrets. Her plot arc was probably my favourite in the novel.

However, none of the relationships between characters felt very organic. While Tom and Hester kind of wind up together, we don’t get to see a lot of them growing closer. Their attraction is only really made evident because Reeve tells the reader that it’s there. Similarly, Valentine undergoes a complete personality change in the climax of the novel. This felt incredibly abrupt as he wasn’t even really in the novel much before this, therefore he didn’t have chance to make that much of an impression on the reader.

Anyhow, I think that about covers it. If I had read this novel back in 2001, perhaps I would have enjoyed it more. It does have fantastic world building but, beyond that, the plot felt a bit over-familiar and the dialogue is full of exposition. Still, at least now I’m prepared to see the film when its released later this year. Hopefully, it will do a decent job of bringing Reeve’s magnificent vision of London to life.

Mortal Engines can be purchased as a Paperback, eBook and Audio Book on Amazon.co.uk

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© Kim Dyer and Arkham Reviews, 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kim Dyer and Arkham Reviews with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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