Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve

Title: Mortal Engines
Author: Philip Reeve
Series : First is a series of “The Hungry Cities Quartet”.  Next is Predator’s Gold


In Short:
In a post apocalyptic world, humans have turned their cities into “traction cities” – huge mobile city sized machines.  These monstrous city-machines move around the deserts that used to be oceans, scavenging one another. Cities eat towns, towns eat villages.  This all seems right and proper to Tom, the apprentice Historian who lives in Traction London.  But one day Tom saves his hero the chief archaeologist Valentine from an assassination attempt – and sets of a series of events that forces him to question everything he believes in.


What I thought: Mortal Engines is a rattling good adventure book.  It contains all the elements of the standard “boys own” story, but just when you are lulled into a seemingly familiar pattern, the story punches the air out of your lungs. Horrible things happen to your favourite characters.  People die.  The hero wets himself when he gets a fright. The heroine, Hester Shaw,  is not pretty.  Her face is so disfigured by scars that she has to cover it with a scarf.  She is ugly.  In most other fantasy or sci fi she would be killed off by the half way mark, tragically making way for the true love interest.  But Hester Shaw hangs on.

In fact there are quite a few heroines in this book.  Hester Shaw, the would be assassin.   Valentine’s daughter Katherine, also has true grit.  I particularly loved Miss Fang, the female pirate.

You’ve got to love the idea of “Municipal Darwinism”.   Larger cities hunt down and eat smaller cities, who scavenge towns, that live off villages.  This is a violent process.  And the society within each city is harshly hierarchical.  To justify all of this, the inhabitants have invented the idea of Municipal Darwinism: the strong live off the weak but in a civilised way, according to agreed rules – and in the end, its for the good of the weak.  Sound familiar?

Tom is a product of his times.  He believes in Municipal Darwinism as a natural force.  He is shocked whenever he comes across the ideas of the “Anti Traction League” – people who want to live on the ground in houses that cannot move about.  It all works very neatly as a metaphor for any number of issues .

While the basic premise of Mortal Engines is very far fetched, the world is  intriguing. Here is a scene when London is about to eat the village of Salthook.  Tom is watching the action from the attacking London, watching the air ships escaping from Salthook:

Tom pushed his untidy hair out of his eyes and watched as the airships rose up and up and vanished into the slate grey clouds.  For a moment he found himself longing to go with them, up into the sunlight. If only his poor parents had not left him to the care of the guild, to be trained as a Historian!  He wished he could be a cabin-boy aboard a sky-clipper and see all the cities of the world: Puerto Angeles adrift on the blue Pacific and Arkangel skating on iron runners across the frozen northern seas, the great ziggurat-towns of the Nuevo-Mayans, and the unmoving strongholds of the Anti-Traction league…

I enjoyed Mortal Engines although I did not find it an easy read. The story is very bleak at times.  The next book in the series, Predator’s Gold is in my library but I need a bit of a break before I dive back into this world.

4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Nymeth
    Aug 27, 2009 @ 12:10:40

    I’ve seen this book recommended by steampunk loving folks everywhere, and I’m very curious about it. I’ll keep in mind that it’s bleak, though. Municipal darwinism…that’s an intriguing concept for sure.

  2. mashadutoit
    Aug 27, 2009 @ 12:22:01

    Oh yes, I should have mentioned, its certainly steampunk. Its also got a wacky sense of humour.

  3. GeraniumCat
    Aug 27, 2009 @ 14:32:16

    I’d heard of it too, and liked the sound of the title, while not knowing anything more about it – it sounds good, somewhat similar to the Stephen Hunt series (starting with The Court of the Air) that I’m currently reading.

  4. mashadutoit
    Aug 27, 2009 @ 14:48:18

    Oh I’ll have to check that out. I’m not familiar with that series.

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