Fever Crumb is a prequel of sorts to Philip Reeve’s fantastic HUNGRY CITY CHRONICLES, which started with Mortal Engines. I say “of sorts” in that it’s set in the prehistory of the HUNGRY CITY CHRONICLES world, but far back enough in time that Fever Crumb doesn’t act as a direct lead-in to the larger series: instead of giving us more of the same characters, it sets up the major concepts and incipient events of the series. Though it’s set earlier, I recommend beginning with the later books, because while I enjoyed Fever Crumb, the HUNGRY CITY CHRONICLES have a much stronger impact (think starting the NARNIA series with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe vs. The Magician’s Nephew).
In the later series, cities are large, mobile monstrosities that war with one another in order to gain needed resources, one city devouring another. It’s an annex-or-be-annexed world. In Fever Crumb London is still geographically bound to one place, though smaller localities have taken up the nomadic life, and one such alliance from the North — The Movement — appears on the horizon, seemingly ready to invade. People are clearly on edge, especially as, not all that long ago, there was a violent uprising in London against the Scriven, the long-lived and seemingly inhuman tyrannical overlords who had ruled over London for centuries. All the Scriven were killed or driven out, but the memory of death and violence is still fresh, as is resentment toward anything remotely “other.”
Fever is a young woman, a foundling brought up by Doctor Crumb in the uber-rational guild of Engineers, who consider emotions silly and hindrances to logical living (they live, fittingly enough, in a giant head). The book mostly begins when Fever is sent out to work on an archaeological dig with Kit Solent, who is looking into secrets possibly buried beneath the home of the last Scriven overlord.
Clearly Philip Reeve is going to be working several plots here. One is the simple suspense of the encroaching Movement — what do they want? Is it an invasion or something different? Will London fight or not? Another is the suspense regarding the dig — what, if anything, will they uncover? Will uncovering it be a good or bad thing? Yet a third is Fever’s slow discovery of the truth of her lost background. Still focused on Fever, Philip Reeve also explores her growing conflict between the rational, emotion-free approach she’s spent almost her whole life with and her newly-awakened sense of the emotional life. There are side-plots and mysteries as well surrounding several other characters: Doctor Crumb, Kit Solent, the old man who killed the last Scriven overlord and who remains ever vigilant, the old man’s young apprentice in Scriven-hunting (called “skinning” for reasons you might imagine), and an ambitious tavern owner seeking to use the unrest to his own ends.
The characters are all pretty complex, even those that don’t get a lot of page time. It’d be tough to accuse any, save one or two of them, of being “stock” types, and those that are play a pretty minimal role. From Fever to Kit to the old man and his apprentice, Philip Reeve has created complicated, human, fully fleshed out characters.
The story does sometimes (not often and not for long) lag here and there — I would have argued for a stronger edit of Fever’s back-story for instance. While I wouldn’t call it “gripping”, it mostly pulls you along quickly and smoothly as you’re eager to learn what happens. You’ll also enjoy many of the mangled bits and pieces of our time that get sprinkled into the language of Fever’s era, though a few times these felt a little forced. There are also some wonderful bits of creative imagery here that I won’t spoil, though it’s tempting to rave about one in particular.
While not quite as strong as the HUNGRY CITY CHRONICLES, Fever Crumb stands well enough on its own and is certainly worth a read, even for those unfamiliar with the series. But while I recommend reading Fever Crumb, I strongly recommend doing so after picking up the series, not so much for plot as for a stronger introduction to Philip Reeve’s writing. If for some reason you don’t and find you’re not enamored with Fever Crumb, don’t let it prevent you from trying the series.
I loved every second of The Hungry Cities Chronicles, and knowing that there was a prequel in the works helped ease the sorrow that came with concluding the original four-part series. Though it is still set far into the future, “Fever Crumb” takes place what could be several centuries before the start of Mortal Engines. The Sixty-Second War doesn’t seem to have happened yet; instead the characters refer to a sinister sounding event known as the Downsizing. This isn’t a post-apocalyptic world, but it’s certainly heading that way, and the human population has long since forgotten how to wield the technology known to the Ancients.
London is the large but seedy backdrop to the proceedings, recently liberated from the tyranny of the Scriven, a group of genetically mutated humans whose short but brutal reign is still recent history to the citizens. The uprising that followed even now leaves its mark on the city, particularly in the respect accorded to the Skinners (those that dispatched the final Scriven) and the simmering apprehension that a few of the dapple-skinned mutates may still remain…
It is in the giant metal head of the Scriven overlord Auric Goshawk (part of a commissioned statue that was never completed) that Fever Crumb is raised among the Engineers of London, a guild that has forsaken emotion for reason, and work away diligently in the attempt to understand the past technological mysteries of the Ancients. Fever (who gives Albus Severus and Renesmee Cullen a run for their money in the weirdest name competition) is a foundling: bald, beautiful, and sporting a thin scar on the back of her head, who spends the first fourteen years of her life helping her foster father.
That is, until she is commissioned into the service of an archeologist: the young, charming, father-of-two Kit Solvent, who has discovered a locked room in the network of tunnels beneath his house. For reasons that elude Fever, he seems to think that she is instrumental in opening the vault. His belief seems to have some merit, for while she copes with a world that runs on heightened emotions rather than the cool detachment of her guardians, she finds herself struggling with an influx of memories that don’t belong to her. Even worse, her odd appearance has caught the attention of the final Skinner, who believes that she’s a Scriven and that it’s his duty to exterminate her for the good of the city.
Oh, and a group of technologically-superior nomads are advancing on the city, presumably to invade and enslave. Yeah, there’s a lot of stuff going on in this book, but as anyone who has read the original Hungry Cities books knows, Philip Reeve is more than up to the challenge of combining rich characters, a suspenseful plot and a fully realized world into a riveting whole.
Reeve is a brilliant writer who isn’t afraid to take risks with his style: utilizing point-of-view changes, switches between past and present tense, direct addresses to the reader, made-up adjectives (Fever speaks “Engineerishly” and “Goshawkishly”), and even categorizing things right in the middle of sentences, complete with bullet points. A few chapters skip back a few years in order to chronicle a character’s part to play in the rise and fall of the Scriven, and Reeve’s hysterically dry wit always leaves me shaking my head in wonderment that such a dark, gritty story can be told in such a light, casual tone.
With a setting that is highly reminiscent of Philip Pullman‘s Oxford and Garth Nix‘s Old Kingdom, but with a steampunk sensibility that’s all its own, Reeve includes a few sparkling winks to the reader in the midst of his grim worldview (such as a religious procession for the prophet “Hari Potter”), and sheds new light on old clichés: his “car chase” had me in stitches as well as on the edge of my seat. His mastery of descriptive language is on full display here, from the Engineers who live inside Goshawk’s nose and exit out “through his nostril like a well educated sneeze” to a man whose “coughs rumbled endlessly down in the wet cellars of his lungs.” And his surplus imagination seems to know no bounds, particularly in the sinister paper-boys, who are far more frightening and macabre than they sound (I now dread paper-cuts).
Fever Crumb is an endearing protagonist, particularly in her stumbling toward a less stoic outlook on life, but no less intelligent, vulnerable or brave for her upbringing. She’s surrounded by a Dickensian cast, none of whom are cast in solid black or white; rather all are placed somewhere on a spectrum of greys. First impressions of characters change, for better or worse, and often in the most unexpected ways. New information is gleaned from the viewpoint of other characters, and new light is shed on nearly all of them by the end of the book, sometimes even after their deaths. Reeve seems fascinated with the ideas of memory and identity, and the question of how much one influences the other, a theme present in The Hungry Cities Chronicles but explored in more depth here.
Fever Crumb is a wonderful example of a prequel done right. Opinions may vary, but personally, I feel that this book was written, and meant to be read, as a prequel. In it we can see the establishment of archeologists as people of eminence, the genesis of the Engineering Guild of London, the discovery of the technology that will one day make the Traction Cities a reality, and (best of all) the tragic backstory of the Stalker Strike, which is sure to cause a lump in the throat, particularly in light of his part to play in the preceding quartet.
I really have nothing but good things to say about Fever Crumb. The characters, the plot, the world-building — it all comes together in a complex, satisfying, thought-provoking, amazingly good read.