In the years beyond the 30th century, after life as we know it is destroyed in the Sixty Minutes War, the world is divided into three: the Static communities, who live in farms and buildings firmly stationed on the earth, the aviators, who travel the Bird Roads in the sky, and the Traction Cities, the giant cities on engineered wheels who live by the Municipal Darwinism — the big cities devour the little cities for their resources. And the biggest Traction City of them all is London, on the move for larger hunting grounds and more resources.
Living in London are two very different young people — Tom, a Third Class Apprentice in the History Guild, and Katherine, an upper class noble daughter of the famed archeologist Thaddeus Valentine, whom both of them adore for his bravery and exciting exploits. Yet after London destroys the small town of Salthook whilst the three of them are touring the Gut (the engineering belly of London), one of the refugees attacks Mr Valentine in a furious rage, and is only just stopped by Tom’s intervention. Chasing her up the levels of the Gut, Tom corners her before a chute that leads to the desolate Out-Country, and is horrified beyond comprehension when Mr Valentine pushes the both of them down it. Now stranded in the Out-Country with the young lady named Hester Shaw, with the hideously disfigured face, Tom is pushed into a series of adventures including aviators, pirates, slave-traders and Static towns, during which he begins to realise: things do not exist as he has understood them. And all the while, they are being hunted by a tragic and fatal being known as Shrike…
Meanwhile, back in London, Katherine is doing some investigating of her own concerning the disappearance of Tom and the assassin. Once her father leaves on a mission which purpose he conceals even from her, she begins to find pieces of the puzzle concerning an Ancient piece of Old-Tech that is somehow wrapped up in Hester Shaw and her father’s unspoken past. Together with a witness to Tom’s fall, a lowly worker named Bevis Pod, Katherine learns the truth about her father, and the catastrophic plans the Mayor of London has in store for the device known as the MEDUSA.
The real enjoyment of Mortal Engines comes from Philip Reeve‘s wonderful creation of an interesting and detailed post-apocalyptic world where colossal cities trundle desolate plains, filled with relics of the Old World — the world as we know it today. Usually descriptions of machinery or other technicalities bore and confuse me, but Reeve writes with such clarity, that the city of London and its layered Tiers is brought to complete and convincing life. Likewise, the cultures found outside the cities are unique and interesting, and once Tom and Hester start out on their journey, its very likely one will be unable to resist exploring with them.
Story-wise, the plot is simple, but with just enough twists to keep one interested. All the characters, even villains that at first glance appear one-dimensional have hidden motives to their actions, and the conflict between them and the cultures that they represent is believable, and morally complex. Only the ending disappointed me somewhat — Reeve seemed determined to kill off as many of his characters as possible, leaving me a little immune to the tragedy of death, and the conclusion ends more on a note of despair than hope for the future, given the sheer amount of death and destruction that the survivors leave in their wake.
Of all the major protagonists, the females end up being more interesting than the males, though in fact Tom is given the most attention. This is unfortunate, as I found myself disliking Tom for much of the story — he is a character like Lloyd Alexander‘s Taran in The Chronicles of Prydain, in that he dreams of glory, thinks highly of the wrong people, and holds tight to beliefs that the reader can see are false from the very beginning of the book. Unlike Taran however, it takes a long time for Tom to find self-realisation, and as such the reader feels on-going frustration for his ignorance and on-going commitment to make the wrong choices. However, he does eventually grow (albeit in a rather patchy manner), and through him Reeve addresses the important questions of life. Reeve’s other hero, Bevin Pod is endearingly shy and uncertain of himself, showing immense bravery when he is aware of the horrors he would face in the Deep Gut should he be caught, and dotingly loyal to Katherine.
It is the girls that I found more likeable — Hester Shaw, an embittered, independent young woman whose hideous face is an ongoing pain for one who loves and appreciates beauty, and lives only to bring death to the one who inflicted this upon her. Katherine at first glance appears as a “poor little rich girl,” but is intelligent, resourceful, and has a clear idea in her mind of the differences between right and wrong.
Mortal Engines is ultimately a well-crafted book, along the lines of Philip Pullman‘s Northern Lights and Garth Nix’s Abhorsen trilogy. If you liked the atmosphere and flavour of those two books, I strongly suggest that you give Mortal Engines a go.