Mortal Engines


Philip Reeve


Science Fiction / Fantasy


Date Reviewed:

January 6, 2005

ortal Engines is a "young adult" book, it is apparently targeted at teenagers and pre-teens, but will also be read by adults just as A Wizard of Earthsea and The Hobbit are read by people outside the intended age audience. Although it is meant for youthful readers, there is a surprising amount of nasty results - some of the WRONG people die, and the good guys don't exactly triumph, but merely survive. Reeve certainly isn't talking down to his readers.

The story is set in the far future. The cities on Earth are mobile: they drive about on huge treads, capturing smaller cities and stripping them of resources. Apparently, the mobile cities were created to elude oncoming glaciers in a long ago ice age. Tom, the young protagonist, is a historian apprentice in London. At beginning of the story, London is in pursuit of a small town. When the chase is successful, and the town is stripped for resources (and it's citizens murdered or enslaved) an assassin from the captured town sneaks into London. The assassin attempts to kill Valentine, the heroic historian/archeologist who often leaves the city in search of technology or ancient wonders. Tom manages to prevent Valentine's death, but the assassin turns out to be a disfigured young girl. She tells Tom her name is Hester Shaw, and that she claims that her ruined faced was caused by the "hero" Valentine. Then she escapes the police by tumbling out of a waste chute. When Valentine runs up to thank Tom for his efforts, Tom asks him about Hester Shaw. Valentine then accidentally shoves Tom down the waste chute as well, and he finds himself outside London and on the surface for the first time in his life. The surface is not a pleasant place, mostly a barren wasteland devoid of vegetation. Tom and Hester unite to catch up to London as it speeds away.

There is lots of imagination on display here - I love dirigibles and ancient tech and secret agents, and the unique idea of cities speeding over the landscape practicing Municipal Darwinism - it is a visually rich novel that could be converted into an animated movie. But some of the darker aspects would have to be excised for a movie to be made, such as the slaves who labor in the Gut of London, or the Stalkers, who are mechanical men driven by brains of deceased humans. There is a fair bit of coincidence, and lucky breaks that keep the plot moving along, but I suppose that is typical of young adult books. What is the fate of Grike, the relentless Stalker that is pursueing Hester Shaw? It seems that his story line is simply forgotten. However, the book title has The Hungry City Chronicles on the front cover, so perhaps this is the first in an intended series of stories. Despite all the death and destruction at the end, the focus could easily shift to another mobile city for another story in a sequence. Hopefully, Reeve will keep the imagination level high for any subsequent works.