Today I am posting a review of a book originally published in 2001. Mortal Engines, by Philip Reeve, is aimed at young adults but has now been enjoyed by everyone in my household. It was passed to me by my sometimes reluctant to pick up a book younger son with the words ‘you should read this, it is very good’. I concur. It is the first intalment in a quartet of novels focusing on a futuristic, steampunk version of our world. At my son’s instigation, I will be reviewing the entire series in the coming weeks.
The story is set in a post apocalyptic Earth, ravaged by a Sixty-Minute War which caused massive geological upheaval. To escape the earthquakes, volcanoes, and other instabilities, communities were established on Traction Cities which move around on huge engines and wheels. These behemoths attack and dismantle other cities for resources, citing what is known as Municipal Darwinism as necessary for survival. Although the world has since become stable, Municipal Darwinism has spread. Much technological knowledge was lost during the war. Because scientific progress has almost completely halted, Old Tech is highly prized and recovered by scavengers. Europe, some of Asia, North Africa, Antarctica and the Arctic are dominated by Traction Cities. North America was so ravaged by the war that it is often identified as the dead continent. The rest of the world is the stronghold of the Anti-Traction League which seeks to establish land based settlements and thus stop the intense consumption of the planet’s remaining resources.
The tale opens on London where a young apprentice historian, Tom Natsworthy, abandons his tasks in the Natural History Museum to watch his city chase and capture the town of Salthook. Amongst the captives of this place is a badly disfigured girl, Hester Shaw, who attempts to assassinate a highly regarded senior member of London’s ruling Guilds, Thaddeus Valentine, who is Tom’s hero. In an attempt to impress both Valentine and his beautiful daughter, Katherine, Tom attempts to detain Hester when she flees. This results in both young people being ejected from the city and left for dead in the barren wastelands over which the city chase occured.
Hester is determined to return to London and kill Valentine, whatever this takes. Tom, having never before left the moving city, has little choice but to travel with her. Gradually he learns what happened to her and why she is seeking revenge. He begins to examine the tenets on which he has been raised.
The pair find themselves embarking on a series of daring adventures during which they are captured to be sold off as slaves, rescued by the pilot of an airship, hitch a ride with pirates, and visit land based settlements where Tom comes face to face with the barbarians he has been taught wish to destroy his progressive culture. Throughout they are pursued by a deadly, mechanised creature intent on Hester’s demise.
Back on London, Katherine is trying to piece together the mystery of why a young girl would wish to kill her beloved hero father. What she discovers causes her to question everything she has thus far known.
The action has many imaginative twists and turns involving a fabulous cast of characters. There are numerous amusing references to our contemporary world alongside traits of human nature which have not changed. The writing is polished and engaging, with sufficient depth to avoid moralising or schmaltz. The author is not afraid to kill his darlings.
An imaginative page-turner and worthy recipient of its many accolades. Recommended for competent readers of any age.