Book: Mortal Engines
Author: Philip Reeve
Series: Yes (Book 1)
Genre: YA / Steampunk
Publisher: Scholastic Inc.
Publication Year: (Reprint) 2018
Rating: 5 / 5
City, meet gut.
In Mortal Engines, we are thrust into a universe where the planet is considered uninhabitable, and cities (or, most human dwellings actually) have been placed onto tracks or legs and made to survive by moving and ingesting one another. Residents, buildings, and all. The world itself was cast into a semi-technological darkness by the Sixty Minute War, reducing society back into a Victorian-like Era. Tom Natsworthy, one of our unlucky main characters, is the resident of the Traction City of London. A member of the Guild of Historians, Tom is in the middle of going about his duties when his life is suddenly thrust into chaos. Literally. He’s pushed off the city shortly after witnessing an attempted murder, and so begins his journey with the beautifully flawed Hester Shaw. The two struggle to return to London, each for their own reason, and in their journey grow to depend on — and even trust– one another. All the while trying to kill one madman, and stop another from destroying the world as they know it.
Like the title suggests, the entire story is pure layered movement. In the world of Municipal Darwinism, the stronger cities eat the weak. But the weak can also grow strong. London wants nothing more than to consume more cities and become the strongest around, but its own greed cripples it in the end.
The characters, like their dwellings, never stop. Their backstories, actions and thoughts all fit together to create one massive engine, one epic story. Something I particularly enjoyed was how Reeve gave us the perspective of multiple characters. We follow along with them, fall in love with them, and even feel the pain of their losses. I’ve always enjoyed multiple POV novels because of this. The more perspectives, the fuller the story. (Granted, too many perspectives might make a story too much to follow. But that’s not the case here.)
Being more of a Fantasy and Adventure kind of gal, I like the fact that even though Hester and Tom are forced onto one another by circumstance, their relationship, friendship, and eventual something-more developed organically and in the background of everything else. Hester, herself, is not only emotionally scarred by the events that led her to London, but is also physically scarred. She isn’t your typical beautiful heroine, and spends most of the novel hiding her face due to the scar left there by a one of the main villains. Like Tom, we are at first shocked by her face, set in a permanent scowl, but quickly forget about it in the face of (no pun intended) her determination, bravery, and even occasional gentleness. She is a force all her own, and one of the main reason Tom grows into the hero that he becomes (whether he likes it or not).
I will say that I find it a little shocking that the book (the series as a whole) is marketed to young teens, specifically ages 12-17, mainly because there is a lot of bloodshed, and even a few graphic deaths. For example, someone gets stabbed through the neck. Others get burned alive. Not the usual kind of imagery one would expect to find in a book for a twelve-year-old. Fifteen and up, sure, no big deal, but I worry that some of the darker scenes in the book might be too strong for younger kids.
That said, the darker parts are also my favorite. There are several scenes that are wonderfully creepy or eerily beautiful. For example:
“Shrike moves through the suburb’s streets with his head swinging slowly from side to side. Bodies drift in the flooded rooms like cold tea bags left too long in the pot. Small fish dart in and out of a pirate’s mouth. A girl’s hair coils on the current” (Reeve 163).
Or, “A halo of St. Elmo’s fire flares around [her] face and her hair sparks and cracks as he strokes it. He gently moves a stray strand that has blown into her mouth, and holds her close, and waits — and the storm-light breaks over them and they are a knot of fire, a rush of blazing gas, and gone: the shadows of their bones scattering into the brilliant sky” (293).
Try deleting that from your memory.
In all, Mortal Engines is a wonderful romp through a post-apocalyptic world filled with cities on the verge of dying, and characters brimming with life. They are flawed, but they are all beautiful in their own right. They live, they struggle, they die, and they live on.
If you ever get the chance, and Steampunk YA is your thing, give it a read. Hell, give it a read even if it’s not.
*Photo taken while reading by candlelight. Not because I was feeling extra old-fashioned, but because a storm took the power out.