Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve was on my ‘To Read’ list for far too long. It’s the first book of a tetralogy (The Mortal Engines Quartet, the Predator Cities Quartet, or the Hungry City Chronicles in the US. It’s a young adult novel set in the distant future, after the Earth has been ruined by the Sixty Minute War. Nations as we know them cease to exist, but cities are mounted on caterpillar tracks and fitted with jaws to chase and eat smaller cities, fitting with ‘Muncipal Darwnism’, the natural selection of city states.
Mortal Engines won the Nestlé Children’s Book Prize in 2002, and the author was awarded the Carnegie Medal in 2008 for one of his later novels, Here Lies Arthur (2007).
London is hunting its prey.
Emerging from its hiding place in the hills, the great Traction City is chasing a terrified little town across the wastelands. Soon London will feed. In the attack, Tom Natsworthy is flung from the speeding city with a murderous scar-faced girl. They must run for their lives through the wreckage – and face a terrifying new weapon that threatens the future of the world.
A few people had told me that Mortal Engines was a book that I absolutely had to read. The trouble with highly praised works is that big expectations can often leave you disappointed, even when those works are quite good and would have been more enjoyable without a recommendation. To be honest my first impressions of Mortal Engines made me fear that was going to be the case here. I could tell that Reeve’s world was wonderfully original, but I found the introduction a little predictable. Tom is stuck inside cleaning exhibits in the Natural History section of London’s museum when something exciting finally happens, and I thought it was obvious that he was going to sneak out and get caught. However, my fears didn’t last long, because about twenty pages in I was shocked to find myself completely absorbed in the world of Mortal Engines (and very much at risk of missing my bus stop).
That world is richly imagined. London hunts towns for prey while in danger of being consumed by larger cities. Traders hop around to make a profit, archaeologists search for long lost technology, and the people of the Anti-Traction league do their best to fight off Traction Cities that want the resources of their static settlements. There are pirates, airships, and robotic assassins rather like the Terminator. There’s much to love.
Reeve’s characters are also well designed. I found Hester particularly interesting. Reeve says in an interview on his website that he made her ugly to distinguish her from the beautiful heroines in similar stories. He goes on to say, “I think she’s a very romantic, attractive person who’s stuck with a hideous face, so it seemed right that she’d be a bit tetchy.” She and Tom are polar opposites in many different ways, but they’re thrown together by fate, and their pairing makes for an interesting read.
As I said before, I approached this book with high expectations, and it would have been easy to have been left disappointed. However, Reeve absolutely delivers, and Mortal Engines is one of the best young adult novels I’ve read this year.