Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve (2001) 293 p.

After re-reading The Death of Grass last year I resolved to revisit a lot of my old favourites in 2011, partly for my own enjoyment and partly so I can review them. Being one of my favourite books of all time, Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines seemed like a good starting point.

Mortal Engines is a steampunk-industrial-post-apocalyptic young adult adventure novel which should be listed in the dictionary alongside the word “swashbuckling.” It takes place thousands of years in the future when towns and cities have become mobile, roaming across the face of the planet, from enormous behemoths like London (where much of the novel takes place) to tiny sail-powered hamlets with only a few people on them. Europe has become a muddy wasteland called the “Great Hunting Ground,” as cities chase down and prey upon smaller cities and towns, dragging them inside and dismantling them for fuel, and either enslaving or assimilating their population. It’s implied that these moveable cities once served a useful purpose, “when there were all those earthquakes and volcanoes and glaciers pushing south,” but then became so ingrained in society that, for most city-dwellers, the very idea of becoming a “static settlement” or setting foot on the earth is repulsive.

This is a bold concept that always comes across as faintly ridiculous in synopsis, but Reeve is wonderful writer, and suspends our disbelief quite neatly in the opening pages, as London pursues and consumes a small mining town called Salthook.

The mining town saw the danger and turned tail, but already the huge caterpillar tracks under London were starting to roll faster and faster. Soon the city was lumbering in hot pursuit, a moving mountain of metal which rose in seven tiers like the layers of a wedding cake, the lower levels wreathed in engine smoke, the villas of the rich gleaming white on the higher decks, and above it all the cross on the top of St. Paul’s Cathedral glinting gold, two thousand feet above the ruined earth.

Traction Cities are not just an interesting idea that he has slapped down on the page. Reeve doesn’t explain how such gargantuan vehicles are possible (because, of course, they aren’t) but he provides enough gritty detail in his writing that they feel real. That is, as William Gibson pointed out long ago, the key to successful science fiction.

He fought his way out of the elevator terminus and hurried towards the Guild of Historians’ warehouse, through tubular corridors lined with green ceramic tiles and across metal catwalks high above the fiery gulfs of the Digestion Yards. Far below him he could see Salthook being torn to pieces. It looked tiny now, dwarfed by the vastness of London. Big yellow dismantling machines were crawling around it on tracks and swinging above it on cranes and clambering over it on hydraulic spider legs. Its wheels and axles had already been taken off, and work was starting on the chassis. Circular saws as big as Ferris wheels bit into the deckplates, throwing up plumes of sparks. Great blasts of heat came from furnaces and smelters, and before he had gone twenty paces Tom could feel the sweat starting to soak through the armpits of his black uniform tunic.

Following Salthook’s consumption, Tom Natsworthy, the quintessential English orphan and hero of our story, is sent down to work in the city’s Gut. Here he meets his hero Thaddeus Valentine, Head Historian and fabled adventurer of London, a friendly and charming man who is searching the eaten town for historical relics. Keen to impress his idol, and Valentine’s beautiful daughter Katherine, Tom is given the chance when an ugly scarred girl attempts to assassinate him. Tom gives chase through the Gut, corners and confronts the girl… and this is where Reeve subverts some expectations, and Tom finds himself betrayed by Valentine, pushed down a waste chute and stranded in the Out-Country with the scarred assassin, Hester Shaw.

This sets up the rest of the novel: Tom and Hester pursue London across the Great Hunting Ground, while Katherine attempts to solve the mystery of why Hester tried to kill her father, and where London is headed. Prey is becoming scarce – these engines are indeed mortal – but there are rumours that London has come into possession of some great and terrible weapon.

At just under 300 pages, this is not a long book, but it is epic – a voyage by land and air and sea, across plains and swamps and oceans and mountains. There are pirate towns, a flying city, Himalayan mountain fortresses, dashing spies, cyborg warriors, weapons of mass destruction and all-round swashbuckling adventure. There are, most of all, airships! And unlike most steampunk authors, Reeve actually has a good reason for including them, since how else would you travel between moving cities? A nice touch is the wonderfully quirky names his ships often have, like Iain M. Banks’ Culture ships: the 13th Floor Elevator, the Jenny Haniver, the Garden Aeroplane Trap.

Reeve is a former illustrator, and one of his greatest gifts as a writer is his knack for beautifully visual prose; the David Mitchell or Michael Chabon of the young adult genre. And, while we’re on the topic of visuals, let’s take a moment to appreciate that cover: a gritty, rusty, grimy peek into a world of monstrous industrialism. Apparently Peter Jackson is currently working on filming Mortal Engines. I’m almost positive that means live-action rather than animation, which is a shame.

I first read Mortal Engines in early high school, and it’s clearly aimed at an audience of 10 – 15 year olds, but I still enjoyed it as much as the first time around. Mortal Engines contains just as much character development and thematic depth as any proper novel (certainly more than many fantasy or sci-fi novels written for adults); the only difference is that he conveys his characters’ thoughts with a few perfect, concise sentences, rather than lengthy introspection (unlike, say, China Mieville). Nor does he limit the death toll because of his readers’ tender age; quite a few major characters are killed, and entire cities destroyed, and even that is nothing compared to what happens in the later books.

An exceptionally well-written and endlessly creative adventure tale, the kind of thing you would read under the covers with a flashlight when you were a kid, but which is no less enjoyable as an adult. I look forward to revisiting the rest of the books in the series: Predator’s Gold, Infernal Devices and A Darkling Plain. Taken as a whole, the series is easily in my top ten list of favourite books – maybe even my top five.

On a final note, Mortal Engines was based on a short story called Urbivore, which is available online. The prose is a little stilted and it’s clearly the work of a younger man, but it serves as a decent introduction to Reeve’s writing style, and to the fabulous world of Traction Cities.

Mortal Engines at The Book Depository