Predator’s Gold by Philip Reeve (2003) 316 p.

Predator’s Gold picks up two years where Mortal Engines left off, with Tom and Hester having “sort of inherited” Anna Fang’s airship the Jenny Haniver, making a living for themselves as cargo traders. The novel opens in the flying city of Airhaven, as Tom and Hester take on the famed adventurer Professor Nimrod Pennyroyal as a passenger – before being chased into the Arctic by agents of the Green Storm, a splinter group of the Anti-Traction League attempting to recover the Jenny Haniver. They escape their pursuers but are left damaged, wounded and limping, eventually finding safe haven in the small traction city of Anchorage. Decimated by plague and desperate to survive, Anchorage has set a course for America, the Dead Continent. The city’s young margravine Freya is delighted to find Pennyroyal aboard her city, as he had previously boasted about discovering fresh tracts of green land in nuclear-devastated North America in one of his best-selling books. Pennyroyal (a character who owes much to J.K. Rowling’s Gilderoy Lockhart) uneasily accepts a position as the city’s chief navigator, and with the Jenny Haniver undergoing extensive repairs, Tom and Hester find themselves swept up in a new adventure.

Predator’s Gold takes the action of Mortal Engines to the polar icefields, and Reeve continues the creative flair he showed in his first novel; the pages abound with mercenaries and pirate lairs and horrible scientific experiments and a secret city of thieves and betrayals and deceptions and daring rescues and frantic battles. As I have said before, these books are the very definition of swashbuckling; and yet so much more than that, because of their literary merit and excellent characterisation and, most of all, Reeve’s sterling ability to paint a visual picture with words. It really is the best of both worlds.

Predator’s Gold is slightly less epic than Mortal Engines, with less at stake and not as much globe-trotting, but the character’s story arcs – and the development of the overall series plot – is much deeper. A love triangle develops with Freya, and Hester’s jealous actions greatly alter the results of their lives. Reading this series for the second time (and knowing that the next book jumps a good seventeen years or so into the future) it’s impressive to note just how much of what happens later is a direct consequence of earlier actions. This sounds like a self-evident observation – that is, of course, how real life works – but it’s a refreshing change from so much YA fiction and hack fantasy, where the story is told through a series of coincidences and random happenings and deus ex machina. Tom and Hester’s lives are irrevocably altered by only a handful of things – some of them big, some of them small, some of them their fault, some of them beyond their control. As one example, Hester and Tom’s “inheritance” of the Jenny Haniver in Mortal Engines – an act which seemed to exist merely to service the climax of that novel – has significant repercussions in Predator’s Gold.

The character development is also excellent. Tom mostly remains a cardboard cut-out, the everyman swept up in wild adventures, but Hester is a fine creation, an morally dubious gargoyle serving as the linchpin of the series. In Mortal Engines she was merely a genre-subverting ugly heroine, rugged and capable and driven by a single-minded urge. Predator’s Gold develops her, believably and consistently, into a ruthless character capable of terrible violence. This begins with the chapter ominously titled “The Knife Drawer” and continues down darker paths in the next two books.

Tom touched her mouth. “I know it feels awful, those men you had to kill. I still feel guilty about killing Shrike, and Pewsey and Gench. But you had to do it. You had no choice.”

“Yes,” she said, and smiled at how un-alike they were, because when she thought of the deaths of [spoilers], she felt no guilt at all, just a sort of satisfaction, and a glad amazement that she had got away with it.

Here Hester kills to protect those she loves – in the future she will not have that justification. Pennyroyal also has a darker side, revealing himself in a shocking scene to be capable of worse things than simply lies and selfishness, delivered while nonetheless being cheerful and polite.

There is, in fact, quite a lot of violence in Predator’s Gold, including a child being beaten and strung up to die, cold-blooded murder and limbs being cut off. I have no problem with kids reading this, in context, though it does seem rather incongruous with the fact that the one hint at sex in the book is so subtle you might miss it entirely.

Re-reading the series, I’m having my recollections confirmed: these are excellent YA adventure novels, the best of their kind, and while there are clear differences between them, I find it hard to say which one I prefer. I do recall A Darkling Plain, the final book, having some flaws – but it was three times the length of the others, and to my teenage mind that compensated for it. We’ll see when we get there. Next up is Infernal Devices.

Predator’s Gold at The Book Depository