Fever Crumb by Philip Reeve (2009) 301 p.
Regular readers of this blog will be aware that I have something of a love affair with Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines series. There’s obviously a fair degree of nostalgia involved, but I do honestly believe that his sprawling, swashbuckling, creative adventure series is one of the best young adult series every written, combining high adventure with a level of character development rarely seen in YA fiction (or any kind of science fiction or adventure fiction, for that matter).
So I approached Fever Crumb fairly secure in the knowledge that it wasn’t going to be as good, because nothing could live up to that (see also: Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive). Taking place a thousand years before the events of the Mortal Engines series, Fever Crumb is set in the squalid ruins of the once great city of London, where a primitive society lives amongst ancient buildings and landmarks. Formerly ruled by the Scriven, a race of genetically mutated humans, the novel begins fourteen years after the Scriven were overthrown and (supposedly) wiped out. Fever, an orphan girl, is being raised by a society of engineers living inside the hollowed-out head of a statue of the Scrivens’ toppled king.
Shades of the Mortal Engines future to come can be seen throughout the book. London is threatened by nomad hordes to the north, who travel about in hordes of moving citadels and “traction castles.” This builds towards the novel’s finale, which clearly sets out the legend of the foundation of London as the first Traction City. Most importantly, the nomad hordes operate the cyborg Stalkers that are still going into battle in the wars of the Mortal Engines series, and Fever Crumb is in part an origin tale of a returning character. (Since the book takes place a thousand years in the past, readers of Mortal Engines should be able to guess which one.) I wasn’t sure how I felt about this; his origins didn’t really need to be explored, although Reeve handles it well, and it does lead to one of the character’s most touching moments.
I can’t find the exact quote, but Reeve mentioned somewhere on his blog that the Fever Crumb series probably wouldn’t appeal to those who loved the Mortal Engines series for its big-screen drama, mayhem and explosions. That’s not the only reason I loved the series, but it’s true that Fever Crumb is generally a quieter, more muted story. It has a number of semi-comical scenes which suggest that it’s either aimed at younger readers, or that Reeve is indulging in his childish side. (And some of those names made me cringe – B@ttersea and Ox-fart Circus? Really?) There are still a handful of strong moments where you can see the old Reeve shining through, like when the statue’s head collapses or when, as I mentioned before, we have a poignant moment with an old character. But on the whole, this isn’t anywhere as good as Mortal Engines, on both character and plot terms.
It’s still a good book. Philip Reeve is one of the era’s finest writers of young adult fiction, and Fever Crumb is is a much better book than 95% of it cohorts. It’s absolutely not a book anyone should read before the Mortal Engines series, and it’s not as good, but I have heard that it picks up later in its own series. I’ll be reading A Web of Air, the sequel, before long.