Thursday, January 5, 2012

Review: Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve

It was a dark, blustery afternoon in spring, and the city of London was chasing a small mining town across the dried-out bed of the old North Sea ...

The great traction city London is on the move again. It has been lying low, skulking in the hills to avoid the bigger, faster, hungrier cities loose in the Great Hunting Ground. But now, as its great mountain of metal lumbers along in hot pursuit of its quarry, the sinister plans it has harbored for years can finally start to unfold behind its soaring walls ...

Thaddeus Va
lentine, London's Head Historian and most famous archaeologist, and his daughter, Katherine, are down in The Gut when the young assassin with the black scarf strikes. Only the quick intervention of Tom, a lowly third-class apprentice, prevents Valentine from being stabbed in the heart. Madly racing after the fleeing girl, Tom suddenly glimpses her hideous face: scarred from forehead to jaw, nose a smashed stump, a single eye glaring back at him. "Look at what your Valentine did to me!" she screams. "Ask him! Ask him what he did to Hester Shaw!" And with that she jumps down the waste chute to her death. Minutes later Tom finds himself tumbling down the same chute and stranded in the Out-Country, a sea of mud scored by the huge caterpillar tracks of cities like the one now steaming off over the horizon.

In a stunning literary debut, Philip Reeve has created an unforgettable adventure story set in a dark and utterly original world fueled by Municipal Darwinism -- and betrayal.
(summary from Goodreads)

Mortal Engines is a thought provoking and wild ride full of imaginative settings and characters!

In this world, cities move. Vast levels of metal and machinery, built upon traction wheels, survival means being bigger and faster. It's a city eat city world - literally. Here, cities chase each other as their occupants cheer, and if your city is caught...well, it's 'eaten' for spare parts and engine fodder. If you survive, you'll be put to work in the conquering city. London, one such hulking traction city, is home to orphan and lowly third class apprentice, Tom. When Tom thwarts the attempted assassination of London's adventurer and hero, Thaddeus Valentine, he soon finds himself turfed from his city and at the mercy of Valentine's would-be assassin, the horribly disfigured Hester Shaw - something she claims Valentine is responsible for, as well as the murder of her parents - relying on her knowledge of th
e Out-Country to survive. Tom is sure that Hester's claims of Valentine's villainy can't be true...can they? As the pair work together to make their way back to London - and attempt to avoid the killing machine on a mission to destroy Hester - they become embroiled in a plot much larger than they could have imagined. Meanwhile, Valentine's daughter, Katherine, having discovered a little about this Hester Shaw, begins her own investigation within London and uncovers a ghastly truth. With help from an unlikely source, Katherine is determined to get to the bottom of the hidden workings of London and how exactly her father is involved. Tom, Hester, and Katherine's paths are set to collide in unexpected ways.

I read Mortal Engines as part of my studies, and I'm glad it was assigned as I may not have ever discovered it otherwise. Narrated through alternating points of view, Mortal Engines is a gripping adventure that opened my imagination to another world. At first it did take me a while to fully grasp the concepts of Mortal Engines - the
traction cities; how suburbs were levelled on top of one another; the history of such cities; etc - but soon enough I found myself invested in the characters and the non-stop action in a way that had me hooked until the end. Reeve's words paint a unique picture so that I was not only desperate to keep reading, but even after I'd stopped his world played on mind. I just couldn't help envisioning the traction cities and their multitude of levels and residents.

What really grabbed me were Reeve's characters
and the ways they so obviously grew and changed as the story played out. It really worked for the better that the story is mostly told from Tom and Katherine's points of view, as like readers they are the characters initially most in the dark. I liked Tom immediately - he's such an enthusiastic young character that you can't help but to connect with him. For someone who has pretty much no experience in anything, he really learns to hold his own - sometimes by pure luck! - and I enjoyed his adventures. Hester is definitely another favourite. She's so determined to get revenge and is so used to people's revulsion at her scarred and ruined face that she's built up some intense walls - yet in actuality she's not as hard as she makes out she is. I truly loved the moments her softer and more vulnerable side showed through, especially in relation to the oblivious Tom! Their completely overlooked but obvious burgeoning relationship had me grinning many times and is my number one reason for looking forward to continuing the series.

It took me a little longer to warm up to Katherine, because as sheltered as she is early in the story - being raised in the upper tiers as a lady and the daughter of Valentine - she comes across very naive and unintentionally snobbish. In the end however, I had to admire her determination to uncover the truth, no matter the possible cost of discovering some awfully terrible truths about her father. I was most surprised by Katherine's storyline too, being completely unprepared for the twists Reeve's threw at me. It certainly left me gaping! In contrast to Katherine and Tom's narratives there are also chapters int
ersperced throughout the book from the point of view of Shrike - a humanoid killing machine sent to destroy Hester. At first they seem cold and calculated - as such a machine is meant to be - but it was really interesting to discover the history Hester and Shrike shared, and his true motivations for destroying Hester. I'll tell you what, in my opinion, Reeve certainly knew how to keep you guessing!

While a fun and imaginative adventure, Mortal Engines also has a serious tone to it, touching on issues of the environment, power, and in some ways, what it means to be yourself. As is the way with so many dystopian books, Reeve's world has been ruined by humans and their traction cities, to the point that actual greenery is not something
Tom is acquainted with. I also really liked the correlations between so many of the characters and the environments they inhabited, raising many questions about nature versus culture. There are definitely moments throughout Mortal Engines that Reeve ensures you actually sit back and think, and it's for this reason that this book has had more of an impact on me, that it will be one I remember for a long while.

Philip Reeve's Mortal Engines is a fast-paced and fantastic story, with such original and memorable concepts and characters. It has a lot going on - much more than I mentioned here - so can be pretty full on at times. I look forward to continuing the series!


Publishers: Scholastic
Published date: 16 November 2001
Pages: 293
Series: The Hungry City Chronicles, Book 1


  1. What are you studying? I had to read this last semester for my Masters of Children's Literature! I had meant to read it for years and loved it!

    Very thorough review! Nice work!


    1. Thanks, Michael! I read it as part of my Masters of Children's Literature studies too...small world, huh? :-D