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Philip Reeve – Mortal Engines

January 21, 2011

4. Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve (2001)
Hungry Cities Chronicles, Book 1

Length: 296 pages

Genre: Mid-grade steampunk-y post-apocalyptic sci-fi adventure

Started: 06 January 2011
Finished: 08 January 2011

Where did it come from? Bookmooch.
Why do I have it? Darla’s fault.
How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 07 August 2010.

Londoners: see all
the sights of Europe without
ever leaving home!

Summary: It’s been eons since the Ancients destroyed themselves in the Sixty Minutes’ War, and centuries since the first invention of mobile cities. Now London roams the landscape, looking for smaller cities to capture and consume in accordance with the principles of Municipal Darwinism. Tom Natsworthy is an ordinary Third Class Apprentice Historian, but he dreams of adventure. So when he saves the life of his hero, the explorer Thaddeus Valentine, from an assassin, he’s more than a little surprised to find himself rewarded by being ejected from the city into the barren wastes of the Outland. Now he’s forced to work with the would-be assassin, Hester Shaw, in order to survive, and he has to come to grips with the fact that life in London is not as rosy as he’s always believed it to be. Inside the city, a similar realization is being reached by Katherine, Valentine’s daughter, as she discovers a secret her father’s been keeping, a secret that could change the fate of London – and the world – forever… unless Tom, Hester, and Katherine can stop it.

Review: Most steampunk that I’ve read thus far has been alternate history, so it was really neat to see a steampunk take on post-apocalyptic dystopia. The worldbuilding is absolutely the best part of Mortal Engines – it’s original, imaginative, and full of clever details and subtle in-jokes. It was also surprisingly dark; the very idea of the Sixty Minutes’ War wiping out civilization as we know it is horrifying in its plausibility, and Reeve does not shy away from real costs of heroics, nor does he stint on the body count just because it’s a kids’ book.

My main problem with this book was that it skewed a little bit young for my tastes. Tom is fifteen, but the writing level is substantially younger, geared more towards the 11-12 year old set. The story moves quickly from adventure to adventure, with lots of big exciting action set pieces, but not a whole lot of character development. (The exception was Katherine; her disillusionment with her father felt a lot more real and meaningful than Tom’s disillusionment with his hero.) The prose style – in addition to having the mid-grade novel’s pitfall of every character’s internal monologue being overly punctuated with exclamation points – was also a little weird. Specifically, the sections from the good guys’ p.o.v. was in standard past tense, but the bad guys’ p.o.v.s were in present tense, which in addition to being a bizarre stylistic choice, gave the distracting impression that the alternating sections weren’t happening at the same time.

I initially got interested in this book because of the idea of “Municipal Darwinism”. Social Darwinism (i.e. the society that can kill the other societies is the best) is scientifically flawed and a misapplication of Darwin’s ideas, and it sets my teeth on edge whenever it gets used as a justification (e.g. for colonialism and empire-building). That said, I liked the idea of turning cities into independent actors, and actually letting them go through natural selection. As it turns out, Reeve isn’t a big fan of social Darwinism either, but he goes after it on moral grounds, rather than scientific ones, which is what I was hoping to see. Nevertheless, this was a quick read, with an interesting world and plenty of action. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: A little young for me, but folks who enjoy more mid-grade fantasy/sci-fi than I do should have no problems with it. Mortal Engines would make an interesting counterpoint to all of the “one person vs. the establishment” dystopias (a la The Hunger Games) that have come out recently, especially since the establishment is an actual moving city. Recommended for dystopia and action-adventure fans in the 11-15ish age bracket of both sexes.

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Other Reviews: All Lit Up, Becky’s Book Reviews, Books and Other Thoughts
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First Line: 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.

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13 Comments leave one →
  1. January 21, 2011 9:03 am

    I’m not into the YA stuff, but this sounds perfect for when my friends ask “do you have any recommendations for my 11 year old?”

    • January 26, 2011 10:20 am

      Redhead – Absolutely! It seems like the kind of thing an 11-year-old would just devour.

  2. Fyrei permalink
    January 21, 2011 1:09 pm

    I enjoyed this book, due to its fresh take on dystopian fiction. There were certain flaws in the book, but nothing that was extremely hard to ignore. The main thing that bugged me was the reading level and gigantic leap from 15 teen year old characters talking like 10 year olds. I stuck with the series ans enjoyed the next two the best, because the closed the gap that was so glaringly obvious as stated above.

    • January 26, 2011 10:25 am

      Fyrei – That’s good to hear that the age level evens out as it goes.

  3. January 21, 2011 2:40 pm

    What an interesting world! I’m going to pass, because it sounds a bit young for my taste, but I hope Reeve writes more work in this universe.

    • January 26, 2011 10:25 am

      Omni – This is the start of a whole series, with 4(?) books in it so far… and it’s entirely possible that the series ages as it goes.

  4. January 21, 2011 8:54 pm

    I think Philip Reeve is just not the author for me. I read Here Lies Arthur, and I’ve tried Mortal Engines three times now and haven’t been able to get more than a third of the way through any of the times. Why can I not love steampunk the way I want to love it??

    (On an unrelated note, I looked for Heresy at the library and it was all checked out. Boo.)

    • January 26, 2011 10:27 am

      Jenny – Do you think it’s steampunk in general? Or just Philip Reeve’s version of steampunk? Have you tried Leviathan?

  5. January 22, 2011 1:38 pm

    I remember this having an older feel to it than MG. I’ve read the full quartet though, so it might be that he ‘grows’ the series through the books? Certainly Tom and Hester deal with some adult aspects of their relationship.

    I remember that when I read Fever Crumb (the first of the prequels) that it felt substantially younger.

    • January 26, 2011 10:28 am

      Darren – There were definitely aspects of this one that felt older than MG… but also some aspects that definitely didn’t. I’m not a big MG fan, though, so it might also be the case that I’m more sensitive to any hint of MG-ness than most.

  6. January 22, 2011 11:09 pm

    I’d had a look at this a few times and considered it, but it now sounds a little too young for my tastes. I’ll stick with Michael Pryor’s Laws of Magic series.

    • January 26, 2011 10:29 am

      Elfy – Haven’t heard of that series – is it similar?

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