The Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve

A review of the children’s science fiction novel The Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve.

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The Mortal Engines is a science fiction/fantasy story set in a Darwinist future. After a cataclysmic sixty-minute war that virtually destroyed the Earth, and with the remaining people now facing starvation, many centres of habitation have become traction cities. This means the whole place is constantly moving on huge caterpillar tracks, searching for smaller places to ‘eat.’ The biggest and most splendid of these is, of course, London. However, London is starving and needs to find new hunting grounds at whatever the cost. The story follows the adventures of Hester, Tom and Catherine, who meet by accident, after an attempt on Catherine’s father’s life.

The book’s setting portrays an extremely bleak future for the Earth and its people. Well-written and imaginative, it was easy to read and understand, even though Reeve introduces new vocabulary right from the start, and refers to the cities by a bastardisation of popular, modern place names, like Puerto Angeles. However, a lot of the street names in London remain the same, all information is still provided by Google, and the statues of our animal-headed Gods Pluto and Mickey are still revered. These little pieces add a sense of light-heartedness and fun.

Life for the least fortunate in the guts of London is vividly described and compared to the top tiers. Reeve develops a very realistic picture of the character of the general population, as well as the main characters.

The characters of Hester, Tom, Catherine and Valentine (Catherine’s father) are interesting and progress credibly through the book. Hester is a sad character that is difficult to like at first, but she grows into a more likeable individual. Her back-story is revealed as her relationship with Tom grows. It is the telling of Hester’s tale that at first makes her a tragic hero, and then, eventually, an affable individual.

Tom comes across as a naive young man who has no knowledge of the world and looks at things through rose tinted glasses. He virtually worships the ground Valentine walks on and has a major crush on Catherine. Tom is a staunch supporter of London, though is not really aware of what really goes on, and defends it, and Valentine, against all nay-sayers. However, as Tom’s character develops throughout the book, slowly, he realises the truth.

Catherine, Valentine’s daughter, is even more naive than Tom. Being raised for the most part amongst the top echelon of London, Catherine has never witnessed the hardships many Londoners face. After the attack on her father, out of innocence, she decides to find out the reason for the attack. With her faithful wolf, Dog, by her side, she too discovers the ugliness of the city. The transformation of Catherine’s character is logical and believable, and I actually felt sorry for her. Her relationship with one of the engineers is authentic, but at the same time quite sad.

For me, one of the things I disliked about the book was Reeve’s insistence on repeating words. I understand why an author might use this technique, but I found it rather irritating. For example: one of the characters is introduced as an Aviatrix (pilot) and this term is used in what felt like every sentence she appeared in. The same issue arose when one of the other cities was referred to as ‘the conurbation’ in every sentence. Despite the clarity this adds, I think it was overdone.

Although this is classed as a children’s/teen book I would recommend it for older readers, even adults. I became invested in the characters and went through a gamut of emotions reading this book. Don’t let the sci-fi/fantasy label put you off. The story is inventive, fast-paced and enjoyable. I myself decided to read the book after seeing the trailer for the new film adaptation, and I’m glad I read the book before watching the film.

Cassidy grew up in Thanet and lives here with her family.

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