Title: Mortal Engines
Author: Philip Reeve
Genre: YA, Dystopia, Sci-Fi
Format: Paperback, 320 pages
My Rating: 3.5/5 stars
Summary (from Goodreads):
“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 has been skulking in the hills to avoid the bigger, faster, hungrier cities loose in the Great Hunting Ground. But now, the sinister plans of Lord Mayor Mangus Crome can finally unfold.
Thaddeus Valentine, London’s Head Historian and adored famous archaeologist, and his lovely daughter, Katherine, are down in The Gut when the young assassin with the black scarf strikes toward his heart, saved by the quick intervention of Tom, a lowly third-class apprentice. 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 a painful dangerous unforgettable adventure story of surprises, set in a dark and utterly original world fuelled by Municipal Darwinism — and betrayal.
(Okay so I mostly read this because my sister made me watch the film and I actually enjoyed the premise so yanno. Well, that and looking at Robert Sheehan’s face for a couple hours, but I digress.)
I have mixed feelings towards this novel, for a number of reasons. The first of them is that I WAS NOT ANTICIPATING THAT ENDING IN THE SLIGHTEST. REEVE WHAT THE HELL DO YOU THINK YOU’RE DOING?
The second is that my sister loved it, and my flatmate who hates YA has told me it’s the only YA book worth reading, and I just…liked it? Like sure, it’s good, the world-building is brilliant and the characters lovable but…I’ve read far, far better Young Adult fiction.
I think this might be half the problem, actually. My third reason for having mixed feelings is that I’m unsure on whether to classify this as YA or middle-grade.
Thematically, I’d go with YA. It’s a surprisingly dark dystopian novel, and Reeve doesn’t hold back on the violence. As I mentioned above, I really, really enjoyed the premise. It’s like nothing I’ve ever read before. The world-building is just A+, and if you like steampunk-vibe novels then I 100% recommend this for you.
It’s got everything – an intriguing plotline, multiple three-dimensional characters, and what is possibly one of the most devastating endings to a young peoples’ book I’ve ever read. The whole concept of towns eating towns is dark in itself, but throw in the sheer amount of death that Reeve deals out? The fact that I’m pretty sure the sequel will deal with PTSD? Definitely YA.
The writing is basic. It’s suitable for a middle-grade audience, but is lacking in the sophistication that I tend to find in YA fiction. Reeve has a tendency to tell, rather than show, and it ground my gears (pun intended) that everything about how the characters were feeling was spoon-fed to us.
(Seriously, for the first 100 pages my thoughts were switching between “This must be a first draft.” and “Seriously? This is what you call the best YA fiction ever written?”)
All that being said, it’s something I got used to. Towards the end of the book, Reeve seems to get into the swing of stringing together sentences that are less clunky, that get his narrative moving, that pull us straight into the action. It’s not brilliant writing, not by a long-shot, but it does the job and becomes less irritating as time goes on.
Due to this, Reeve’s saving grace is his characters. I didn’t expect to relate to any of them at all, but if I’m being honest, they grew on me to become some of my favourite children’s characters I’ve ever read.
Tom is the main protagonist – he’s small, not particularly fit for survival in any way, and is not at all the stoic hero I’ve come to find as the norm in YA dystopian novels. It’s refreshing. He questions himself, his choices, his heroes – he cries a few times about it too, but not in a whinging “I wanna go home!” way, which I can get behind! Let young boys see emotional male characters!
I think the main reason I loved him so much is that he is 100% the kid that has no idea what’s going on. He’s not a sharp-witted person who instantly fits in to every scenario; he screws up time and again, but he learns and changes and he does his best.
Hester is one of the other main characters – she’s angry at the world, hostile towards everyone, and can’t understand why anyone would go to the effort of trying to like her. One of my favourite lines of hers is this:
“I try to be all kind and smiley, like you want me to be, but then I catch sight of my reflection, or I think of him and it all goes wrong and I can only think horrible things and scream at you and try and hurt you. I’m sorry.”
Here that kids? That’s the sound of communication.
If there’s one thing I love about this novel, it’s the emotional journeys that the three main (young) characters go on. Tom, Hester and Kate all discover things that shake-up their worldview and go against everything they’ve been brought up with.
I can’t go too far into Kate’s character without unveiling some major spoilers, but her arc is very much the loss-of-innocence-and-faith type. She learns and grows up, and realises what a privileged life she lives. Lost approves.
Also, I was pleasantly surprised by what a diverse cast Reeve had in the later stages of the novel in terms of both gender and race. Tom has evidently grown up in London, which is for the most part full of white people, and there’s a passage in which he looks around at all these people from different cultures, and it kind of sinks in for him that the world is far, far bigger than the city (and people!) he assumed knew best.
As for these other characters, Anna Fang in particular was a favourite of mine. Reeve essentially takes the trope of “badass-male-mentor” and subverts it to fit her – I don’t think I’ve ever described a female character as ‘swashbuckling’ before, but it certainly fits! I know there are prequels about her, and I’m definitely curious to see what they’re about 😄
Even with the characters however, I got a distinct “middle-grade” vibe. I understand that both Tom and Kate grew up relatively sheltered, but if you compare them to say, Wylan, from Six of Crows they both seem so, so, childish.
Obviously this is the point – no sixteen year old is actually like most of the characters you find in YA books. How many kids would actually act the same at Katniss Everdeen, for crying out loud? Like I do appreciate that Reeve actually does have a very firm grasp on how children act and react, but that just isn’t suited to YA books anymore.
(I have just remembered that this was published in 2004, before most modern YA, but in this light it just feels dated.)
All this being said, I am curious to see how the next book’ll turn out. Tom and Hester are slowly digging a place in my “favourites” box, and even if it’s not anytime soon, I reckon I’ll pick up the next book in the series at some point in the future.
I realise I’ve started going off into little tangents of analysis in my reviews, and I’m not really sure what anyone makes of them 😂 If you don’t mind them, let me know in the comments?
Lots of love,