Fiona's Reviews > Mortal Engines

Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve
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Jan 06, 15

bookshelves: favourites
Recommended for: absolutely everyone
Read in February, 2010

** spoiler alert ** James Cameron needn't wait another decade to make his next blockbuster. I have it next to me; or Peter Jackson could make it. I'd rather Tarantino didn't, but you never know. I have the book. The one that children will dress up for, the one that will see as many adult fans as children, the one with three more books to follow, a potential goldmine.
Philip Reeve's Mortal Engines is so visually gorgeous that kites flutter from the snowy mountains as you glide above in your airship, oblivious entirely to the reading of words, the turning of pages. A grimy jewel of steampunk artistry, airships and cities floating in the air meet the intensely creepy Guild of Engineers, with their chemically hairless skulls and long white rubber coats. Luckily for such a fantastic, imaginative book, Reeve's narrative voice is so coherent and so subtle that you are allowed to tumble straight into the action of the book. The entirely familiar (we are in the Natural History Museum when the book begins) meets the astonishingly strange – huge rebel civilizations holed up in the Himalayas.
Reeve is certainly an artist. The two protagonists, one sheltered, naïve and optimistic, one painfully sceptical and streetwise (or earthwise, perhaps), play off the readers' reactions between them. This means you're never allowed to slip out of contact with the narrative. Cleverly interplaying the reader's reactions with those of the characters, Reeve ensures we read just as he would like, anticipating our responses and buffering them with his witty, scared, hearty characters.
The book has one of the best opening lines in children's literature: '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'. From that very first line, you are dragged, exhilarated and gasping, across the world. The narrative never slows, even for a moment, pitching the reader into new and dangerous places. Mortal Engines also has the most fantastic concept on its side. The world's cities are scattered and voracious, mounted on huge tracks to cross the wastelands made by the Sixty Minute War millennia before. Remnants from the previous civilisation are greedily hoarded, from CDs (Tom, the almost dislikeable protagonist, gives his 'seedy' away and bitterly regrets it), to mechanical soldiers made from the corpses of men, and, worst of all, atomic weapons.
If there is a term I despise, it is 'unputdownable'. No one glued Mortal Engines to my fingers, and I put it down several times, sometimes for whole minutes. There were even hours where I didn't read it, though that was, admittedly, because I was sleeping. In truth this is perhaps the most successfully realised book I have read in a long time. The sensitive, frank narrative voice combines with two superb central characters, Tom and Hester. Tom is a London boy, an apprentice to the Guild of Historians, fiercely loyal to his insatiable city. Hester has lived her life on the ground stripped bare by municipal Darwinism (and if that phrase didn't make you shiver with glee, then you and I must never meet). Hester is ugly, bearing huge facial and emotional scars, an unapproachable, bitter, angry girl, who steadfastly refuses to be a romantic heroine. The two weave their way warily round each other, tentatively finding common ground, awkwardly negotiating. It's engrossing, uncomfortable, exquisite writing.
Did I mention that this book has to be adapted to film? Reeve has elbowed his way into the competitive world of children's literature by being extraordinarily skilled. The book is hugely visual, and leaves you with a sensation of having witnessed something spectacular. He never falters, his sure, bold voice unrolling the world before us. Like Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, or The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, a Mortal Engines film would be an alluring, terrifying world firmly in the steampunk genre.
I believe it's this 'steampunk' styling that entices so many adult readers. A combination of Victorian technology – steam power, brass rivets, goggles and a slightly Frankenstein obsession with death and reanimation – and ridiculous, fantastic invention, steampunk takes over where sci-fi fails. When horrible apocalyptic disasters seem suddenly far more likely (is anyone else playing race the raindrops with climate change versus rogue state?), steampunk assures us that something else is entirely plausible. It proffers technology, made sexy with some cogs and exciting with steam and a bit gothic with some rivets and fire, and says, soothingly, 'here, look, we will survive anything with this and a good dirigible or two'. And it makes it clear we will survive in sexy riding boots, corsets and tan leather coats, which is ideal as far as I'm concerned.
For this reason and many others, Mortal Engines is one of very few books I would issue with an adult cover. I liked it so much that I feel a little pitying towards those who haven't already read it. So much, in fact, that in my feverish excitement I appear to have contracted a case of cliché-itis. I want to say it's a romp. And thrilling. I find the phrase 'if you only read one book...' leaping into my mind, running round my brain as embarrassing and difficult to ignore as a flasher. I want to say that children will love it, which is surely a death knell for all but the best children's books.
It really isn't clear whether Reeve was expecting adults to read the book. It is a children's book: you can tell by the way all the parents are cheerfully knocked off as soon as possible, except for the one who turns out to be evil. Of course. There are other predictable elements: the adults they encounter are usually either bumbling, bad and beastly, or rebellious, good, exciting and fun. They are scheming, unreliable and often stupid. There are so many references, though, that I am unsure children will even notice. At one point, the children find themselves on the 'pirate suburb' of Tunbridge Wheels; London's moment comes when it faces the huge conurbation of Panzerstadt-Bayreuth. English is known as 'Anglish', which seems perfectly reasonable when you consider it.
The whole conceit of municipal Darwinism, with cities hunting each other down, stripping their victims of their resources, desperately recycling everything (even bodies) between catches, seems a very adult, threatening world. Luckily the magnificence of the whole thing saves it from unrelenting darkness. Reeve lifts the story up, in hot air balloons and airships, letting us see the greater, terrifying, brilliant whole. Perhaps this is where Reeve really slips into brilliance; the book's extraordinary humanity. He teeters over a grim, desperate post-apocalyptic world, and makes it marvellous by peopling it with beautiful, fallible, credible civilisations. Like Pandora in Cameron's realisation of Avatar, it's a world so radiant it leaves you a little sad that it is so far out of reach. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to don my flying goggles.
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Comments (showing 1-5 of 5) (5 new)

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Suna Cracking review!

I believe you have my goggles.


Naomi of the Rargle Corporation About a movie; I believe Peter Jackson may have bought the rights to it... something like that anyway.
Can't wait!


Suna Wicked, I look forward to that, Weta's the perfect company to bring all this to life!


Naomi of the Rargle Corporation *nods* Definitely!


Cate Earnshaw And that was a cracking review! Many thanks for putting into very well selected words the thoughts I had on this marvellous novel.


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