Book Review: ‘Mortal Engines’ by Philip Reeve

Author: Philip Reeve

Original Published in 2001

Review by Miriam Atkinson

Ask me what my favourite film is and honestly I have no idea. Ask me what my favourite book is and the answer is Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve. Mortal Engines is one of those books that captured my imagination as a child and never let go.

The book is set in a post-apocalyptic / dystopian world. After war changed the geography of Earth forever, humanity needed to find a new way to live. Mortal Engines is set during the later stages of the Traction Era. With resources rare, many cities have now been transformed into ginormous landships on wheels. Cities, like London, literally drive around the continent searching for food to fuel a hungry city. They are shaped like the tiers of a cake and have massive metal jaws to eat other cities – the primary way of acquiring resources in this savage new version of Earth.

Mortal Engines follows the journeys of three main characters. Tom Natsworthy is an apprentice historian in London. When he falls overboard, Tom is determined to do whatever it takes to re-join his city. Hester Shaw carries the physical and emotional scars of her tragic childhood. She has one goal in life – to murder Thaddeus Valentine, the man who killed her parents. Katherine Valentine lives on London’s Tier One with her father. With rising suspicions, Katherine sets out to uncover the Lord Mayor’s horrifying plans for London.

So, why do I love Mortal Engines so much?

Firstly, the entire concept and world building of this story is so unique. From the traction cities, to the static settlements of the anti-traction league, to the floating city of Airhaven, to everywhere in between – everything is so completely different to everything else I’ve read.

Secondly, I can’t help but love the characters. All of the characters are very distinctive to each other and each plays a role in either the plot or as an expansion of Reeve’s world building. Many of the secondary characters are just as fascinating as the main trio. For example, half way through the novel we are introduced to Anna Fang – a skilled aviatrix and leading member of the Anti-Traction League. A likeable character with a dark side, the reader, like Tom, must decide whether to trust Anna or not. Another intriguing character is Shrike, the resurrected man. Technically an ancient corpse animated with machinery, Shrike is lethal in battle but his flickers of human memory cause him to be unusually protective of Hester.

Mortal Engines is the book that introduced me to the post-apocalypse and dystopian genres. Instead of a sleek futuristic world we might imagine, Mortal Engines projects a strong steampunk setting. Since the sixty minute war which destroyed the world, humanity has forgotten how to use much of the ‘old tech’ of their ancestors. While impressive pieces of engineering, even the traction cities are starting to age and scientific development is slow. All of this builds to a world that relies more on reusing items rather than creating new things to replace the old.

Philip Reeve’s story is one of the most original books I have ever encountered. From the characters to the world to the inventions within it there is so much to enjoy in this novel. Mortal Engines is the book that inspired me to be more creative in my life and to find a job that uses at least some aspect of creativity in it.

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