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Mortal Engines
by Philip Reeve

Reviewed by Galen Strickland

This is the first of four novels, along with some short stories, in a YA series by British writer Philip Reeve. He prefers this as the collective title, although there are others who have called it the Predator Cities series. My hardcover is the first US edition, whose publishers identify it as The Hungry City Chronicles. The original title comes from Shakespeare's Othello, chosen to signify the moving cities are not a sustainable civilization, and thus mortal. It opens with a very evocative sentence, which would be more impressive if not for the fact it reminded me of the beginning of Stephen King's The Gunslinger.

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 premise is interesting, but not very plausible, and that opening sentence is the highlight. I bought this used, but can't recall when or where, but if it was at a used bookstore, that sentence is probably what prompted me to get it. The just released movie (review of which has been slightly edited) indicates it's about 1100 years into our future, but the book implies at least twice that. The weapons used in the Sixty Minute War which plunged the world into chaos shouldn't have left much to scavenge and rebuild, certainly not major buildings from old London, including St. Paul's Cathedral, which sits atop Tier One on the giant roving city. Thomas Quirke is renowned as the creator of the Traction City concept, or maybe just the engineer of London's transformation, but there is little other backstory to explain the why of it. Municipal Darwinism decrees it's a "Town Eat Town" world, one in which the strongest, fastest cities will be the ultimate victors. Once the larger cities devour smaller ones, their only option would be to pit themselves against other surviving cities, or else go after the remaining "static" cities, ones that remain in a fixed location, many of whom have banded together as the Anti-Traction League.

There are also semi-static towns, generally smaller ones that can move but choose to hide in mountainous regions, or canyons not easily accessible to the large cities. They are able to grow crops and raise livestock, and only move if there is no other option for self-defense. The larger portion of the Anti-Traction League have constructed the great Shield Wall to protect them, with giant gun implacements atop the wall, and fleets of armored, gun and bomb-wielding airships at the ready. The plains in front of the wall are a graveyard of the many Traction Cities which have tried to breach the wall, but failed. The Lord Mayor of London believes they finally have a weapon capable of destroying the wall, and since their normal hunting grounds are becoming devoid of suitable prey, London is rapidly heading east. Remember, this is a YA title, so the heroes are teenagers. One is a girl out to avenge the murder of her parents, another is a shy, naive apprentice Historian in London's museum, caught up in a grand conspiracy of power concocted by the Lord Mayor and his Head Historian.

There's not much else to say. It's a quick, easy read, vaguely entertaining, but also frustrating because it's too predictable. The implausibility also includes the society of London, too reminiscent of the 19th Century of Charles Dickens, both high society and the lower working classes, rather than the 21st or whichever century the war occurred. It's also unlikely there would be scientists with the knowledge and resources capable of rebuilding the ancient weapons. Too many concepts or turns of phrase, both in dialog and the third-person narration, that shouldn't have any meaning to people in this post-apocalyptic world. I guess the books have been popular enough to justify the sequels, but definitely not at the level of Harry Potter or the Hunger Games trilogy. This one is not good enough for me to bother seeking out the other books, but will probably appeal to readers young enough, even younger than its fifteen-year-old protagonists.


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Philip Reeve


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