Mortal Engines was Philip Reeve’s first published novel. It received the Smarties Gold Award and The Blue Peter Book of the Year, both significant awards as children select the winners.
The novel set in a post-apocalyptic world , after the ‘sixty minute war’, where cities, towns and suburbs have become mobile ‘traction cities’ that traverse the wasted land that was Europe and prey on each other according to the principles of ‘Municipal Darwinism’. Unsentimental survival of the fittest is a theme that pervades the action of the book. One of our members found the book too distressingly violent to be able to finish reading it. There is no doubt that at times the writing is blunt and brief, but this will be followed by a calmer or humorous passage – a technique common in fiction for young readers.
We enjoyed the constant changes of perception one has to make during the first few chapters – amid the dramatic action the reader is challenged to adjust their concept of a city. Familiar London tube stations have become levels in an elevator system, with St Paul’s on the highest level, Bloomsbury, the Museum and homes of the privileged on level two, right the way down to The Gut, where near-slaves toil to keep the city running. The reader’s confusion neatly foreshadows the dilemmas experienced by the main characters.
The main protagonists, Tom and Hester, are both orphans – another convention of children’s fiction which allows characters to operate independently in the world created for them. London is run by four Guilds – Tom is a Third Class Apprentice in the Historians Guild and the Engineers Guild is secretly constructing inhumane devices that will allow London, (and the Guild), to dominate the known world. Apprentices wear uniforms that indicate which of the Guilds they belong to. These elements reminded us of the Harry Potter books, but we agreed that a group of young teens in uniforms fighting evil was a common plot in boarding school stories stretching back a hundred years.
Reeve is graphic artist and illustrator and we felt that his visual imagination creates powerful images in prose. This is especially so when he is writing about the ‘Resurrected Man’, Shrike – a robot developed from the body of a wounded warrior. Shrike, walking under the sea, is ‘goggled’ at by fish, and crabs rear up and wave their pincers ‘as if they are worshipping a crab-god’.
There are moral lessons, but Reeve is never didactic. We experience Tom gradually question his hero-worship of Valentine and his patriotic fervour for his city. As his naivety declines his emotional intelligence develops – he begins to understand the reasons for Hester’s anger and to notice when her gentler nature shows through.
We decided that the novel does conform to many of the conventions that have been common to children’s fiction for over a century. The strength of Reeve’s story is in the theme of young people having to take responsibility for saving the world, despite the actions of adults, and as a consequence, to question and adjust received values in order to develop their own.
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