With the blockbuster adaptation just days away from wide release, Mortal Engines has been on my TBR list since I saw that first teaser trailer of the massive London traction city thundering over a post-apocalyptic wasteland. As an avid fan of science fiction and dystopia, I couldn’t believe the novel had slipped under my radar for so long. Moreover, this would only be confirmed in working through its chapters. The novel, along with creating one of the most vibrant, unique worlds I’ve ever experienced, is breathtakingly subversive of the YA genre while telling a story that is truly epic. It’s a piece that readers of any age will enjoy, and it holds a message that continues to hold major relevance to our world today.
The novel follows Tom Natsworthy, an apprentice historian in the city of London. Set some time after a devastating nuclear war, all cities have become mobilized into multi-level traction cities to escape natural disasters and constantly shifting terrain, “eating” smaller cities and taking their resources to survive in a practice known as “Municipal Darwinism.” However, the cities are growing scarce, and London may have to take drastic measures to ensure their power. In the midst of this struggle, a young woman, Hester Shaw, has arrived to enact revenge for her parents’ deaths. When Tom and Hester cross paths, they are launched into an adventure to find justice and determine the fate of all mobile cities.
The world-building skills of Philip Reeve, author of the novel, cannot be understated. Although Mortal Engines is focused around Tom and Hester, it often veers to show the lives of other characters and places in the world. This gives a sense of completeness, of a grounded reality, similar to the Game of Thrones or Unwind series. Furthermore, each perspective is teeming with vibrant and, more importantly, well-thought-out lore. From the use of old technologies to the detailed history to the rickety, awful infrastructure of a city slowly built around itself (complete with a sickening sewage scene), every detail is both fanatical and fits perfectly within the logic of the world, indeed nearly hyper-realistic at times. Moreover, it never leaned on YA tropes for the description, each setting feeling entirely separated from anything else in literature. Even now I can picture London with perfect, visceral clarity, from its rusty metal maw to its glittering upper floors.
However, if you’re not in it for the world, Hester and Tom are compelling and empathetic characters that bring the reader through the book’s harrowing events. Tom is a bit prototypical, being a normal boy who dreams of adventure and saving the girl. However, he is made more interesting by the fact that he’s not the savior protagonist who’s somehow a superhero despite no adventuring background. Instead, his lack of experience is a major impediment and allows him to have an actual character arc. Even in the end, his role is never to be the “chosen one.” Indeed, if anyone were to fit into that archetype it would be Hester, although she’s far from that. Hester is both physically and emotionally so different from other female YA characters, in the best way. She is shown to have irreprehensible facial disfigurement from a childhood trauma, and many characters continuously establish her face as unsightly. It was heartwarming to see a female character described as something other than nontraditionally beautiful, even more so considering Hester’s arc, when it focuses on her appearance, is all about learning to accept that she isn’t beautiful and that she still deserves love and happiness. Hester is also cruel, unlikable, and hot-headed, another rarity for female characters. Moreover, she struggles with depression and anger issues in a strikingly real way, and feels like a complete, endearingly human person. The other characters in the novel are equally interesting and exciting as well, Anna Feng and Shrike among my favorites, but in an effort to avoid too many spoilers I’ll leave them for readers to discover.
Overall, there is a sense of purpose of Mortal Engines, in that Reeve is eloquently expressing his views on capitalism, imperialism, and class structure. He does this in an apologetically mature way, never attempting to simplify or shy away from the intensely serious subjects, in doing so elevating and showing respect to his readers. These are dark issues, and so the story is accordingly dark and the dialogue about them thoughtful. In this way, the novel was one of the more meaningful reads I’ve had this year, since it gave me so many important issues to consider.
I’m not sure if the cinematic interpretation of Mortal Engines will show as much complexity as its source material, especially given how they minimized Hester’s scar to make her more conventionally pretty (as if the scar wasn’t a major facet of her character and her and Tom’s relationship), but hopefully it will convince young readers to explore the first of Reeve’s Mortal Engines series. The novel is beautiful and intelligent, but it is also accessible to any young adult reading level. In addition, although it may not be a peppy holiday read, it’s a worthy addition to any winter break reading list for the imaginativeness alone.
Have you read the Mortal Engines? Tell us what you think in the comments below!