Monday, May 17, 2021

Mortal Engines

Mortal Engines
by Philip Reeve
Recommended Ages: 14+

All right, so I saw the movie first. Given the impression it made on me, it was an easy decision to grab this book when I saw it, this past weekend, at a small-town independent bookstore. Of the six books I bought there, it was the one I knew I had to read immediately. And now I'm astonished that I haven't read anything by Philip Reeve before, despite the fact that I'm sure I've seen several of his titles displayed in various bookstores and was intrigued by some of them. Better late than never, eh?

If you've already seen the movie, please do not fear reading the book as well. In fact, I think you'll be pleasantly surprised by their similiarities and differences, and the real possibility of enjoying both. It's not one of those cases, and I can name a few, where you end up loving one and hating the other. Reeve writes with charm and wit, describing a distant future version of our world that is at once wonderful, weird and awful. A world whose "ancients," maybe a couple thousand years after us, wiped themselves out in what is now known as the Sixty Minute War, leaving behind fragments of culture and technology that the surviving humans struggle to understand. A world divided between Traction Cities – literally, entire cities mounted on tracks, moving across the landscape – and fixed settlements, the latter existing mainly behind a shield-wall that protects them from roaming, predatory conurbations. When one town, suburb or city catches another, it devours it, consuming its resources and adding its citizens to the workforce. It's all in line with a philosophy known as Municipal Darwinism.

When we first see the city of London in this book's fabulous opening sentence, it's "chasing a small mining town across the dried-out bed of the old North Sea." Everything unfolds from there with scenery charged with strangeness and menace, yet also a sense of history. Apprentice historian Tom Natsworthy, who at age 15 is considerably younger than his movie incarnation (as are several other principal characters), believes in Municipal Darwinism with all his heart, and he hero-worships Thaddeus Valentine, the head of the Historians' Guild, who climbed the social ladder while adventuring far and wide in pursuit of archaeological discovery. But then a girl with a hideously scarred face tries to stab Valentine right in front of Tom and the great man's beautiful daughter. Tom tries to chase the girl, but she throws herself down a waste chute after telling him to ask Valentine about her. Recognizing the girl's name – Hester Shaw – and desperate to protect his darkest secret, Valentine pushes Tom down the chute after her.

The unlikely pair miraculously survives their fall from the moving city and begin trying to get back – Tom, to the only life he knows; Hester, to the man she is sworn to kill, after he murdered her parents and scarred her face. Everything that could possibly goes wrong in their very rugged, dangerous world happens to them, one after another. They are captured by people who mean to sell them into slavery. They are stalked by an undead cyborg who has orders to kill them. They encounter vicious, murdering pirates and surprisingly nice Anti-Tractionist terrorists. And they gradually figure out, in tandem with Valentine's daugher Katherine and her apprentice engineer friend Bevis Pod back in London, that the city's Lord Mayor plans to unleash a monstrous, ancient weapon on the shield wall and open up a whole new Hunting Ground in the one part of the world that hasn't already been destroyed by Municipal Darwinism.

Tom gradually comes to reconsider what is and isn't good and beautiful. Hester gradually warms to his unselfish kindness, courage and decency. As for Katherine, Bevis, Valentine, Magnus Crome (the Lord Mayor of London), Anti-Tractionist heroine Anna Fang, and other characters, their fates are rather different from those depicted in the movie, in many cases darker. Maybe the most interesting point of comparison is the character of Valentine, who in spite of having Hugo Weaving to play him, comes across in the movie as just noble enough that you'd believe Tom would hero-worship him but, otherwise, totally and uncomplicatedly evil. In the book, he's a more complex and even tragic character, with whom you might actually sympathize a little by the end. The book and the film diverge more and more as the plot goes along, and ultimately there's so much more to the book (as one should expect). But regardless of which version you like more after experiencing both, you have to agree that Reeve has built a totaly absorbing fantasy world, worthy of being compared with the greats.

This highly original book was followed by several sequels, prequels and a volume of short stories, collectively known as the Predator Cities series. Their titles include Predator's Gold, Infernal Devices, A Darkling Plain, Fever Crumb, A Web of Air, Scrivener's Moon and Night Flights. Philip Reeve, a British author and illustrator specializing in children's books, has also written four Buster Bayliss books with such titles as Night of the Living Veg and Custardfinger; the Larklight, Goblins and Railhead trilogies; five Not-So-Impossible Tales; four Roly-Poly Flying Pony Adventures; and the standalone novels Here Lies Arthur (winner of a Carnegie Medal), No Such Thing As Dragons, Jinks & O'Hare Funfair Repair and, coming in September 2021 in the UK, Utterly Dark and the Face of the Deep.

PS: If you're desperate to know what the other five books were that I bought along with this, they were Spy Camp by Stuart Gibbs, Gustav Gloom and the People Taker by Adam-Troy Castro, Mutation by Roland Smith, The Goldfish Boy by Lisa Thompson and Enchantment Lake by Margi Preus.

No comments: