Scholastic, 2002, 295 p.
For a thousand years cities have been mobile, traversing the dried up land in search of smaller urban entities to consume. This system is known as Municipal Darwinism and apparently has a set of rules. (There are, though, pirate towns which disregard these.) There is, too, an Anti-Traction League, settled towns safe in Asia behind an impregnable wall. The League has agents who work against the Traction towns.
Reeves has some fun with his premise. Panzerstadt-Bayreuth is a wonderful name for a predatory city, as is Tunbridge Wheels for a smaller ambulatory town. The text is also peppered with adapted phrases such as, “a rolling town gathers no moss,” with a curious emphasis on Hull; “like a bat out of Hull,” “Bloody Hull!”
Tom Natsworthy is a lowly member of the Guild of Historians in London, in thrall to the principles of Municipal Darwinism. His encounter with his – and London’s – hero, Chief Historian Valentine, draws him into a series of adventures after he witnesses an attempt on Valentine’s life by a mutilated young girl, Hester Shaw. In the aftermath both he and Hester are thrown out of London – Hester by her own hand, Tom at another’s – on the so-called Hunting Ground, forced together by this circumstance. In typical children’s book fashion both Hester and Tom are children (young adults here) who have lost their parents. By contrast the other main narrative focus in the book – apart from Valentine – is his daughter Katherine; but she has lost her mother.
Told in a mixture of past and present tenses, the book tracks the evolution of Tom’s and Katherine’s awareness of Valentine’s character (Hester was never in doubt) and even the principles of Municipal Darwinism itself – all among a welter of airships, men resurrected as machines, bullying pirates with pretensions to civility, and rediscovered weapons. As with many a Young Adult novel the pace is relentless, the pages incident packed.
Throw aside any notions of doubt about how a predatory system such as the Municipal Darwinism portrayed here could last for a hundred – never mind a thousand – years and also any quibbles about the level of characterisation (London’s Mayor, Magnus Crome, is a little one dimensional,) the piling on of incident and an occasional lack of subtlety. Broad brush strokes are arguably necessary in YA fiction. Mortal Engines is totally engaging, while still carrying the monitory subtext that appearance and demeanour are no clue to underlying character.
Pedants corner: Reeves has the resurrected man named the Shrike tune his ultra-red sensors. This turns out to be a heat-seeing system. That would be infra-red, below red, then; ultra-red, beyond or above red, is just plain green (in terms of primary colours) – or at a pinch, orange.