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Philip Reeve Mortal EnginesPhilip ReeveMortal Engines

"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."
What a way to start a story, to set a scene. Start with the action.
You see, this is some kind of post post-apocalyptic world. It has moved on from the 60-minutes war, with its Orbit-to-Earth atomics and its Tailored-Virus strikes. 'Lost America' is still a wasteland, the only life the Archaeologists and Scavengers scouring it for pieces of 'Old Tech'. The rest of world had to react to the Earthquakes, Volcanoes, and Glaciers that followed the war. Quirke was the first to put a town, London, onto Tracks, so it could move out of harm's way. Nearly everybody followed suit (with the exception of the Anti-Traction League in the East, behind a huge range of mountains) – with towns ranging on wheels, tracks, on runners in the ice wastes, drifting in the clouds, floating on the sea. And so a world of Municipal Darwinism, a town-eat-town world was created, and prospered for a 1000 years. But now prey is getting scarce, and the Mayor of London is forced to take his 7-tier town, with St Paul's Cathedral on top, back out into the Great Hunting Ground and its dangers, looking for towns to eat.

The story follows the adventures of two young, and superficially very different, protagonists. On the one hand we have Tom Natsworthy, 3rd class apprentice in the London Guild of Historians, whose parents died in the 'Big Tilt' when one of London's tiers partially collapsed. The other main character is Heather Shaw, a disfigured orphan, scavenging in the outback, and brought into London when it absorbs Salthook, the mining town from the opening scene. Between them stands Thaddeus Valentine, former Scavenger, now Head of Historian and Archaeologies, and the topic of a series of adventure books (which Tom knows by heart).
But when Hester attempts to assassinate Valentine in revenge for some past deed (which Tom won't believe in, given that Valentine is his Hero!) the both find themselves falling out of the city, and marooned in the muddy wastes of the Hunting Ground. And we're off into classic adolescent fiction, with the usual stubbornness, naïveté, and pluckiness through all the twists and turns of their adventures; which lead them onto other town, into the air with the Aviatrix Anna Fang (an Agent of the Anti-Traction League, nevertheless!), and to the Shield Wall in Batmunkh Gompa, which keeps the Traction Cities away from the static settlements of the League.

This is a highly entertaining story, set in a fascinating world (post-apocalyptic steam punk?), and well worth reading. The main criticism is that Reeve seems to be very easy with killing people off – not just as the main plot points (it's hard to get an orphan without…), but incidental, left and right, the good, the bad, the indifferent, the innocent. To some degree this makes it as violent as some of Grimm's fables, or the Struwelpeter, for example. A better comparison might a classic Greek drama, which have the same tendency.
I don't know how much this affects the intended reader group for this book (adolescents and younger adults, I'd guess. The Harry Potter Generation). Children have a very good gut feeling for who is good/bad or right/wrong/guilty, and seem to mind the loss smaller characters much less than me and some of the people around me. But be warned – it's a great yarn, but it's also quite bloody (but never gory). This is Reeve's first novel, and the opening shot for a series of 4 (so far) books, named the 'Hungry Cities Chronicles'.
Entertaining and well written, if non-essential reading.

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Title: Mortal Engines
Series: Hungry Cities Chronicles
Author: Philip Reeve
Reviewer: Markus
Reviewer URL: http://skating.thierstein.net
Publisher:  Scholastic
Publisher URL: http://www.scholastic.co.uk
Publication Date: 2002
Review Date: 080512
ISBN: 0439979439
Price: UKP5.99
Pages: 293
Format: Paperback
Topic: SF
Topic: Childrens

 

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