Written by Philip Reeve, Mortal Engines is a fantasy novel that builds a preposterous but intriguing world, telling a story with a lot of ups and downs, but that ultimately delivers with its good set of characters and great amount of creativity.
In the world of Mortal Engines, cities exist on wheels. They are moving entities that are always looking for prey: here, one city can eat another with its metal contraptions just to take its resources and people. Aboard London, Tom Natsworthy is a young apprentice who, one day, finds himself in the position to save the man he considers a hero, Thaddeus Valentine, from the assault of a mysterious girl. The young man, however, learns that she is called Hester Shaw and is rewarded by Valentine by being thrown out of the city. Stuck with Hester, Tom must find a way to go back to his home and discover why Valentine tried to dispose of him.
Tom may not seem a very complex character at first glance, but he soon starts to develop and finally becomes not only more interesting, but also fundamental to the book’s main discussion. At first, he’s just a young and innocent man, who is always dreaming of being a hero and saving a damsel in distress: “If he grew bored, he simply took refuge in a daydream, in which he was a hero who rescued beautiful girls from air-pirates, saved London from the Anti-Traction League and lived happily ever after.” For him, the world is very simple: there are heroes (Valentine) and villains (the Anti-Traction League) and the right order of things is when the strong eat the weak: “But he knew he mustn’t feel sorry for them: it was natural that cities ate towns, just as the towns ate smaller towns, and smaller towns snapped up the miserable static settlements.” His narrative arc, then, is basic, but efficient: during his adventures with Hester he starts to learn that the actions that make people heroes may not always be praiseworthy and that the world is not as black and white as he thought at the beginning. His most noticeable development, however, is when he understands that the so-called law of the jungle should not be considered natural and be fought against: “He had been brought up to believe that Municipal Darwinism was a noble, beautiful system, but he could see nothing noble or beautiful about Tunbridge Wheels.”
The world of Mortal Engines metaphorizes this need of consumption and dominance. It criticizes imperialism directly by showing cities eating each other in search of resources and slaves. It brings to the surface this horrible aspect of our society, the most basic need countries have for waging war against each other. That is why Tom’s development is so crucial to the narrative. At the beginning, he’s just like other Londoners, who cheer at the sight of a chase and feel good about being the one who is doing the chasing: the exhilarating effect of power. Eating the weak is part of their culture and they believe that this order is a beautiful thing, and, therefore, “Long Live London.” Mortal Engines shows that the problem is not only the cities that perpetuate this endless cycle of violence, but also the people who cherish it. People, like Tom, who believe the world is black and white and that your political adversary, just for being your political adversary, is a unidimensional villain who must be destroyed. When Tom starts to understand that the Anti-Traction League is not a monster, he becomes divided. He may yell at them: “It’s you who are the barbarians! Why shouldn’t London eat Batmunkh Gompa if it needs to? If you don’t like the idea, you should have put your cities on wheels long ago, like civilized people!” but he also shows by his actions that he does not believe his own words. Civilized people eat each other: that doesn’t make sense for him anymore. He wants to protect London because it’s his home – and screw the others, home comes first – but the fact that he no longer villainizes the other makes the action of destroying them seems less legitimate. He becomes lost, without knowing what to do. He just wants peace, but London is in perpetual war. It’s eat or be eaten for them. So they eat.
Besides Tom, the novel contains two more main points of view. One of them is of Valentine’s daughter, Katherine. Her narrative arc is also not very complex, but still works: as Tom, she believes her father is a hero. Her search to find out what is really happening in the city, then, serve to open her eyes to the darker shades of Valentine: his search for power in detriment of others is a symbol of what London represents. Katherine has her heart in the right place and it is no wonder that she is startled to see her fellow countrymen rooting for the destruction of others: “From Circle Park and all the observation platforms came the sound of wordless voices, and she thought at first that they were crying out in horror, the way she wanted to – but no; they were cheering, cheering, cheering.” After all, to those who have empathy rooting for violence always seems like madness. But Katherine’s arc eventually gains more elements as she progresses in her investigation. She also becomes aware of her own social privileges (“Beside her she heard Pod say again, ‘Sorry, Miss Valentine,’ and wasn’t sure if he was sorry because he couldn’t help her or sorry for her because she had learned the truth of what life was like under London.”) and of the injustices of a capitalist society (“All she could think of were the thousands of Londoners who were toiling and dying in misery so that a few lucky, wealthy people like herself could live in comfort.”), and so tries to fight for what she thinks it’s right, no matter the side her father is on.
The third and final point of view is of Hester Shaw, a girl consumed by revenge who wants more than anything to kill Thaddeus Valentine, for what he did to her family. Hester’s description is not common for her role as a heroine: one of the first words used by the narrator to describe her is hideous, and it doesn’t stop there:
“She was no older than Tom, and she was hideous. A terrible scar ran down her face from forehead to jaw, making it look like a portrait that had been furiously crossed out. Her mouth was wrenched sideways in a permanent sneer, her nose was a smashed stump and her single eye stared at him out of the wreckage, as grey and chill as a winter sea.”
Hester’s tragedy is that she allowed Valentine to define her life until the events of the book. She’s not allowed to be happy or even to smile because her only goal is to murder someone. She can’t think of anything else and has no other plans. And she knows that: dying after fulfilling her goal seems to be the best outcome for her.
It’s interesting to notice how Tom’s mind is so ingrained by a toxic masculine mentality that Hester’s personality appear alien to him at first. For him, women were fragile lady-like beings, who were gentle and caring. He always dreamed of saving and protecting them: the actions of a hero. However, Hester is self-sufficient, rude and she is the one who does the protecting. Near her, Tom looks infantilized and naïve: he is the one who cries, who is not able to fend for himself and even pees his pants. He dreamed of a damsel in distress and found Hester, who says fiercely: “I don’t need anybody”.
The main slip-ups in the narrative are related to a cyborg named Shrike, who seems out of place in that world and doesn’t bring too much to the table: he is there to give some tension to certain scenes and a bit of pathos to Hester’s story and that’s it. And certain lexical choices by the author are also distracting: a language being called “airsperanto” is cringeworthy, while a character without any importance being named “Dr. Nasghul” is just insane. However, other narrative choices fare better and it is great, for example, that even the antagonist, Valentine, eventually becomes more human instead of going full villain like in the horrible movie adaptation: it’s not that he is evil, he is just a coward with too much power on his hands.
With an interesting narrative that raises some relevant social discussions, Mortal Engines is a pretty good fantasy novel, which will hopefully mark the start of an excellent series of novels.
January 29, 2018.
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July 5th 2018 by Scholastic