Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve

I'll be including spoilers in this post: regular readers of Steampunk Scholar should be aware I don't so much review a work as comment on it for my research, and that often requires spoilers. I'll warn you when they're coming. That said, I want to make it very clear that I really enjoyed Philip Reeve's Mortal Engines series, and highly recommend it.

I don't just recommend it to those who "enjoy Young Adult (YA) reading," though the book was marketed to the YA crowd. I recommend it to those who enjoy a smart adventure story that isn't filled with tired cliches. Unlike many YA writers, Reeve doesn't flinch at killing off major characters (okay, that's not totally true - he tweeted about the difficulty of doing this recently), or rejecting easy relational dynamics. This book has some tough moments, and Reeve forces his reader to stare at them. The YA market is full of bloodless redemption and neat happy endings. While Mortal Engines isn't the nihilistic morass Perdido Street Station closes on, it certainly isn't the romantic optimism of Kenneth Oppel's Airborn series, or the tidy conclusion of S.M. Stirling's Peshawar Lancers.

Yesterday's post was about a moving castle. Reeve one-ups Miyazaki and Wynne-Jones with a moving city. Mortal Engines opens with one of the best hook-lines I've read in a steampunk book: "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" (1). In one sentence, the readers can guess they're dealing with a post-apocalyptic setting, since a large body of water has dried up, and London is no longer confined to the banks of the Thames, it's clearly an alternate reality or history -- in this case, a future one. London is described as a "mountain of metal that rose in seven tiers like the layers of a wedding cake, the lower levels wreathed in engine smoke, the villas of the rich gleaming white on the higher decks, and above it all the top of  St. Paul's Cathedral glinting gold, two thousand feet above the ruined earth" (2). Now the reader is given the foundation for what will follow: a polemic of class difference and St. Paul's Cathedral, which figures largely into the novel's climactic moments. Further, Reeve employs a food metaphor to describe this hungry city, which is pursuing the small mining town in order to "devour" it. In the future of Mortal Engines, larger cities prey on smaller ones, disabling them, and then dismantling them with "circular saws as big as Ferris wheels" (16). 

Spoilers Ahead: The class difference leads the reader down two storylines: that of Tom, a Third Class Apprentice to the Guild of Historians, and that of Katherine Valentine, the upper-class daughter of Thaddeus Valentine, the novel's villain. Tom is in many ways, a typical YA hero, which Reeve will use to his advantage, since his standard boy-hero description sets up certain expectations in the reader which will be alternately realized and rejected: "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" (5). Katherine Valentine is that beautiful girl. But where the average YA novel would engage in a love story between the classes, Reeve only teases, ultimately abandoning it as Tom is thrust out of London into the wide world. There he encounters Hester Shaw, a mysterious girl who wears a mask to cover scars. It is Hester who will ultimately become Tom's love interest. Again, standard YA practice would be to mildly scar the female love interest:
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 mashed stump, and her single eye stared at him out of the wreckage, as gray and chill as a winter sea. (31)
If there's ever a film of Mortal Engines, it's going to require a brave casting director to choose Hester, and an even braver director to follow through with Reeve's description of her. Yet it's not only Tom who engages in a romance transgressing class boundaries. Katherine Valentine finds love with Bevis Pod, a young apprentice Engineer. Her relationship with Bevis is made all the more poignant by its proximity to Katherine's revelation that her father is the villain: there is an aspect of having turned to him because she has nowhere else to turn; yet the desperation of her situation and its ultimate outcome make this all the more bittersweet. And while Reeve utilizes some familiar narrative devices, such as the "call to adventure," he does so in a manner consistent with his characters. Tom doesn't so much answer the call to adventure as get the phone shoved into his hand. He is pushed into his adventure, and becomes a reluctant hero - yet unlike other reluctant heroes, it takes Tom nearly the whole book to change his entrenched views about the superiority of Londoners, or the inferiority and villainy of the Anti-Traction League. His change is revealed slowly, in the way we all make change - fingers clutching the beliefs we once held, refusing to let go. While these aren't characters realized in a way that would bring high literary praise, they are all well-rounded and dynamic. I didn't simply turn pages to know what happened next -- I turned pages to know what happened next to these characters that drew me in.

I'll digress here to comment that this is the failing of the really bad steampunk I've read. It's a failing of all literature, but at least the standard page-turner has elements to keep you interested. When steampunk's characters are bad, I feel no compulsion to find out what happens next, mainly because a number of steampunk texts are so derivative of nineteenth century narratives, that it's all too predictable. Halfway through George Mann's The Affinity Bridge, I just stopped reading. I didn't care about the caricatures characters enough to go on. By contrast, it's why I finished Boneshaker, despite no longer being gripped by the plot: I wanted to know what happened to Briar Wilkes. I wanted to know if Minnericht was Zeke's father. Many new steampunk writers seem to think that if enough shit blows up, or enough "anachronistic technology" is described, they'll have a successful steampunk work on their hands. Books work because their characters work. My dislike of Chenda and the Airship Brofman wasn't because Emily Bush can't write engaging characters: it was because I found those engaging characters inconsistent - not dynamic, but inconsistent. I really like Chenda Frost and Candice Mortimer: and I continued to like Chenda, while being pretty disappointed by Mortimer. But, as I said, I digress.

In my "Leaving London" article for Exhibition Hall, I make comment on how Reeve has crafted Anna Fang, an exception to steampunk's avoidance of Asian characters:
Of the exceptions to this, Philip Reeve’s Miss Anna Fang in Mortal Engines is one of my favorites. Instead of being presented first as an ‘oriental’, Fang is simply described as a woman in a red coat. It’s only after she removes her sunglasses that Reeve describes her ‘dark and almond shaped eyes” (88). Anna Fang, a.k.a. Feng Hua, the Wind Flower is a legendary aviatrix, a dangerous sword fighter, and engineer of her airship the Jenny Haniver, which she constructed to escape slavery. If steampunk is supposed to mirror the nineteenth century, then the rebellion against Empire should be decidedly multi-ethnic, mirroring the racial makeup of the Matrix films’ resistance. Reeve offers such a resistance in his Anti-Traction League, described as a mix of nations: “blond giants from Spitzbergen and blue-black warriors from the Mountains of the Moon; the small dark people of the Andean statics and people the color of firelight from jungle strongholds in Laos and Annam" (275-76).
I've referred to Anna Fang as a thoroughly steampunked Han Solo, right down to the hunk-of-junk fastest-ship aspect:
The ship that hung at anchor there was not the elegant sky clipper Tom had been expecting. In fact, she was little more than a shabby scarlet gasbag and a cluster of rusty engine pods bolted to a wooden gondola.
"It's made of junk!" he gasped.
"Junk?" Miss Fang laughed. "Why, the Jenny Haniver is built from some of the finest airships that ever flew! An envelope of silicon silk from a Shan Guo clipper, twin Jeunet-Carot aero-engines off a Paris gunship, the reinforced gas cells of a Spitzbergen war balloon..." (89)
Yet it is Fang and the Anti-Traction League's ethnicity which is of interest, given that, despite the inclusion of "blond giants from Spitzbergen," they are largely 'Eastern' ethnicities. To continue engaging in the Star Wars comparison, the Traction City of London is the Death Star, and the Anti-Traction League behind their Shield Wall at Batmunkh Gompa the rebel base. Unlike Luke Skywalker though, Tom is a citizen of the Empire, fiercely advocating for its ways to the rebel leaders:
"London's not a barbarian city!" shouted Tom. "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!" (273)
Only moments later however, looking out over the city, he has an epiphany that will decide his place in the oncoming battle:
Below him the rooftops and terraces of Batmunkh Gompa stretched away into the shadows below the white shoulders of the mountains, and he found himself trying to imagine what it must be like to live here and wake up every day of your life with the same view...And suddenly he felt terribly sad that the whole bustling, colorful, ancient city might soon be rubble under London's tracks. (274)
Tom's character arc takes the reader on a journey that the steampunk aesthetic demands, but often forgets or ignores. In my article on Steampunk Star Wars, I make the point that "the Empire is West, not East." While Lucas may have based his Empire on Germany, a steampunked Empire should be British (Lucas gave us the right accents, at least!). The rebellion should be a mix of peoples from lands under the Empire's boot: India and China, and a host of countries in the southern latitudes (if I had time, I'd make a comparison with Jay Lake's Mainspring here, but that will have to wait). I applaud Reeve for doing that very thing. Like Bastable in Moorcock's Warlord of the Air, Tom joins the non-Eurocentric resistance, to fight the oppression he can now see clearly.

Of course Mortal Engines can be enjoyed as an adventure tale without any appeal to deeper meaning. Like Westerfeld's Leviathan, it can be read at this deeper level with no small reward. This is a novel about London becoming the most powerful Traction City in the world. If it accomplishes it's goals, it will be the Traction Engine equivalent of the Death Star: "The Guild of Engineers plans further ahead than you suspect. London will never stop moving. Movement is life. When we have devoured the last wandering city and demolished the last static settlement, we will begin digging" (345). One need only look at the disparity in consumption between First and Third worlds to see a metaphorical equivalence worthy of any decent Social Studies classroom. For those of you looking to find opportunities to utilize steampunk in your curriculum, Mortal Engines is a great place to start. And for those of you writing "adult" fiction, you might want to take a closer look at the supposed "Young Adult" steampunk novels. They are more adept at subverting typical steampunk elements: sure, Mortal Engines takes place in London, but London is taking place all over the place! Yes, there are airships, but they are largely the mode of travel for the rebels, and they meet at a floating city called Airhaven, where air pirates speak "Airsperanto" at the Gasbag and Gondola, and avoid vigorous over-brushing of the hair, lest it create static electricity, a spark, and an explosion (which is why Anna Fang has short hair) (103-107).  Without hesitation, I would say that the most original writing in steampunk is happening in the Young Adult market, and Philip Reeve's Mortal Engines stands as one of the finest examples. Anyone who can mix social commentary into a novel that's this much fun deserves a hearty round of applause.

Check out the Mortal Engines website. It's gorgeous.

NOTE: Mortal Engines has a number of great examples of the steampunk aesthetic as I've outlined it. I'll likely post about all that in the future, but for now I'll save it for the dissertation. I don't want to start sounding like a broken record.


  1. I love Mortal Engines, and I agree it is some of the finest steampunk writing available.

    Also YA, have you read Catherine Webb's Horatio Lyle series? Not as serious as Reeve, but well written, with engaging characters.

  2. I'm not familiar with it Niko - I'll have to add it to the list! Thanks!

  3. You also check out Oisin McGann's 'Ancient Appetites' and Eoin Colfer's 'Airman'. Both are Irish efforts at YA steampunk, the first about a family with an unnatural connection to 'Engimals', living machines, the second is the Count of Monte Cristo with gears.

  4. Thank-you for the recommendations Harmsden! And I noticed on Twitter your tweet about Philip Reeve trying to distance himself from steampunk. I'm going to comment about it in my post on Larklight, but I'll say in the meantime that well-made points aside, I'm pretty disappointed in his post.

  5. Oh lord, I must read this NOW despite my (albeit limited) knowledge of plot least you didn't say the ending, though I can guess. Hmph. I hope nobody dies.

    Just wondering, did you read the other two Airborn books? And what didn't you like about them?

  6. Oh lord, I must read this now. I just finished Airborn (about to start the sequel, so don't give anything away), and I'm wondering what you disliked about it so much?

  7. Marena, I'm utterly confused...I don't mention Airborn here at all. Are you thinking Kenneth Oppel is Philip Reeve? I love Oppel's Airborn series, start to finish. One of my faves. Sorry if you got the impression I didn't like Airborn. I like Philip Reeve too! I don't review books per se - I critically analyze them. Sometimes I likely sound harder on the writers than I mean to!

  8. Hi,

    Nice review - I remember reading Mortal Engine when it first came out, some ten years ago now. Even then, when I still fitted into the "Young Adult" category of book readers, it struck me as an extraordinarily well crafted tale, and that was before the more recent influx of "steam punk" stories.

    As an aside, I couldnt get into Boneshaker. Perhaps the characters were ok, but I found it distinctly unengaging.

    Moving on, have you read "The Etched City" by K.J. Bishop? It is a superb book, although not steam punk in the truest sense, it certainly touches on some of the themes. I'd highly recommend it.

    Cheers - just discovered your blog today and am enjoying it.

  9. I hadn't heard of "The Etched City," but I've taken a look at it over at Amazon - looks very cool. I'll be looking into that one, for sure...just as soon as I get through this never-ending stack of review books. *Sigh*


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