The people of the future no longer live on the ground. In the time between our period, theirs, and the pivotal Sixty Minute War, they’ve moved onto enormous mobile cities known as Traction Cities, which carry them around the world to escape the geological dangers created by the Sixty Minute War…and also away from other cities. For the Traction Cities abide by the code of Municipal Darwinism, in which the bigger, stronger cities keep themselves running by devouring the smaller cities and their resources. As one character says, it’s a “town-eat-town” world.
In the midst of this municipal Survival of the Fittest are our protagonists, Tom Natsworthy, Katherine Valentine, and Hester Shaw. Tom is a third-class apprentice in the Guild of Historians, located on the impressive Traction City of London. Despite the difficulties of his work, he loves London and cheers it on when it chases and captures the smaller city of Salthook. In the course of the following city-wide celebration, he encounters Thaddeus Valentine, the dashing head of the Guild of Historians and a hero among Londoners, Tom included. More importantly, though, he encounters Valentine’s daughter, Katherine, with whom he is immediately smitten. He doesn’t have much time to be smitten, though, for in the flurry of activity, an assassin approaches Valentine with a knife, intending to do exactly what assassins do with knives. However, Tom is not about to let that happen. He rescues Valentine, in the process being knocked off of the London Traction City, and afterward finds that the assassin is actually Hester Shaw, a girl with a hideous scar and a story to tell—one that will change Tom’s impression of his beloved Traction City forever.
There is more plot, but all of it is a spoiler.
Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve is the first in The Mortal Engines Quartet/The Hungry City Chronicles/The Predator Cities series (This is another of those series that gets a new identity every time it’s rereleased), and is among the books that I consider the most perfect examples of steampunk. It has action, adventure, a unique and well-realized setting, political intrigue, character twists and turns galore, and on top of that, a whole city inhabited by airship pilots and all the epicness that ensues when a bunch of airship pilots find something to do battle over (among other awesomeness. There are Traction City pirates, too. And a pet wolf named Dog. And also a thing called MEDUSA which, avoiding spoilers, is terrifying for the characters involved with it, but thrilling to readers who want some exciting steampunk action).
The whole concept of Municipal Darwinism is what gives this novel its strong base. While the idea of a moving city is not original to Mortal Engines, the idea of a city chasing and eating another city is, and brings an interesting level of conflict to the world of the novel. This was one of those settings where, as with many sci-fi settings, my first reaction was “Ooo, I’d totally love to live on a Traction City and travel all over the world and chase other towns!” And then I realized that I live in Spartanburg, which as cities go is not that big, and as Traction Cities go means that it would totally be eaten by one of its many larger surrounding before it could even finish chasing the little towns around it. People who live in Spartanburg are even called Spartanburgers. We sound like food. We’d be doomed from the start. And we’d be doomed while on the run from the earth itself, since one of the results of the pseudo-nuclear Sixty Minute War was unpredictable geological upheaval. You want real stress? Try running from the ground you’re running on.
Of course, to the characters in the novel, all these novelties are old hat. They’re so used to Traction Cities that the whole idea of a static city seems weird and barbaric to them, as does the Anti-Traction League, a group of protected nations determined to maintain their static cities, and who occasionally perpetrate alleged terrorist attacks on Traction Cities…in protest of the activities which the Anti-Traction League finds barbaric. This contributes to what I found to be one of the most satisfying elements of the book. While it has adventure and explosions and everything else that I find entertaining in a novel, it also presents some interesting moral and ethical questions, and explores all sides of every side presented in the novel. Though the story in the novel has a clear set of antagonists, the world of the novel is composed of several different shades of moral gray, many of which change shades over the course of the narrative. Allegiances and animosities that the readers have at the beginning are changed in nearly every chapter when readers happen upon haunting new information. Questions about the world itself arise—how ethical is it, exactly, for a city to eat another city, even when the limited availability of natural resources necessitates it? What are the moral implications of resurrecting the dead as memory-less half-machines (another technology that plays a significant role in the plot)?
This is a novel that makes the reader question everything it presents as awesome in the first few chapters, and for that, I love it. It’s simultaneously a fun adventure novel and a thinking person’s novel. Because of that, I cannot wait to read the remaining three books in The Mortal Engines Quartet(/The Hungry City Chronicles/The Predator Cities).
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