Philip Reeve, Mortal Engines (book one of The Hungry City Chronicles) (EOS, 2003)

'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.' — opening line of Mortal Engines


I've said it before in a review, but it bears repeating here — I, like all the reviewers here, often and luckily discover writers whose work is completely unknown to me. In Continuity recently, I mentioned that I had been reading a lot of science fiction courtesy of various publishers (Neal Asher's Gridlinked, Chris Moriarty's Solid State, Richard K. Morgan's Altered Carbon, and Charles Stross' Singularity Sky) even though we don't review science fiction. Well, most of the time we don't. Philip Reeve's Mortal Engines is just the sort of sf that we do review as it has the mythic feel and fantastical elements to it that make it much more than a merely excellent SF novel.

What Philip Reeve has written is a very strange and wonderfully imaginative post-apocalyptic future where — after the terrible Sixty Minute War, with its atomic and chemical weapons, stripped Earth bare of most of its resources, life, and human technology — most cities were, according to the tales told to the citizens of this Earth, mobilised in order to survive. (Those who didn't mobilise are part of what's called the Anti-Traction League!) London, like the other great Traction Cities, was rebuilt on tiered platforms and now, some two thousand years in the future, moves across the surface of a barren planet on huge caterpillar tracks, hunting its prey: other cities! Municipal Darwinism came into effect, a process by which larger mobilised cities eat smaller mobilised cities for their resources, and the smaller mobilised cities in turn consume the staionary settlements.

The tale opens in London, once a great traction city but now hungry for any meal as it's been too long since it ate. Here we meet orphaned fifteen-year-old Tom Natsworthy, a lowly member of the Historian's Guild, who is watching London consume Salthook. I really do mean consume as the lower level of London has a great set of hydraulic jaws that scoop up Salthook and deposit in the belly of the beast.

(Despite the belief of the inhabitants of London, it is not truly clear if this 'city' is London itself, or simply a technological beast named after London. They could be the cities whose names they bear, or not. If they are the cities, they bear little resemblance in a material sense to the cities of now. Certainly they are not akin the cities in James Blish's Cities in Flight series which were whole cities uprooted and tuned into starships!)

During the excitement that follows the city's clamping its huge jaws on a small mining town, Tom first assaults a more senior apprentice of the Guild, which results in getting assigned to the 'Gut' where consumed cities are salvaged, and then foils an assassination attempt against Thaddeus Valentine, head of the Guild whose adventures make him the target of more conservative Guild members. (Tom worships Thaddeus, and his a crush on Thaddeus' daughter.) The assassin is Hester Shaw, a horribly scarred young woman, blind in one eye, who jumps down a waste chute to escape. After Valentine pushes Natsworthy after Hester in an attempt to capture her, this City born and raised lad has his first encounter with the ruined earth below the City and doesn't like it one bit. Now given the general condition of this Earth in which most life such as blue whales has been extinct for thousands of years, that's not 'tall surprising!

(When we first encounter Tom, he's dusting in the London Museum's Natural History section. When London starts moving, the hanging models of whales and dolphins, long extinct as I previously noted, start shaking on their support wires.)

Now as London travels at sixty or so mph (!), Tom and Hester get left behind. Not a good idea 'tall. A series of adventures commences, on foot, by water, and even by air, in which Tom and Hester attempt to find their way back to London. They are captured by various groups including both pirates and slavers. Eventually they're helped by Anna Fang, an Anti-Tractionist operative, who manages to keep them alive and moving towards London as Grike, a Stalker (a sort of cyborg zombie made of a corpse and near mythical technology) attempts for unknown reasons to kill Hester. (Tom, when confronted with a Stalker, flatly refuses to believe it exists as it's but a nightmare told to children. Much, if not most of the past, exists now as but barely remembered myths as the Sixty Minute War wiped out almost all memory technology. Indeed the eating of other Cities is about the only way that the old technologies, like pot noodles, is discovered. Yes, pot noodles.)

They do, in good course, make it back to London. But Tom's adventures are hardly over as Valentine has been ordered by the Lord Mayor, a man who's not to be trusted, on a mysterious mission to Shan Guo, the nation which leads the Anti-Traction League. This League rules over what used to be South-Eastern Asia, India and China, but is safe from the Traction Cities as a Shield Wall surrounds this vast section of the planet. Meanwhile Valentine's daughter wants to know why Hester tried to assassinate her father, and what the mysterious MEDUSA technology is that her father salvaged.

Though this novel is marketed towards that ever elusive Young Readers niche, this is a good piece of speculative writing with believable characters, interesting plot lines, and a wonderfully odd setting which draws heavily on how a culture loses knowledge, which will entertain any reader for many hours. Given that is but the first book of The Hungry City Chronicles, I look forward to seeing where Reeves goes with this premise. The next novel, Predator's Gold, is already out in England, so I'm eagerly awaiting its arrival from the publisher!

[Cat Eldridge]