Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve

Years ago (in 2011) I read Larklight by Philip Reeve. I’d opportunistically bought Mothstorm too (but maybe not the second one, Starcross), thinking I would read the whole series. I didn’t. Larklight was as dull as an old cast-iron skillet and despite its thickness not nearly as effective as a weapon.

Months ago a friend described the predator cities series to me, and although it was written by this same Reeve, it sounded interesting. When I heard that Mortal Engines is coming to theaters this year, I was excited that yet another young adult fantasy book has been adapted for film, and, with guarded optimism, I arranged to borrow the series of four books. (Turns out, I jumped the gun… the movie isn’t out until December!)

Hours ago, I finished reading Mortal Engines. Much as not finishing the series feels like quitting, I think reading the other books would be a chore for me, so I’m not going to do it.

Did Mortal Engines win awards? Was it imaginative? Was it thrillingly action-packed? Did the characters make important decisions and change as a result of their experiences? Yes. Did I enjoy it? Not particularly.

I think my issue is one of style. The premise is that centuries from now people live in mobile cities that prey on one another in accordance with “Municipal Darwinism”. That’s an interesting premise, but the writing made the characters seem like cartoony caricatures even when serious stuff was happening. There was a lot of action, not so much reflection. The inventive details seemed like so many cheap fireworks thrown out to dazzle momentarily and then fade into nothing.

See below for more comments about the writing style in addition to a plot summary with SPOILERS in the form of a beat sheet in the style described in Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat.

My beat sheet for Mortal Engines

Opening Image
Tom, an apprentice historian in the London museum, thinks he has it bad because his boss won’t let him take a break from dusting to go outside and watch London swallow the town of Salthook.

London is on the move in search of prey, having recently entered the hunting grounds for the first time in forever. Nobody really knows where it’s going, though, or why it’s headed there at top speed… Tom goes down to the lower levels of London look for antiques in the remains of Salthook and encounters his hero, an important archaeologist named Valentine, and meets his lovely daughter, Katherine, whom he immediately likes and wants to impress.

An assassin who came on board at Salthook tries to kill Valentine, but Tom stops her, feeling overjoyed about the opportunity to do something as unbelievably heroic as save his personal idol. He then chases down the unsuccessful assassin, sees the horrid scars on her face, which she claims are Valentine’s doing, and learns that her name is Hester Shaw. He sees that Valentine recognizes her. She jumps down the rubbish chute. Valentine apologetically pushes Tom down the chute after her because he’s seen and heard too much. Valentine assumes they’re both conveniently dead, but later the mayor sends agents to chase them down and make sure, because if they’re not dead, they could ruin everything.

Debate / Break into Two
Hester is injured and must accept Tom’s help, even though he’s the reason she was unsuccessful in killing Valentine, lost the bag with the first-aid kit in it, and got shot in the leg in the first place. They both want to return to London, albeit for different reasons.

Promise of the Premise / B Story
Tom and Hester get kidnapped and nearly sold as slaves, but are rescued by a feisty old pilot who takes them to a city in the air. An undead cyborg shows up and (in accordance with how it’s been programmed by evil engineers in London) tries to kill Hester and Tom, though Hester claims it’s a friend of hers who took care of her after she lost her parents. To evade this monster, Tom and Hester steal a balloon. After landing in a swamp, they hitch a ride on what turns out to be a suburb with a pirate for a mayor. The uncouth mayor asks Tom to teach him etiquette, but first sails the suburb across a lake to the island where the damaged flying city has landed. In his enthusiasm to attack, he accidentally wrecks the suburb, killing almost everyone on board—including his own daughter. (Problematic parent-child relationships are a recurring motif in this book.) As the flying city lifts off, the pirate mayor falls in a bog and one of his men contemptuously shoots him. Hester and Tom are about to be shot as well, but the cyborg shows up and claims them for himself. Hester is willing to be killed and made into an immortal companion for the cyborg, but Tom thinks that’s a bad idea. Plus, he doesn’t want it to kill him, so he kills it instead. Then he and Hester ride to the Himalayas with the feisty pilot, a spy for the Anti-Tractionist League headquartered there.

Back in London, Katherine confers with Pod, an engineer peripherally involved in chasing Hester after she tried to assassinate Valentine. They are both worried about what the engineers and the mayor are planning because there are rumors that they are making more cyborgs and preparing to activate the MEDUSA weapon, whatever that is.

Bad Guys Close In
The engineers fire the MEDUSA weapon at a huge city, destroying it. Katherine and Pod and the historians are horrified, but nobody else is. The secret plan is that London will fire the weapon at the wall in the Himalayas that protects the static cities from the mobile ones. Then London can eat to its heart’s content.

All Is Lost / Dark Night of the Soul
Valentine destroys the defenses at the wall, kills the feisty pilot, and flies back to London. Katherine discovers that Valentine (her very own dear father!) killed Hester’s parents for the MEDUSA weapon. Then she learns that he is party to and has been going along with the mayor’s evil plans.

Break into Three
Katherine and Pod plot to destroy the weapon. Hester and Tom take the feisty pilot’s airship to London.

A London bully foils Katherine and Pod’s plan, and their bomb is confiscated; Pod will be sent to sicken and die on the lowest of the lower levels and then be turned into a cyborg. However, the old historians rally to overcome Katherine and Pod’s captors and show them a way to get the bomb upstairs. Upstairs, Pod dies protecting Katherine, Katherine dies protecting Hester (her half-sister!), Tom shoots two of Valentine’s goons out of the sky in self-defense, Hester escapes London with Tom, and the MEDUSA weapon backfires and blows up the city and everyone in it.

Final Image
Hester and Tom are on the airship, two orphans with blood on their hands, arguably for the right reasons.

Further thoughts on Mortal Engines

Flippant tone
The book left me with a sugary, frivolous feeling, as if I was being talked down to and expected not to notice. I now read books for children and teens—and for that matter, fantasy books and almost every other kind of fiction—less often than I used to. Still, I know that just because a book is written for young people, it doesn’t have to sound condescending. The Divergent series, for example, was a much more enjoyable post-apocalyptic teen adventure, one I was eager to continue reading all the way through. For a steampunk flavor, try the excellent Leviathan trilogy by Scott Westerfeld. In both cases, the setting is just as ridiculously science-fictiony, but the writing is different in tone, and gives a stronger sense of respect for the characters and the reader.

Irrelevant similes
Some of Reeve’s similes took me right out of the world he had constructed. The one that comes to mind is the klaxon that “began lowing like a frightened bull.” Mortal Engines largely follows the adventure of a lifelong resident of the mobile city of London, where there seems to be no room for livestock. Even the richest people eat algae and meat-substitute. Why, then, is a bull mentioned? The sound comes from our world, not the world of the book. I had the same thought when the narration mentioning a thrown club hitting the deck with the sound of a glockenspiel. That’s a word fit for a wholly unobjectionable elementary school music class, not a bloodthirsty post-apocalyptic city. Unsuitable vivid imagery makes it seem the author was trying too hard—and yet not hard enough.

Outdated exoticism
I had the same “uh… good try… I guess” kind of feeling about the names and descriptions of foreign people and places. To me it felt like the author was merely signposting ethnic diversity and geography by dropping in a few cliche words and phrases. There’s even a joke where the Londoner refers to “the Sultana of Palau Pinang” as “the Raisin of Somewhere-or-Other”. I tend not to like jokes that hinge on ignorance. Ignorance of other cultures seems in particularly bad taste. Worst of all, this joke hinges on the ignorance of the protagonist with whom we’re meant to identify!

Classist theme?
Valentine was an admirably drawn villain: he had a motivation that made him, if not admirable, at least understandable. He wanted a better life for his daughter. However, his comeuppance is that his daughter dies to save her half-sister, whom he had tried to murder. One wonders whether the implicit message is that there’s a place for everyone, which is where everyone should stay; that the daughter didn’t deserve a better life; that she deserved to die for her father’s sins. Surely not? Surely the book’s message is that the daughter (and her boyfriend, and the pirate mayor) only had to die because the society they all lived in is utterly broken and not to be emulated under any circumstances?

“Everybody’s dead, Dave.”
There’s actually rather a lot of death. How is it that the book nevertheless feels so frivolous? The pirate suburb crashes on a reef and drowns almost everyone aboard. An entire four-city “conurbation” dies to showcase the power of the MEDUSA weapon. Subsequently, the weapon’s catastrophic failure kills not just the evil engineers who built it, but all the Londoners, who are guilty insofar as they, too, embrace Municipal Darwinism. Tom, the naive protagonist, shoots down an airship with two henchman in the gondola during the climactic battle, and (appropriately) those two particular deaths change him. It’s true what they say: A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths are a statistic.

No sh*t, Sherlock!
Tom’s naivety gives rise to not a little dramatic irony. I don’t like stories with unreliable narrators, i.e., stories where what you’re told is different from what’s actually happening. Tom is rather annoyingly oblivious, or at least ignorant, so whenever we see the world from his viewpoint, certain facts (notably Valentine’s villainy) are contested. However, Tom’s not really the narrator, which means that the reader knows all the mysteries and secrets long before he does, and has to wait eons for him to catch up. I think I’d rather follow a protagonist who, like the famous detective, knows more than I do, not less.

Past and present
If a whole book is in present tense, I might not notice for a while, or I might notice but then get used to it. Reeve uses past tense for most of the book but then uses present tense when narrating from the undead cyborg’s point of view. Putting only part of a book in present tense just calls attention to the associated weirdness, because there’s no time to get used to the present tense before the text switches back to past tense again. This scattered use of present tense strikes me as inappropriately casual and unsubtle. Because we tell stories in present tense when pitching or summarizing them (as I’ve done above), I felt as if Reeve had stopped me on the sidewalk to talk about a manuscript he was still working on: “So then, right, there’s this monster, and—this is great!—he’s, like, you know, trudging forward tenaciously across the bottom of a lake, see, and his eyes are glowing and stuff, and it’s really creepy, am I right? Oooooarrrgh! And then…”

I didn’t like the gross-out humor. This is clearly a book written for little boys by a former little boy. Sure, there are girls who giggle at whole scenes full of poop references and paragraphs of dialog about disgusting food, but not this one. When it comes to comedy, there’s low-hanging fruit and there’s fruit that’s just plain rotten. I’ll pass, thanks.

I kept waiting to be told what the acronym MEDUSA stood for. (It’s not just me: Shmoop points out that it’s never explained.) It’s in all caps, so it’s not just a word for a scary monster chosen as the name of a weapon. The “USA” at the end obviously stands for the United States of America, because there’s no way that combination of letters is a coincidence, especially since America (the dead continent) is where the device was found. Maybe the first three letters are something like “military extermination device”, or maybe they are something more science-fictiony, like “multivalent ectoplasmic disintegrator”. I assume the lack of explanation was not simply an oversight, that there’s some reason for the omission. Maybe the device comes back later in the series: some other villain builds another one, and then we find out what the name means. Or maybe at the last minute Reeve or his publisher backed down from maligning the US military so overtly but left the acronym in place.

Plot vs. character
My problem with Larklight, as best I can recall, was that the protagonist didn’t do anything apart from get pushed around by the plot. That’s okay for some kinds of thriller where the character really isn’t the point, but Tom’s narration straight-up tells us he is “sick of being swept to and fro across the world by other people’s plans.” You can see that statement as a sign that Tom has matured enough to start making his own plans, or you can see it as an example of a character voicing a problem with the author’s work that the author is only vaguely aware of. TV Tropes calls this “Who Writes This Crap?!” and Turkey City Lexicon calls it a “Signal from Fred”. Either way, when you get a signal like that, you should listen. Reeve apparently did. Mortal Engines is fairly plot-heavy, but at least the characters faced and made their own decisions at key moments, such as when Tom made the pirate mayor free Hester. Well done, Tom.

When and Why I Read Mortal Engines

I figured I’d read at least one of these books before seeing the movie.

Genre: fiction (YA fantasy)
Date started / date finished: 02-Mar-2018 / 04-Mar-2018
Length: 293
ISBN: 0439979439
Originally published in: 2001
Amazon link: Mortal Engines