Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve - a quick review

edited January 2019 in Book Reviews

This is a first attempt of the year to keep up with reviews, albeit short ones.
I bought Mortal Engines purely on spec, based on the blurb, and before the film appeared in cinemas. It is the first of a series of books, variously called The Mortal Engines or Predatory Cities Quartet, but it is self-contained. I gather the film has not been a commercial success, but I haven't seen it and am not reviewing it.
The setting is a dystopian world set many centuries after a cataclysmic war - the war is never described in detail, but clearly involved the use of some kind of high-tech weapons which, apart from killing a large fraction of the population, changed the geography of the world's surface. Cities have, for the most part, gone mobile by means of wheels and caterpillar tracks, and pursue each other over the wastelands in order to plunder others - occupants are enslaved, resources stolen. The logic of city pursuit tends to favour larger cities, but small ones can scavenge a living round the edges by lurking in terrain impassable to the large ones. As the story opens, resources have become scarce and the future is unclear.
We learn as the book progresses that there is also a dissident population of static cities, protected from being ravaged by a belt of mountains. There's also airships and similar small conveyances, and the whole thing has a steampunk feel despite being far removed from that genre's original setting.
We largely follow the fortunes of London, the leaders of which are trying to resurrect old bits of war technology in order to defeat their enemies - this aspect of the story feels rather like Hiero's Journey, or Riddley Walker, in that some people are horrified by the prospect of deliberately calling back the old forms of death.
The personal story overlaid on this is definitely Young Adult in tone (though clearly any age at all could be targeted using the same basic setting) and as such, relies quite heavily on coincidences of meeting. Relationships are, by and large, fairly simple (whether amicable or hostile) and the progression towards the conclusion has only a few surprises.
I really liked this book, chiefly because of the world sketched out by Philip Reeve. You could set a whole host of different stories (or role-playing games) in this world, at various times along the indicated timeline. For my personal taste, I would have preferred a more adult treatment, but that is secondary compared to the persuasiveness of the world itself. 5* for me on the basis of the extent to which I became gripped by the tale, though there are definitely a few shortcomings as a novel.


  • 1

    Thanks for the review, @RichardAbbott ! I was kind of intrigued by these when I first heard about them, but could never quite decide if the concept of moving, predatory cities was interesting or gimmicky. I think I fell of the fence on the gimmicky side.

  • 2

    Dark Sun had moving steam-punk like cities that walked on giant legs. Thanks for the review.

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