In this unique and innovative novel, set a thousand years in the future, the surface of Earth has been corrupted beyond all recognition, and cities have been forced to mount themselves in order to catch ‘prey’ (smaller, weaker cities), which they digest, after a fashion, to help them survive. Tom Natsworthy, a young apprentice in London’s Guild of Engineers, yearns to go on adventures of the sort that his idol Thaddeus Valentine goes on all the time. However when a young disfigured assassin, Hester Shaw, tries to kill Valentine, Tom’s world is really turned on its head. He is forced to live on the ‘Bare Earth’, an idea totally alien to him, and he comes to learn more about his hero than he would have wanted. Though this may seem formulaic, Reeve injects a very welcome style of arch and knowing humour, to prevent any cloying sentimentality from creeping in. There are references to our culture today, however they are obscured by time; for example people in Mortal Engines believe that Mickey and Pluto are the animal-headed gods of America, much in the same way that we think of Anubis and Horus as gods of Egypt!
In Mortal Engines, Philip Reeve has created something startlingly original. The universe of ‘Municipal Darwinism’ seems fully formed within Reeve’s head, and its realisation is brilliant. For examples the concept of ‘Anti-Tractionism’ seems totally real within this universe, as do all the prejudices felt towards it by those who live on Traction Towns. Reeve has even created new terms e.g. ‘urbivore’, ‘scavenger suburb’ and ‘static settlement’ (what we would know today as normal houses). This is all played through with a brilliantly dry sense of humour (e.g. Tunbridge ‘Wheels’, as opposed to ‘Wells’), and turn of phrase akin to that of Terry Pratchett or Douglas Adams. Certainly the innovation is of the same standard. It would be quite easy for me to rave all day about the idiosyncrasies and invention that abounds in Mortal Engines, however that would ruin the delight and relish that can be taken in reading this exceptional work for the first time.