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on April 2, 2004
With the Harry Potter craze currently in full swing, a lot of people are constantly looking for the "next" Harry Potter series. There are lots of contenders for the title; from the definite rip-off Charlie Bone series to the sly slightly evil Artemis Fowl. Personally, I've read a great deal of these and none really hit me as having the same moral core or elaborate well-constructed world that the Potter books conjure up. Until now, that is. With "Mortal Engines", the first in author Philip Reeve's "Hungry City Chronicles" we have the privilege of finally reading about a world that is just as creative, enjoyable, and exciting as anything J.K. Rowling could ever have imagined.
It is the future, and the world is not as it was. After humanity almost destroyed itself entirely in what became known as the Sixty-Minute War, civilizations have taken it upon themselves to become mobile. Cities, townships, and even suburbs now move across the land, eating anything smaller than themselves. This system is referred to as Municipal Darwinism with the strong eating the weak. The city of London is a particularly vicious devourer of smaller villages and it is here that we meet Tom. A young Historian, Tom idolizes the famed Historian and explorer Thaddeus Valentine and his lovely daughter Katherine. When Tom narrowly keeps a severely deformed girl from assassinating Valentine, he finds himself wound up in a series of betrayals and adventures that may well lead to the end of civilization once more.
The book is filled to the brim with interesting characters. There Grike, the last survivor of the old world who is more machine than man. Or Anna Fang, the red clad aviatrix that fights against the moving cities as an Anti-Tractionist. Or the pirate Chrystler Peavey that commands a posh pirate suburb and dreams of becoming a proper gentleman someday. You care for these characters, which makes it all the more painful when Reeve decides to kill them off. I've never read an author so ready to end the lives of his heroes with as much aplomb as Mr. Reeve, though I should've caught on when he killed off my favorite character almost exactly halfway through. Much like fellow British author Philip Pullman, Reeve has a knack for juggling multiple points of view and storylines without loosing his narrative thread. And like Pullman his story involves airships and a boy and girl on a quest to (in effect) save the world. Unlike Pullman, Reeve less interested in the how the characters' actions will affect the universe, and instead will affect their world.
I was especially taken with the theme of obsession in this book. The evil Mayor Chrome, leader of London, is obsessed with making his town reign supreme over the rest of the world. Hester Shawn, deformed by the blade of Thaddeus Valentine, is obsessed with killing the man who murdered her parents. And Grike, the man machine that was one of the millions of walking dead soldiers participating in the Sixty-Minute War, is obsessed with a kind of love for Hester Shaw (though he spends much of his time in this book hunting her down to be killed). It might have been nice to spend a little more time getting to know what the characters' lives were like before this book ever took place. I ended up wanting to know a lot more about Tom and Hester's families and the lives they lead, but there didn't seem to be enough time to linger over such details.
One objection to the American cover of "Mortal Engines". For the most part, the cover is very impressive, showing airships blowing up in front of the structure that is London. In the corner however are, who I can only assume is supposed to be, Tom and Hester. Tom is clutching a book, an odd choice since there is no point in the story where a book is important to his character. Hester, however, is completely wrong. The book describes her as have a huge gash down her face with a scar splitting her in two. Her nose is mashed in and she only has one eye. Now look at the cover. Apparently the cover artist decided that putting a deformed female would hurt "Mortal Engines"'s sales. So instead we've this cute little waif. Half her face is in shadow, yes, and there is the slightest hint of a scar on her forehead. But her nose is completely intact and she's smiling cheekily at the camera. Forgive me, but this is not the death obsessed horribly disfigured often crazed and violent Hester I came to love so much. Mr. Cover Artist, for shame.
The book itself, however, is a delight. I can't recommend it enough. Go out, buy it, read it, and tell me that you didn't think it was the greatest addition to the teen literary futuristic canon to come down the pike since "The Giver". When people review books they often rely on that old phrase, "I didn't want it to end". Well I actually didn't. Amazing. It's a great book and a fantastic story.
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on November 24, 2003
In the years beyond the 30th century, after life as we know it is destroyed in the Sixty Minutes War, the world is divided into three: the Static communities, who live in farms and buildings firmly stationed on the earth, the aviators, who travel the Bird Roads in the sky, and the Traction Cities, the giant cities on engineered wheels who live by the Municipal Darwinism - the big cities devour the little cities for their resources. And the biggest Traction City of them all is London, on the move for larger hunting grounds and more resources.
Living in London are two very different young people - Tom, a Third Class Apprentice in the History Guild, and Katherine, an upper class noble daughter of the famed archeologist Thaddeus Valentine, whom both of them adore for his bravery and exciting exploits. Yet after London destroys the small town of Salthook whilst the three of them are touring the Gut (the engineering belly of London), one of the refugees attacks Mr Valentine in a furious rage, and is only just stopped by Tom's intervention. Chasing her up the levels of the Gut, Tom corners her before a chute that leads to the desolate Out-Country, and is horrified beyond comprehension when Mr Valentine pushes the both of them down it. Now stranded in the Out-Country with the young lady named Hester Shaw, with the hideously disfigured face, Tom is pushed into a series of adventures including aviators, pirates, slave-traders and Static towns, during which he begins to realise: things do not exist as he has understood them. And all the while, they are being hunted by a tragic and fatal being known as Shrike...
Meanwhile, back in London, Katherine is doing some investigating of her own concerning the disappearence of Tom and the assassin. Once her father leaves on a mission which purpose he conceals even from her, she begins to find pieces of the puzzle concerning an Ancient piece of Old-Tech that is somehow wrapped up in Hester Shaw and her father's unspoken past. Together with a witness to Tom's fall, a lowly worker named Bevis Pod, Katherine learns the truth about her father, and the catastrophic plans the Mayor of London has in store for the device known as the MEDUSA.
The real enjoyment of this book comes from Philip Reeve's wonderful creation of an interesting and detailed (but without becoming too encyclopedic) world, set in a post-apocalyptic world where collosal cities trundle desolate plains, filled with relics of the Old World - the world as we know it today. Usually descriptions of machinery or other technicalities bore and confuse me, but Reeve writes with such clarity, that the city of London and its layered Tiers is brought to complete and convincing life. Likewise, the cultures found outside the cities are unique and interesting, and once Tom and Hester start out on their journey, its very likely one will be unable to resist exploring with them.
Storywise, the plot is simple, but with just enough twists to keep one interested. All the characters, even villians that at first glance appear one-dimensional have hidden motives to their actions, and the conflict between them and the cultures that they represent is believable, and morally complex. Only the ending disappointed me somewhat - Reeve seemed determined to kill off as many of his characters as possible, leaving me a little immune to the tragedy of death, and the conclusion ends more on a note of despair than hope for the future, given the sheer amount of death and destruction that the survivors leave in their wake.
Of all the major protagonists, the females end up being more interesting than the males, though in fact Tom is given the most attention. This is unfortunate, as I found myself disliking Tom for much of the story - he is a character like Lloyd Alexander's Taran in the Chronicles of Prydain, in that he dreams of glory, thinks highly of the wrong people, and holds tight to beliefs that the reader can see are false from the very beginning of the book. Unlike Taran however, it takes a long time for Tom to find self-realisation, and as such the reader feels on-going frustration for his ignorance and on-going commitment to make the wrong choices. However, he *does* eventually grow (albeit in a rather patchy manner), and through him Reeve addresses the important questions of life. Reeve's other hero, Bevin Pod is endearingly shy and uncertain of himself, showing immense bravery when he is aware of the horrors he would face in the Deep Gut should he be caught, and dotingly loyal to Katherine.
It is the girls that I found more likeable - Hester Shaw, an imbittered, independant young woman whose hideous face is an ongoing pain for one who loves and appreciates beauty, and lives only to bring death to the one who inflicted this upon her. Katherine at first glance appears as a "poor little rich girl", but is intelligent, resourceful, and has a clear idea in her mind of the differences between right and wrong.
"Mortal Engines" is ultimately a well-crafted book, along the lines of Phillip Pullman's "Northern Lights" and Garth Nix's "Sabriel/Lirael/Abhorsen" trilogy. If you liked the atmosphere and flavour of those two books, I strongly suggest "Mortal Engines" a go, and keep your eyes open for the sequel.
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on October 21, 2003
The Sixty Minute War ended western civilization leading to a new world order. The great cities do not reside in one place, but instead are mobile like Roman legions assaulting smaller locations. London has been reduced to one of these prowling giants, but recently concern has surfaced that with a lessening of prey among the midgets, other mega-metropolises will try to devour the big city.
As London chases after Salthook, fifteen years old apprentice historian Tom toils at what all rookies do. He cleans in his case the exhibits of the London Museum of Natural History. However, Tom's world changes when he rescues his hero, scavenger turned renowned archeologist Thaddeus Valentine from an assassination attempt. Tom's reward is apropos for an apprentice as he and the avenging assassin Hester Shaw are tossed out of the city into the vast wilderness. He learns from her why as she explains her connection to Valentine and the mayor. They team up to survive as Hester and Tom begin a series of adventures to stay alive.
Though classified as a children's fantasy, this complex tale can be enjoyed as a straightforward tale that young readers will appreciate or as a satire that adults will treasure. The characters are complex as Philip Reeve paints a picture that what is acceptable under certain conditions seems cruel under others as values are not quite as universal as we westerners would like to believe. MORTAL ENGINES is a winner for children and adults of all ages.
Harriet Klausner
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on February 17, 2004
I read a lot of YA fiction and a fair amount of sci-fi, so I appreciate truly new ideas. This is one: cities of the distant future give up on taking their sustenance from the land, and instead become mobile predators (or prey), chasing and devouring weaker cities while running from stronger ones. There are some fairly obvious parallels with (and allusions to) the wasteful, short-sighted, and self-destructive behaviors of our current era, but fortunately the author does not beat you over the head with them.
The plot is fast-moving and satisfyingly focused, and the characters are (mostly) three-dimensional and engaging. I was disappointed that (as another reviewer said) the body count was fairly high, partly because I'm a softie and partly because I would have loved to see some of those characters return in future books.
I don't quite see the comparison with Philip Pullman -- this book is not nearly as rich and complex as His Dark Materials. But it still has a lot to offer readers of dark, futuristic sci-fi -- plus an ending worthy of a Schwarzenegger movie.
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on January 27, 2004
I've read hundreds of books and a majority of them really good. Even though I don't have a favorite book I have three top favorite books and - This one's one of them. This book is great. Its in the far future but its not super hightech. What I really liked about this book is that it's set in the future but the technology in this time is all of its own. Its a comination of old levers and gears and robots-humans called Stalkers. Its great. The book takes place many years after the 60 minute war (how great is that!? A 60 MINUTE WAR). However there's one thing that makes these books better than any others. All the cities and towns and villages are on wheels. THey're called traction cities and the drive around barren Europe in search of prey - other cities to destroy and take their parts and sell the citizens as slaves for labor in other traction cities.
If the atmosphere of this book isn't what gets you to love it, it's the characters that will. The characters are so believabple, so in depth, so colorful, so deep - they're just amazing. And the author adds in so many secrets and hidden past about the characters - you'll love it. I highly recomend this book to anyone.
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on June 6, 2001
This is surely one of the greatest collections of 'linked short-stories' ever written -- it matches Calvino's COSMICOMICS and Borges' LABYRINTHS. Lem is a total genius. A writer of playful little fables that are also philosophically profound (and logically consistent). This book is a brilliant companion to Lem's THE CYBERIAD, with which it shares many themes and ideas. Lem has a beautiful style: he can make engineering terms sound poetic. His rigorously modern metaphors are as original as those of J.G. Ballard, but more varied and lyrical. For Lem, the Periodic Table is an unwritten poem. This book is the final and true ode, and each line is a fantastic, fabulous, incredible story. I give this book 200,000,000 stars. And that's only because I'm not feeling so generous today. It probably deserves A GOOGOLPLEX (1 to the power of 100 raised to the power of 1 to the power of 100) of stars. At least.
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on November 11, 2006
Philip Reeve weaves a fascinating world of airships and tank-like cities, intrigue and romance, action and adventure, without getting bogged down in the details of the world that Tom lives in. Despite the post-post-post apocalyptic setting, this is light reading. There are moments of wry humour, and well-paced action. And Philip occasionally produces a brilliant turn of phrase that stops me in my tracks.

That isn’t to say that it’s perfect. Far from it. Reeve has a flawed writing style that refuses to engage the reader with a consistent voice. Points of view jump from character to character within sections and, I’m sorry, but since I’ve had my head taken off for engaging in ping pong point of view, I don’t see why Reeve should get off so easy. Occasionally, the narrative switches from past tense to present tense, apparently just to annoy me.

But that’s easily overlooked by the drive of the story here. Reeve engages in some cliches, but deliciously twists others. For instance, when Tom and Hester are taken prisoner aboard the pirate suburb of Tunnbridge Wheels, Hester just happens to know the Lord Mayor, and tries to use that to get out of her predicament. The readership groans at the convenience of this, but it doesn’t work. Delightfully, their salvation comes out of nowhere; Reeve pulls a nice bait and switch.

And while some characters are cardboard, many are not. Tom is occasionally so naive as to not be believable, but that’s made up for by the fact that he gets an education in a hurry. The various characters of London, especially young Katherine, Valentine’s daughter, who investigates and discovers the truth about her dad, are engaging enough, but Reeve’s brilliance lies in the character of Hester. This poor, damaged, driven girl is ugly in every sense of the word: brutally disfigured, brutally violent, brutally cynical about the world around her. And yet Tom (and the readers) is able to discover a harsh beauty within her, in her clarity of purpose, in her determination, and in the occasional emergence of the shy girl that existed before Valentine slashed her face open. Her violent nature threatens to create a rift between her and Tom, but the story of their relationship is the engine that drives this series.
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on April 18, 2001
The Fairy Tale aspect of these tales may seem tiresome at first, but as you chew into these stories you discover that the annoyance is intentional and satirical. We are flawed, and often silly, machines; flailing about in a universe devoid of meaning and purpose. If anything, get this book for the stories "The Mask" and "The Hunt"; they are Lem's Finest.
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on May 30, 2002
Stanislaw Lem is one of my favorite writers and this book is a lot of fun to read, but it isn't the best Lem book (not all of his books can be 5 star masterpieces). Read Cyberiad first (if you like short, interesting and funny tales) since this book seems a little like left-overs in comparison.
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on May 9, 2004
Mortal Engines is one of those books that creates a world that is so fantastical that you can't beleive it but somehow it feels at if it is real. I love the way the several story lines weave together and you see diferent characters from totally diferent points of view. I also enjoy how there is a sort of 16 century flare to a book set far into the future. I would highly recomend this to any who wants likes adventures and sometimes thinks about what the world would be like if we had to start over again after a huge war with futuristic weapons.
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