Weird and Wonderful Books – The Mortal Engine Quartet, why aren’t you reading this?
Remember my introduction? Good, because nostalgia and about twenty hours of Diablo 3 have left my own memories hazy. But I do remember something. I remember that when outlining my goals I mentioned a series about moving cities that eat each other. Well, I think it’s about time to elaborate. Heads up, a lot of this is just going to be me gushing over what is an awesome series. That being said, it’s not all going to be fluff, I do have some points.
So to start off, I want to tell you all a story. When I was about 13 I read a book entitled Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank. Alas, Babylon is the story of a small Floridian town surviving the resulting nuclear barrage when the Cold War goes hot. It chronicles roughly a year or two in the town’s new existence and it closely examines the lives of the people within. It’s an amazing book (and short too) that I heartily recommend. Within a year I had read a similar book called Earth Abides by George R. Stuart. Earth Abides is a similar yet different story that replaces the nuclear winter with a deadly strain of pneumonia. I loved Earth Abides as much as, if not more then I loved Alas, Babylon and from that year onward, the post-apocalyptic genre has become a favorite of mine. But I’ve always had a problem with the stories within the genre. Pretty much every book has the same setting, all of which is one or two variants on either of the two novels from before. The Mortal Engines quartet by Phillip Reeve changed all of that. The series, despite covering well-worn ground is fresh and exciting from the beginning.
So the setting is years after a horrible war that lasted about an hour. That being said, it must've been an eventful hour because the Sixty-Minute War devastated the planet. Most of the world east of the Himalayas is pretty much trashed and the Atlantic Ocean is about the size of a Great Lake, if that. So how do people survive? They live in cities that perched on the back of massive and mobile tanks. But Aetius, you call from the cheap seats, massive tanks mean massive treads and that would do the already ruined world no favors. You’d be right, and that’s kind of the point. The world beneath the treads of these massive cities doesn’t really matter to the people living aboard them because resources can be obtained from smaller towns or rather by eating smaller towns as each city is fitted with a massive mouth that can actually bite into and rip pieces off of other smaller tank/towns. The relationship between larger and smaller towns is akin to that between predators and their prey, with some mobile hamlets even fulfilling the role of herbivore by dragging their jaws along the ground to collect minerals and ore. Though because cities have no way of reproducing the system is inherently finite. The philosophy is referred to as Municipal Darwinism and it forms the backbone of the setting. I love the setting of the Mortal Engines quartet because it’s a fresh take on life after the end. The hour-long war that I mentioned earlier took place far into our own future and the surviving technology is the key to the continued success of Municipal Darwinism. But the world is also far more barbaric then our own. Cities are eating each other for Pete’s sake, that’s not civilized. But more then that, Reeve is excellent at world-building in general. In addition the tank-cities, the series features airships (which make everything better), a self-sustaining underwater colony organized like Fagan’s idea of Utopia, techno-zombies, intelligent techno-zombies with Wolverine-style claws, and a few flavors of super lasers. But a good world is only half the formula.
The other half is story and characters, both factors that Mortal Engines succeeds in throughout the four novels. The story focuses on Tom, a young man trained as a historian in the city of London, now one of the apex predators of Municipal Darwinism. As the first novel (aptly named Mortal Engines) opens, Tom is thrust into a new and very dangerous world and you could be forgiven for counting down waiting for clichés to be fulfilled. But much like myself, you’ll be surprised when those clichés aren’t only avoided but in some cases are readily recognized as being cliché. See, what’s great about Tom is that, much like yours truly, he’s a fan boy at heart and much like yourself, he is expecting certain things. The series’ other protagonist, who is introduced early on is Hester Shaw, a young woman with her own agenda. Hester is an excellent female protagonist because much like the recent Katniss Everdeen of The Hunger Games, she isn’t preoccupied with being a woman. The two leads work well together because of their dichotomy, Tom is a starry-eyed idealist and Hester is an amazing cynic.
Those who know me can tell you that idealism versus cynicism is a big deal to me, and in many ways the Mortal Engines quartet is why. Most of this can be attributed to Hester. She isn’t cynical in the way that most would think of it. She doesn’t wisecrack, she isn’t full of unwarranted angst and she doesn’t dwell on her problems. Instead, her character is defined by a very real and justified anger that is generally directed at the world. In contrast, Tom’s idealism, while a bit more generic, is never so overt that it gets annoying. But perhaps the best part of these characters and their relationship is that neither changes the other. Neither of the protagonists’ viewpoints is portrayed as being better then the other, especially since Toms’ talent for diplomacy perfectly offsets Hester’s talent for making things die. And these are just the two main characters. The series boasts an ensemble cast well into the dozens by the end of the fourth book and while some characters are one-dimensionally evil by the fourth installment, most of them are multilayered and interesting in their own right. This is the only series where my favorite character is a zombie of some sort.
The Mortal Engines quartet is grade-A, no nonsense, and amazingly awesome post-apocalyptic storytelling with a brain on its shoulders. It gets just about everything right and like most of my recommendations, it has awesome moments aplenty. One of which is the entire last chapter of final book in the series. I won’t spoil it for you, but the ending to A Darkling Plain is probably the best ending to a series that I’ve ever read. You have to experience it for yourself. The author, Phillip Reeve has also been writing a prequel series but I haven’t looked into it yet despite my being sure that it’s at least good. Next time, we explore speculative fiction and what would happen if none of us died. See you then.