While attending a movie recently, I was astonished to see a trailer for an upcoming steampunk movie, Mortal Engines. I had heard of the 2001 book by Philip Reeve but hadn’t read it. The premise was very imaginative albeit somewhat silly: in a post-apocalyptic world, cities went mobile to survive. They became huge steam-powered edifices on tank tracks, crawling across the barren landscape. Judging from the movie trailer, it would have action a-plenty.
The story is a far-future steampunk in which technology has regressed to a new Age of Steam. Due to catastrophic changes in the world’s climate, nearly all its cities have become mobile steam-powered hulks (“traction cities”) rumbling over the landscape in enormous tank treads. This fanciful notion works well for the book’s young adult audience as well as older readers that are willing to suspend their disbelief.
The main protagonists are Tom Natsworthy, a teenage apprentice in the Historian’s Guild, and Katherine, the young daughter of the renowned adventurer Thaddeus Valentine. Their home is the traction city of London. In this far-future world, climate change has created a land bridge from England to the Continent, so London is free to roam the vast “hunting ground” of the Eurasian plains. The hunters are not groups of men chasing animals but entire cities chasing each other. London pursues, captures and consumes smaller communities with its giant mechanical jaws. It then breaks up, melts down and recycles all the material of its victims. The citizens of the losing then assimilate into the lower classes of the victorious city. In cities less civilized than London, they might become slaves. Still, the predatory nature of the city’s economy is justified by the philosophy called “municipal Darwinism.”
Tom’s adventure starts when he meets Thaddeus Valentine, who besides being a municipal hero is also the leader of Tom’s guild. He takes particular interest in Valentine’s lovely daughter. In the midst of a celebration, a disfigured girl appears and attempts to assassinate Valentine, but Tom stops her. The frustrated assassin risks almost-certain death by escaping out through the city’s waste chute. Expecting Valentine to be grateful for saving his love, Tom is shocked when his hero pushes him down that same waste chute.
Tom survives the fall and finds himself stranded in the wasteland with the assassin girl, Hester. Though he despises her for trying to kill his hero, they must team up to survive. In their struggle to catch up to London (the cities can move quite quickly) they run across a succession of weird and unsavory characters. Back in London, Katherine worries about her father as he departs for a secret mission on behalf of the city’s despotic mayor, Magnus Crome. She suspects her father is hiding something from her, despite his insistence that he knows nothing about the assassin. Her attempts to investigate the mystery bring her into conflict with the city’s powerful and secretive Guild of Engineers.
As I expected, the story has plenty of non-stop action to keep the reader engaged. Though it’s not explicitly gory, it does have a fair amount of violence so I wouldn’t recommend it for young children. The story’s young heroes overcome numerous obstacles by using their wits, becoming smarter and stronger in the process. My main complaint is that there is a scene or two in which the characters survive by almost unbelievable circumstances. Yes, the entire premise is pretty crazy, but even if I’ve accepted that world, I don’t want things to work out too coincidentally. Nonetheless, it was generally entertaining, with numerous engaging characters both good and evil.
As I’ve said before, the steampunk world needs its own “Harry Potter” in order to gain acceptance from mainstream readers. Mortal Engines might just be that movie. If it’s anything like the book, it will be a great deal of fun.
I give the book 4.5 stars of out 5, deducting that half-star for a bit too much dumb luck on the part of the protagonists. Besides that, it’s top notch!
And for more top-notch steampunk entertainment, get my book Fidelio’s Automata available in both ebook and paperback on Amazon.