Literature Commentary: Mortal Engines

31 Aug

(Originally published June 28, 2009)

To all who may see this: if you’re looking for a good sci-fi or fantasy novel to read this summer, look no further. “Mortal Engines” is for you.

Lone Star book selections are generally a mixed bag. Sometimes they’re extremely poorly written and filled with moral trash, which makes a reader wonder how in the world it ever won an award. But on the other hand…there are sometimes Lone Star books that deserve all the praise they’ve received. “Mortal Engines,” by Philip Reeve, is one of the latter.

I picked up “Mortal Engines” after seeing it prominently displayed on the shelf of my local library. Set in the distant future, the book envisions a future in which all cities have been fitted with gigantic treads and prowl across the countryside, following the principle of “Municipal Darwinism.” Smaller towns are literally engulfed by larger cities, which then strip them of their resources and use them for raw materials and energy. Bizarre? Yes, but undeniably creative and extremely original.

Tom Natsworthy is a historian’s apprentice in the mobile city of London. When his attempt to thwart a murder goes awry, he finds himself abandoned in the European countryside with a girl bent on revenge against the man who disfigured her. Together, they set off across the ravaged landscape of post-apocalyptic Eurasia, meeting up with daring airship captains while dodging pirates and a lethal cyborg hunter. As they travel, they are forced to choose sides between the “Tractionists” who subscribe to the town-eats-town mentality prevalent throughout the world, and the “Anti-Traction League” which opposes such a mindset.

How to classify it? In a nutshell, “Mortal Engines” is a Dickensian, steampunk-based amalgam of “The City of Ember,” “The Golden Compass” and “Terminator.” It’s brilliant, fascinating, complex, imaginative, tragic, and haunting. I was completely amazed at how much I enjoyed this book…it was one of those rare volumes that had NO “unnecessary” boring scenes – every page was filled with compelling dialogue or memorable action scenes.

And “Mortal Engines” is certainly memorable. Swordfights, aerial chases, hand-to-hand combat…this book has it all. What’s more, the action never supplants character development – the characters are realistic, likeable, and dynamic. It’s such a relief to read about characters who actually want to do the right thing, and really care about each other…and it’s exactly the kind of thing I would love to write someday.

Objectionable content? There are a few mild swearwords, but nothing above PG material. On the other hand, the violence is frequent and brutal. The cyborg Grike has a tendency to tear apart his targets with razor claws, resulting in more than a few disturbing sequences. It is also worth noting that the ending, while not graphic, will almost certainly disturb sensitive readers. Honestly, “Mortal Engines” is a surprisingly mature book for the “teen” section of the library.

While not explicitly “religious”, “Mortal Engines” does contain some interesting food for thought. Themes of betrayal, poetic justice, and selfless sacrifice dominate the book. There really isn’t much of a cohesive worldview portrayed, though.

“Mortal Engines” certainly ranks among my favorite fantasy novels of all time. It is vastly superior to both the Inheritance Trilogy and the Harry Potter novels, and deserves all the critical acclaim it has received. In a market currently swamped with “Eragon” and “Twilight” clones, “Mortal Engines” is a breath of fresh air.

Somehow, I think British authors are better at writing fantasy than Americans. Don’t ask me why.

VERDICT: 10/10
Truly superb. As close to perfect as young adult fantasy gets.

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Posted by on August 31, 2009 in Sci-Fi


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