I’m a big fan of Philip Reeve’s remarkable “Hungry City Chronicles” – or, as it’s known in Britain, the “Mortal Engines Quartet.” The books combine intense action and extraordinary imagination in a style reminiscent of Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” trilogy – although the anti-God content is entirely absent. When I heard that Reeve had released a prequel, “Fever Crumb,” I knew I had to read it.
Set hundreds of years before the events of “Mortal Engines,” “Fever Crumb” follows the adventures of the titular character, a young orphan girl in the care of London’s Engineering Corps. Recognizing her remarkable potential and quick mind, the Engineers send Fever to live with archaeologist Kit Solent, who is on the verge of unlocking the secrets of an ancient technology.
But all is not well in London. The city is still reeling from the Scriven Wars – a violent conflict between the white-skinned citizens of London and a race of genetic mutants with speckled skin. Haunted by the horrors they’ve witnessed, many Londoners are displaying xenophobic tendencies – some even hunting down and killing people with skin different from their own.
As the novel progresses, Fever must confront the menacing secrets of her past, while simultaneously looking to the future: huge cities mounted on tank treads (the first “Traction Cities” of the series) are bearing down on London, consuming all in their path. But are the inhabitants of the cities really conquerors…or are they liberators?
Just like the other books in the series, “Fever Crumb” is brilliant. With an entirely new cast of characters, Reeve has the freedom to experiment with all-new settings and plot devices. While still linking the story to his earlier series – the origins of the cyborg Shrike (“Grike” in U.S. editions) are finally explained – Reeve takes the book in a unique and fascinating direction. It’s creative, original, and unlike anything else I’ve ever read.
A few particularly fascinating plot devices: “paper boys,” walking automatons made from paper stretched around a wire frame; a sedan chair chase in a crowded marketplace; and a deadly anti-Scriven weapon known as a “spring gun”. There are countless others, all utterly inventive.
British “children’s” books are a lot edgier than those in America. “Fever Crumb” contains some graphic moments of violence, along with the occasional profanity. A Romeo-and-Juliet-style love story (told in flashback) deals with mature issues. Most teen and adult readers won’t find it inappropriate…but like the Harry Potter series, it’s not a book to give to your eight-year-old.
“Fever Crumb” is one of the rare prequels that’s just as good as the original. It manages to capture the uniqueness and wit of the original “Mortal Engines” without becoming bogged down in miniscule plot details. I’m looking forward to reading the next episode in Fever’s story… “A Web of Air” (available in April of 2010). If Reeve continues as he’s begun, he deserves to go down in history as one of the greatest modern authors of young adult fantasy.
A magnificent prelude to “Mortal Engines.” Virtually flawless.