Penny Dolan works as a children's writer and storyteller. She has written early picture books, stories for anthologies, occasional scripts and shorter novels, of which her favourite is The Third Elephant. Her first longer novel for juniors, A Boy Called M.O.U.S.E., is now published by Bloomsbury. MOUSE is the dramatic tale of brave young hero Mouse, whose story involves cruel days at Murkstone Hall school, travels with a Punch and Judy Man and life among the many eccentric characters backstage in the Victorian theatre. In this post Penny enthuses about Philip Reeve's The Mortal Engines Quartet.
Penny Dolan on The Mortal Engines Quartet by Philip Reeve
I love a whole variety of books and authors and illustrators so I'm using Norm's blog-post invitation to expand on the answer I give when older junior children in schools ask me (slightly warily in case I might be offended) 'What's your favourite book by – er, like - another author, not you?'
The answer I always give is Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve, although by that I actually mean the whole expansive quartet which includes Predators Gold, Infernal Devices and A Darkling Plain. The book is older junior fiction, is categorised as SF and has distinct hints of what I believe is the steam-punk school of writing. When I first read it, I was just delighted with it – with the writing and the plot and the characters, and I want to enthuse about it. Why?
A major reason for liking this book is that, although dreadful and sad things happen, it has, like the others, a kind of optimism that makes for a reading experience which cheers you when times are tough. Bibliotherapy isn't always what you want during the grimmest days.
In Mortal Engines we are clearly in a capital-S Story, an SF fairy tale with clever observations and reflections of current society along the way. We are in more of a Pratchett world than a Philip K. Dick dystopia, although it is set in a post-apocalyptic world re-shaped by catastrophe, disaster and the search for resources.
Some of the societies follow the theory and practice of 'Municipal Darwinism'. Like London - the original model - these cities are now able to move and roam on huge caterpillar tracks in pursuit of smaller cities, who in their turn seek smaller victims. 'It's a town eat town world!' as Mr Valentine comments.
Again, reading this book for the first time, I recalled the news-screen coverage of giant earth-moving machines driving huge trenches through the Wiltshire downs, cutting ruts into the expanse of revealed clay. Mortal Engines is not entirely out of this world. It is easy to believe.
Meanwhile, the other half of the world is run by the Anti-Traction League, those who believe in fixed cities the defence of which is the vast armed Shield Wall and the Fortress City of Batmunkh Gumpa.
In between, down on the Out Country, are small scurrying townlets and gangs of fierce scavengers who trade with the towns. Above fly hosts of airships, described and named so aptly that one longs, like the young hero Tom Natsworthy, to fly in them. The story is thrilling at both the macro and micro levels, especially for its intended readers.
This leads me to the next thing I enjoy in Reeve's writing. His illustrator's eye lets him picture scenes perfectly. He gives just the right amount of telling detail to set the imagination running. He does not add vast self-important or grand paragraphs but keeps the story rolling along at a great pace. The plot is full of sudden contrasts and small moments of surprise, wit and recognition, such as the glittering Old Tech 'seedys' gathered by the Historians, and the subtle sense of history, of societies being built upon the past, of references to other things.
For example, Reeve gives his future London a dark and almost Dickensian feel. The city may be layered like a wedding cake but the old names still exist: the elevator stops at Bakerloo, High Holborn, Low Holborn, Bethnal Green. Our hero, Tom, is a skivvy in the London Museum of Natural History, while the dome of St Paul's Cathedral sits like a skewed crown atop the whole pile. I suspect Peter Ackroyd could still find his way around the tottering construction.
Philip Reeve does that with society too. His city has a layered but recognizable life, a place of Guilds and lesser Guilds, of the rich and the poor. At the top, close by the dome is the Engineerium within which is Magnus Crome, Chief Engineer and Lord Mayor of London. Crome still appears in the long white rubber coat, the bald shaved head and his Guild Mark proudly on his brow. The city serves the Engineer, not the Engineer the city.
The Top Tier is also home to handsome, dashing Thaddeus Valentine: Chief Historian, hero of the city and Crome's secret agent, whilst down in the crowded, noisy and stinking lowest level is the Gut, where the huge engines are kept running and captured cities are torn apart and where Tom's tale of disillusionment and adventure begins.
The sorting bays of the Gut are where fifteen-year old orphan Tom, a Third Grade Historian apprentice, happens to be, beside his great hero Mr Valentine - when something alarming happens. Suddenly, Hester Shaw, an unknown girl with a horrifically scarred face, darts from the crowd of incoming captives and attacks Valentine with a knife. Tom leaps forward to save his hero, fondly and briefly imagining it as his moment of glory, before being flung by Valentine down the Chute himself and out on the bare plain of the Hunting Ground.
Saved by the soft muddiness of the surface, Tom and injured, angry Hester follow in London's tracks. Tom learns that, seven years earlier, Valentine had killed Hester's parents and thought he had killed her. His sword blade marked and twisted her eight year old face because he wanted an object that Hester's mother had found: an Old Tech thing like a dented metallic football that had the name Medusa. Soon Tom sees there is another Hester: 'a quick, clever likeable girl' - whose life has been destroyed.
Hester is one of the many female characters that make me admire these books. Reeve's female characters are equal in 'story worth' to his male characters. He makes them all complex, able and adventurous.
As well as Hester, there is Katherine Valentine who steps beyond the comfort of her ladylike situation to find out why Hester troubles her father, despite danger, and there is also the fierce aviatrix Anna Fang, pilot of the air-ship Jenny Hanniver, who rescues Tom and Hester when they are brought as slaves to a trading cluster.
In what is quite a short book, a whole host of smaller characters add to the richness of the adventure, people such as apprentice Bevis Pod who helps Katherine; mournful, scheming Orme Wreyland and family on their dismal townlet Steynes; and Chudleigh Pomeroy and the eventually defiant Historians.
Above these, one character in particular increases the satisfyingly epic quality of this book: the terrifying Stalker Shrike, sent by Crome to catch Hester, a creature built from metal parts but 'the worst thing... was that somewhere beneath that iron cowl a human brain was trapped', and Shrike and Hester have a shared history.
As the plot of Mortal Engines unfolds, with the deadly Medusa at its heart, there are fights and battles, bravery and cowardice, joy and sorrow, and survival for some. It is the kind of book to read when you want adventure and enjoyment, but it is only the start of Reeve's vision. Over the next three books in the Quartet, he expands his ideas and his characters, so the books read more like a full-scale novel published in parts.
To my praise for the Quartet, I would add the equally fascinating prequels: Fever Crumb, together with A Web of Air and Scrivener's Moon. I would even go so far as to say I would recommend them as books for children above Philip Pullman's more lauded works.
Which leads me to my last two reasons for suggesting the Mortal Engines quartet. One you may feel is a narrow-minded instinct but I have to recognize it. In Reeve's future, America is a devastated, non-existent land, so the world presented has a different order.
This novel, especially at first, feels particularly English, even British, and that made me glad. I find myself wearying of books for children told through an American or Mid-Atlantic viewpoint, books that come across as if they are intended to read like a Hollywood film treatment; which is not at all the same as saying that I only want to read books from my own familiar culture, please.
So my final reason is linked to the above point. Dreamworks are in possession. Mortal Engines, alone or as a quartet, is reported to be 'in development'. This could be wonderful, but I am worried that many of the qualities and complexities of Philip Reeve's books will have to be sacrificed. Will we end up with an American Tom? Will Hester Shaw become less injured than the books say she is? Will Anna Fang still be as starkly a fighter as written?
If you have a quiet winter evening, sit and read Reeve's Mortal Engines quartet while you still have a chance and before you have other people's screen images and theme songs implanted into your dear human brain.
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]