The "Mortal Engines" Quartet
Attitude: Some Care Needed → Edifying
In Brief: An engaging and uplifting story set against an imaginative future backdrop. Cyborg stalkers built around dead bodies. Romantic suicide. Christianity as a force for reconciliation.
Series: Mortal Engines
Age Range: Young Teens
Period: Far Future
Tom Natsworthy, an orphaned History apprentice on the Traction City of London, is sent in disgrace to the city’s Deep Gut after a bullying fellow-apprentice taunts him into a fight. There he encounters his hero, the historian-explorer Thaddeus Valentine and saves him from a murderous attack by the strangely-scarred Hester Shaw who then escapes, wounded, by dropping down to the ground beneath the city. Valentine pushes Tom after her and London leaves them behind. Forced into an alliance of necessity, Tom & Hester follow on foot but are quickly caught up in a world of airship aviators, the Anti-Traction Alliance, and the mystery of why Valentine killed Hester’s parents and left her for dead, badly wounded. They encounter Shrike, the cyborg Stalker who cared for Hester when she was a child and who wants to remake her like him. They are helped by the enigmatic aviatrix Anna Fang and go with her to the Anti-Traction League’s headquarters behind their Shield Wall where Tom is too late to prevent Valentine destroying the League’s Air-Fleet and killing Anna Fang. Tom & Hester take Anna’s airship, the Jenny Haniver and leave for London.
Meanwhile, Valentine’s loyal and loving daughter Katherine is investigating her father’s mysterious past and his connection with Hester Shaw. She enlists the help of apprentice Engineer Bevis Pod, and they plan to infiltrate the Engineers’ higher echelons and to discover what is being built inside St Paul’s and what is the meaning of MEDUSA. Their plans start to unravel and they take refuge in the Museum forcing the Guild of Historians to defend them from the Engineers. The Engineers unveil MEDUSA, an Old-Tech Weapon of tremendous power, and use it to destroy a rival city. They then steer London towards the Anti-Traction league’s stronghold at Shuo Gan and their massive unbreachable Shield Wall. Katherine and Bevis climb by a secret way to the top level of London just as the Engineers are about to activate MEDUSA once more. At the same time, Tom and Hester have flown in to prevent the weapon from firing, but in the confusion Valentine lunges at Hester and stabs his own daughter instead who falls on the makeshift control apparatus, causing it to misfire. Tom & Hester manage to ride out the firestorm which engulfs London but Katherine dies in her father’s arms and both are atomised when MEDUSA turns in on itself.
Two years later, Tom & Hester are modestly successful air-traders in the Jenny Haniver but the world is changing around them. After Anna Fang’s death the Anti-Traction League has splintered with the radical Green Storm dominating. Escaping from Green Storm attack ships, Tom & Hester land on the City of Anchorage traversing the High Ice, along with their unwelcome passenger Professor Nimrod Pennyroal. Pennyroal is a boastful, cowardly and mostly fraudulent historian-explorer whose bestselling accounts of his travels were concocted from the writings of others. When Freya, the young Margavine of Anchorage, appears to have her sights set on Tom, Hester leaves in a fit of jealousy and betrays Anchorage to the Hunter City of Arkangel, hoping to regain Tom’s love by rescuing him when the city is captured. However, she’s kidnapped by the Green Storm and taken to their base where they hope she will revive the memories of the resurrected Stalker Fang, a cyborg built from Old Tech appendages around the body of Anna Fang.
The people of Anchorage are unaware that they’re being burgled by the Lost Boys from the sunken raft city of Grimsby, organised by the Fagin-like Uncle. Their underwater Limpet crafts leech fuel from cities while the young boys sneak out at night to steal whatever they can. Uncle, a trader in information, instructs the Boys to bring Tom to Grimsby where he tells Tom of Hester’s imprisonment by the Green Storm. Tom helps to break Hester out and the Stalker Fang escapes. Tom & Hester return to Anchorage in time for Hester to help defeat the Huntsmen of Arkangel while the others – believing the cowardly Pennyroyal to be responsible — remain unaware of her role in guiding them there. Arkangel, chasing Anchorage, sinks under unsafe ice while Anchorage makes landfall in Vineland on the Dead Continent of America. Pennyroyal shoots Tom and escapes in the Jenny Haniver, leaving Tom & Hester to settle down in the now static Anchorage.
Fifteen years later, young Wren Natsworthy is angry with her mother Hester and feeling closed-in within Anchorage’s small community. When a Lost Boys’ Limpet arrives secretly, she asks to go with them but her plans go wrong when Hester shoots two of the young intruders while Wren is kidnapped by the third, Fishcake. En route to Grimsby, Fishcake is beguiled by broadcasts purporting to be from the Lost Boys’ lost parents and he guides the Limpet to the Raft City of Brighton, led by Mayor Pennyroyal. Wren & Fishcake are captured as slaves. Tom, Hester & Freya set off after Wren but find Grimsby almost deserted with only the unstable and increasingly paranoid Uncle and some very small children. Freya takes the children back to Anchorage while Tom & Hester travel to Brighton to find Wren. Making use of her knowledge of Pennyroyal’s past, Wren has gained a privileged place as one of his houseslaves and meets Theo Ngoni, a captured Green Storm suicide pilot of her own age.
The Stalker Fang discovers that Wren has the Tin Book for which the Lost Boys came to Anchorage and she has the Green Storm attack Brighton to find it, led by General Naga. In the chaos, Wren and Theo are trapped in Cloud 9, the airborn upper tier of Brighton while the imprisoned Lost Boys are let loose below. The Stalker Fang retrieves the Tin Book only to be attacked by Shrike who has been secretly reprogrammed by technician Oenone Zero who believes that the Stalker’s existence is ultimately wrong for the Green Storm. Hester, Tom, Theo and Wren are reunited when Cloud 9 crashes in the desert, but Wren, enraged by her mother’s attitude, lets slip to Tom that it was Hester who betrayed Anchorage. Hester tells Tom she’s leaving him. As the Jenny Haniver leaves with Tom, Wren, Theo and Pennyroyal on board, Hester is confronted by Shrike whom she’d thought destroyed years before. Meanwhile Fishcake gathers the scattered parts of the Stalker Fang and starts to put them together.
The final act opens with Oenone Zero, now wife of General Naga, acting as Peace Ambassador to the anti-Tractionists of Zagwa in Africa, home to Theo Ngoni’s family. Theo foils a plot aimed at discrediting the Peace initiative and is given the task of accompanying Lady Naga back to the Green Storm. Their ship is betrayed and both are captured in the desert and enslaved. Wren is travelling with her father in the Jenny Haniver and believes Theo safe in Africa. In Airhaven, Tom is persuaded by its captain Wolf Kobold to guide the Harvester Suburb Harrowbarrow to the site of London’s destruction. Meanwhile Fishcake is rebuilding the Stalker Fang and travels with her to the home of Anna’s former friend Saytha who was responsible for having the Stalker resurrected. The Stalker is schizophrenic, sometimes kindly Anna, sometimes ruthless Fang. Fang, though, holds the details of the orbital ODIN device with which she plans to make the world uninhabitable by humans.
Tom and Wren with Wolf discover that a small group of Londoners survive and that they’re building a new hovercraft London based on maglev technology. The Londoners, fearful for their nascent City, won’t let them leave. Wolf escapes through the debris field back to his suburb and prepares to steal the Londoners’ technology. Hester has rescued Theo and Lady Naga but before they can reach General Naga, Fang activates the ODIN device, destroying both a Traction City and an Anti-Traction stronghold, making both sides believe that the other has broken the terms of a treaty with a super-weapon. When they finally reach Shuo Gan, Naga rejects Oenone and accuses her of betraying him into a peace treaty which the other side has so dramatically broken. Tom knows that he hasn’t long to live, his heart weakened by Pennyroyal’s bullet years before, and travels alone to convince the Green Storm that the Londoners’ intentions are peaceful. Naga doesn’t believe him and, taking an attack force, he reaches London at the same time as Harrowbarrow.
Tom and Hester, reunited, fly to Anna’s old house from where they believe the Stalker Fang is controlling Odin. Naga, in London, realises that he’s misread the situation and encourages the Londoners to launch their new hovering London and escape while his forces hold back Harrowbarrow. He destroys the Suburb in a desperate manoeuvre but dies in the process. Tom and Hester, with Shrike and a stowaway Pennyroal, crash-land near their goal and attempt to reason with the Stalker. They see Wren & Theo on board London via ODIN’s long-distance cameras and plead for the youngsters and for the new generation, but the Stalker is determined to set off chains of volcanoes around the world. However, the residue of Anna’s memory inside her head remembers Tom’s compassion for her as she lay dying long before and the “good” side of her sends ODIN a self-destruct signal. Pennyroyal bursts in and electrocutes the Stalker before leaving Hester to take her own life as Tom dies. Shrike discovers the bodies of Hester & Tom and lays them to rest a little way up the hillside.
In a poetic epilogue Shrike waits beside the two of them as the centuries roll by. He is eventually roused by some children who are garlanding him with flowers. He goes to their village and discovers that they have unwittingly built homes in the wreckage of one of the old Traction Cities, while the memory of those times has become a folk tale and that people are living simple lives with the Londoner’s maglev technology powering their vehicles.
Welcome to our world, but so far ahead that the characters’ distant past is our distant future. This is the canvas on which Philip Reeve has painted the world of the Mortal Engines quartet. In many respects it’s a much less technological world than our own, largely the result of one particularly devastating conflict: the 60-Minute War which left vast areas of the planet uninhabitable. Since that time, empires have risen and fallen and the debris they left behind is plundered by explorers for Old Tech to supplement their effective but limited technology. Two technologies dominate: land-crawling traction cities; and sophisticated airships.
However the author isn’t so much interested in the mechanics of a fictional time and place as in its use as a backdrop for a human story with a more-than-slightly Edwardian flavour to it. There’s something about the late Victorian and Edwardian milieux which draws children’s authors again and again. It provides the perfect combination of energy and initiative, combined with an outburst of engineering prowess. It’s a setting where gentlemen explorers and dashing aviatrices bring back mysterious finds from exotic places. Where rather larger-than-life characters stride across the stage in front of a brightly-coloured backdrop.
Why do I like the Mortal Engines series so much? Because the author depicts a world which is both recognisable and imaginatively different. And populates it with characters who are intelligible but not two-dimensional, complex but not irritatingly so. I have some reservations about certain aspects of the series; not many, but enough to prevent my recommending it one hundred percent. Nevertheless this is an enjoyable, engaging and mostly wholesome series for young teenagers.
The whole story revolves around the characters of Tom Natsworthy and Hester Shaw. I don’t know if specific ages are mentioned, but they’re both about 15 in the first book, about 17 in the second, and in their 30s in the final two-book story when their daughter Wren is herself 15. Tom is an idealist, an Historian by training, orphaned when his parents were killed in an accident. He is inclined to think the best of everyone and is concerned and compassionate. Hester is mistrusting, embittered, solitary and ruthless, but she comes to love Tom fiercely. She harbours a hatred for Valentine who killed her parents and left her brutally scarred and she is devastated when she discovers that he is her biological father. This relationship haunts her throughout the books and she allows herself to be consumed by her “heritage” as the daughter of a ruthless killer, keeping it a secret from Tom who’s horrified when he discovers how readily she kills people.
The two of them make for fascinating characters, vital and strongly marked, deeply in love with each other in spite of their many differences. Each keeps at least one significant secret from the other: Hester, that she brought the Huntsman of Arkangel to Anchorage; Tom, that he’s dying from the bullet wound Pennyroyal gave him on that same occasion. Their daughter Wren comes to know both secrets and the moment of anger when she lets one of them slip tears her parents apart. Tom & Hester do finally come together again, and while their ending is tragic, the overall story ends in hope, not in despair.
By the time we meet Wren at the start of the third book, Tom & Hester are married – although it’s not clear when this occurs: Wren came about while they were travelling together in the Jenny Haniver. However, marriage and families definitely happen in the world of Mortal Engines. Hester’s own parents were married and so were Tom’s and both characters suffer from the circumstances which left them orphans. This attitude to family is something of a touchstone for the outlook of the series as a whole. This is not a dystopian future where society has broken down and is driven by moral indifference. On the contrary, this world is imbued with a sort of positive humanism and even a sense of Religion, or at least an Afterlife. People are polite to one another, old and young. (I love the way Tom insists on calling the cyborg killing machine “Mr Shrike”). Youngsters are given responsibilities of their own at an early age and are excited by the thought of adventure while not losing sight of their family and home.
There are certainly differences between the distinct cultures: the scientifically-stratified societies of the Traction Cities, driven by Municipal Darwinism, are very much in contrast to the more homely African land-based family of Theo Ngoni. And different again are the militaristic Anti-Traction league who have been at war with the Traction Cities for a long time and for whom winning the conflict overrides every other consideration. But time and again it is the bonds of family which are given pride of place over and above the mechanical ideas of the engineering class.
In a grace note late in the saga as London prepares for a rebirth, one of the Engineers regrets that she never knew the son she had to give up to the City nurseries according to the practice of the Guild of Engineers. She assumes that her son died when London blew up, but we realise that he was the Bevis Pod who stood up against the inhuman practices of the Engineers and died helping Kate Valentine sabotage the MEDUSA device. And his mother, years later, unwittingly complements his work by helping to build the new London inspired by peace and solidarity and not by greed.
That humanity is at the centre of the series’ worldview is evident also in the technology: it’s the kind of rig-up that you could imagine appearing in the early 20th Century if the idea of moving cities had gained traction, or if the airship industry had taken off. Things which enough people with enough effort and time could put together with their own hands. There are instances of higher-tech tech – the Scabious Spheres for example which power Anchorage – but they are viewed with some suspicion, the more so after the disastrous effects of London’s bid for power with MEDUSA and they are not really understood, merely employed. The technology of the Stalkers is likewise copied from the original designs found hidden in the High Ice. Improvements are made, but there is no radical step forward, merely a more-or-less imaginative tinkering with existing technology.
In more than one respect, the series can be viewed as the triumph of the human over the technological and a warning against too great a reliance on technology. The whole world was devastated by the 60-Minute War long in the past before these stories, and whether it’s overambitious Engineers or ruthless cyborgs who get their hands on some of the same weaponry, the result is equally devastating. Significantly it is the human remnant of the Stalker Fang, given impetus by the satellite images of Theo and Wren in distant London, which sets the orbital ODIN weapon to self-destruct before the inhuman cyborg could take over again.
And this brings us to a particular aspect of these stories: the Cyborgs; the Stalkers. Early on in the first story we encounter the mysterious Shrike who has a soft spot for Hester to the extent that he wants to make her like him. His behaviour and his thoughts which the author allows us to hear raise questions which turn up again and again: how much of a person is organic memory – images, recollected sounds and words – and how much is something else. The story doesn’t really come down completely on one side or the other. Time and again the Stalker Fang insists that Anna Fang is no more, that any resemblance to her is merely organic. Other characters take the same line, including Oenone who has to “resurrect” her own dead brother’s body for the cyborg corps. But both Fang and Shrike, the two Stalkers we see the most of, are strongly affected by human images which resonate within them. At the final story’s climax the Stalker Fang is definitely responding to an appeal to her humanity although it’s really up to the reader to decide whether there is anything of the person who was Anna Fang or whether the cyborg’s complex circuitry is simply confused by the effect on it of the appeal to humanity.
One point for the more squeamish to note is that some of the scenes in the Stalker workshops are quite grisly, as the cadavers of captured or killed soldiers are turned into cyborg warriors. Birds and other creatures are also converted, and the former Chief Technician has turned his retirement home into a menagerie of the grotesque.
I must admit to being pleasantly surprised by the presence of religious belief in the series as a whole, and of the positive effect of Christianity in the final two books in particular. Religion rarely gets much of a fair deal in sci-fi. Mostly it’s just ignored – assumed to have died out as mankind evolves beyond such primitive needs. Here there are frequent references to gods and religions. True, some are humorous backreferences (“Thatcher, the many-armed goddess of Capitalism”) or rote exclamations. But many characters have some kind of belief in an afterlife: the Sunless Conutry from which, proverbially, no-one returns.
This belief, however perfunctory, in an aspect of the person apart from the body would be interesting enough. But more interesting still is the conversion of Oenone Zero to Christianity and the effect that this has on the War. Oenone, seeking solace, goes to the street which houses shrines and chapels of various beliefs. She’s drawn to one in particular, somehow identifying with the God whose own people had him hung up on a cross to die. Fast-forwarding, the now-Christian Oenone marries General Naga (in a Christian wedding ceremony) and, informed and empowered by her new-found faith, convinces him that peace and forgiveness is the answer and not war. It’s by no means plain sailing from there on, but it’s a truly surprising facet of the series and a touching one.
I’ve focused above on some more serious aspects of the books, but these things alone, however, noble, don’t provide all the enjoyment which is to be had. The characters are straightforward while the storylines are engaging and interesting, the tension is powerful in places without being inappropriate for younger readers. And the stories achieve their lightest and most enjoyable touch in the subtle humour and occasional backreferences which are present throughout the books. This is a difficult balance to achieve: How much do you keep the humour going when the business at hand is serious? How many passing references do you make to our day-and-age without overplaying your hand?
The author has pitched it just right. There’s humour to be found in the names of the Traction Cities (look out for Tunbridge Wheels and Wolverinehampton, the hunter-killer suburb, for example) and in the overblown antics of larger-than-life characters with comical names such as the fraudster Pennyroyal and the scheming Widgery Blinkoe with his five wives. And there are dashing aviatrices with quirkily-named flying machines. And undersized servants who literally change their hat to carry out different roles in an understaffed city. And as well as Old Tech discoveries by archaelogists in our distant future, there are references to our times (“What did they do with all these CeeDees?”) and a scattering of cultures not so very far removed from our own, although Europe has become a Hunting Ground and traction cities cross salt plains where the North Sea used to be.
There is a sour note in the final act of the saga which disappointed me and which was only partly counteracted by the definitely hopeful epilogue. Tom, whose heart was weakened years before when Pennyroyal shot him, has used all his strength to try to broker peace between the Green Storm and the Traction Cities. Having failed in this attempt, he makes a last journey with Hester to prevent the Stalker Fang from using ODIN to ignite a volcanic chain reaction. Although they succeed, Tom dies in the attempt and Hester, unable to live without him, takes her own life. This final action is consonant with her character throughout: driven by a bitterness which is tempered only by her wholehearted love for Tom. It seems that she really can’t live without him. I can’t criticise the scene dramatically, and her final words hold out her hope of being reunited with Tom in the Sunless Country to which she’s previously paid lip-service. I just wish that there might have been some more redemptive outcome for her.
In the last analysis the message of the Mortal Engines stories is one of hope, hope nourished by genuine human endeavour and in some way by Christian charity and forgiveness. The whole series is enjoyable and well-paced, populated by engaging and vivid characters. I regret the very slight uncertainty over the question of Tom & Hester’s marriage, and the concession to romantic suicide in the final act. But it’s rare enough to find a story which accepts that Religion has a part to play in people’s lives, and rarer still to find one in which it is the catalyst for good.
- What will humanity be like in the far future?
- What makes a person?
Thursday 15th December 2011