Unsentimental. That’s what the Mortal Engines Quartet is.
Children’s fiction – in particular, children’s fantasy – is so strong nowadays that it’s hardly necessary to say that a book is adventurous, imaginative or exhilarating. They’re all adventurous, they’re all imaginative, they’re all exhilarating. And they’re all plenty good enough for adults to read as well.
Amid this wealth of excellence, Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines Quartet stands out for a reason that others may not want to emulate: it’s uniquely unsentimental. His four books, set a world in which mobile cities rumble across the land on, chasing and consuming each other in a cycle of ‘Municipal Darwinism’, are the most willfully unsentimental novels I have ever read. Villains do not get their just desserts; heroes are regularly punished for their virtues; and pretty much everyone is flawed in some nasty way.
Even Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy seems like Disneyland in comparison. This isn’t because the Mortal Engines Quartet is more depressing or more vicious – it isn’t. Instead, whereas Pullman’s novels are dark and serious affair all around, Reeve switches between carefree humour to awful tragedy so fast (and so often) that you just have no time to prepare yourself from general unfairness of the universe.
Enough about the unsentimentality for now – what about the story?
Mortal Engines, the first book in the series, begins with what is widely acknowledged as one of the best first lines in fantasy, ever:
It was a dark, blustery afternoon in spring, and the city of London was chasing a small mining town across the dried-out bed of the old North Sea.
Immediately, you know that this is no normal children’s fantasy, and what comes next is a dazzling explosion of imagination; after the Sixty Minute War devastated most of world, cities began to re-engineer themselves so that they could move across the barren land in order to prey on smaller, ‘static’ settlements. Soon enough, every town, village, suburb and city was on the move, gobbling each other up in a great cycle of ‘Municipal Darwinism’. London is now composed of several tiers, with St. Paul’s Cathedral relocated to the very top, and other streets arranged under it.
Tom Natsworthy is an underling at the Museum of London, and quite adept at spotting archaeological fakes dating back from the times of ‘seedys’ and ‘tin foil’. Through various shenanigans, he ends up on a quest with another kid called Hester Shaw in a bid to stop London’s ruling Engineers from blowing various stuff up and killing lots of people using dug-up and repaired ‘Old Tech’ weaponry (Old Tech weaponry happens to be a very useful plot-device for the entire quartet, in fact).
Mortal Engines won a series of awards when it was published, and it’s not hard to see why. While the writing and dialogue were merely fine, the sheer audacity of the setting and the pace of the plot ensured it had plenty of fans – even if it was terribly unsentimental, for reasons that you’ll discover upon reading it.
Probably as a result of the wild, unexpected success of Mortal Engines, Reeve quickly wrote a sequel, Predator’s Gold. It is not nearly as good; the plot is unfocused and not terribly interesting, and the characters are all vaguely irritating. Throw in the fact that there are various retcons, and you realise that this sequel was never planned. In an interview…:
Did you have the whole story in your head when you started writing Mortal Engines?
Absolutely not. I knew the beginning and end and had a few ideas for things that might happen in between, but there were a lot of surprises along the way. And I had no idea that there would be any further books in the series…
So, pretty disappointing all around. If I hadn’t already ordered the third and fourth books, I would’ve been tempted to give up. I’m glad I didn’t.
The third book, Infernal Devices, begins many years after the end of Predator’s Gold. This handily injects a real sense of excitement and novelty into proceedings through means of new and changed characters. The whole thing seems rather more grown-up, partly because the characters are now older, but also because the quality of writing is much higher, and the plotting is much tighter. Everything happens for a purpose, and characters are introduced in a much more organic fashion, with histories involving more adult themes such as suicide bombings.
While on Infernal Devices, I should mention that Reeve litters the quartet with any number of puns that would sail far over the heads of kids. The airships that fill the skies are given names such as 13th Floor Elevator, Sword Flourished in Understanding Pique and Damn You, Gravity! One, in a direct homage to Banks’ Culture novels, is called Clear Air Turbulence.
Other authors are referenced in different ways. Philip Pullman appears as the thinly-disguised ‘P. P. Bellman, author of atheistic pop-up books for the trendy toddler’:
Have you read Bellman’s latest? Quite brilliant! Some of the finest literature of our age is being written for the under-fives…
And in the next line, someone might get backstabbed. Throughout all of the books, but more painfully in the final two, surprisingly harsh lessons about betrayal and deception are told, again and again and again. You get the feeling that Reeve is really trying to teach kids something useful here.
I wasn’t surprised – nor disappointed – to see that that Infernal Devices was only the first half of a story that would continue in the final book, A Darkling Plain. Clearly this time Reeve had thought about what he was going to write next.
As with any book that is the culmination of a series, I was concerned about how Reeve would manage to wrap everything up in a satisfying manner; all too often in fantasies, things just go completely to hell in the last book and it all gets very weird and confusing (I’m looking at you, The Amber Spyglass). Well, things do go to hell in A Darkling Plain, but in a way that seems much more of a sensible continuation from what happens in Infernal Devices, and in fact the entire quartet.
Everything that was painstakingly set up in the Empire Strikes Back-esque previous book pays off handsomely, and I never had the feeling that events were being rushed. More impressively, the villains – and heroes – were on form in this book, showing very human weakness and vulnerabilities. There were still some cartoon-like characters, but scratching beneath the surface, you saw real people.
I remember finishing A Darkling Plain and genuinely marvelling over the whole story. While Reeve began with a brilliant idea and modest writing skills, after stumbling on the second book, he really pulled himself up for the last two books, maturing and excelling as a writer and a storyteller. I won’t dwell on the end, except to say that it was beautifully written. For such an unsentimental series, it was fitting… and touching. Reeve has done what many more successful writers cannot manage – a perfect ending to an fantastic epic.
Reeve is now writing more children’s fantasy. None of it seems to have quite the same spark or pull, either being too realistic or too fantastical, but I’m certainly going to check it out. After all, it’ll probably be quite some time before Mortal Engines makes it to the cinema…