I used to read Mortal Engines quite a lot when I was younger – it was part of a rotation of books that I re-read pretty much constantly – but I hadn’t read it for five or six years when I picked it up again at Christmas. It was quite a lovely surprise, then, to find a perfect steampunk fable, lively and well-written and thoroughly imagined in a way that YA too often is not.
It’s set in a ruined far-future world in which sea levels seem to have sunk so that Britain is now connected to the Continent by a land bridge. The vast, barren continent of Europe is home only to hundreds of Traction Cities – cities that crawl on caterpillar tracks, mostly, hunting down towns and settlements smaller than themselves to “eat”, stripping them of materials to feed their furnaces, factories and people. This system is rather delightfully referred to as “Municipal Darwinism”.
Our Hero is Thomas Natsworthy, a Third Apprentice Historian in the Traction City of London. Orphaned and consequently left in a position just high enough up the social ladder to be pitied by his betters without ever having any serious prospect of joining them, he dreams in true YA style of following in the footsteps of his hero, Thaddeus Valentine, an explorer and archaeologist who specialises in remnants of a former technological era. Trying to impress Valentine while serving punishment duty in London’s factory district, Tom chases a young woman called Hester Shaw who has tried to kill the archaeologist – only to fall out of London with Hester onto the barren earth below. And surely it was just his imagination that Valentine pushed him?
So begins a journey across this dystopic world, as Tom tries to get back to his home city, find out why Hester wants revenge on Valentine, and escape a killer Cyberman-type robot who’s hunting them for reasons unknown. Along the way he takes up with Anna Fang, an airship pilot, journeys to Batmunkh Gompa, the chief city of the Anti-Traction League, and finds out why London is racing across Europe (the “Great Hunting Ground”) as if the very wolves were nipping at its heels.
At its heart, Mortal Engines is a book about class and oppression, which is what makes its central steampunk aesthetic so effective. Our early impressions of London are of glamorous neo-Victorian efficiency, all shining brass and manners and glorious empirical Progress; and slowly, slowly, Reeve digs into the dark underbelly of that glittering alternative future, the insidious and invisible structures of oppression and capitalism – the latter transmuted through the magic of fantasy into Municipal Darwinism – that prop it all up. Reeve isn’t afraid to make terrible things happen; he leaves us under no delusions as to the wretchedness of this world (although it never quite ventures into grimdark territory), and what makes this so interesting is that it’s seen through the eyes of someone who, at least initially, is actually very fond of his city, and thinks it benevolent and fair.
I think Reeve is also sort of doing something with the concept of empire here, and perhaps this is where the book’s a little less good. Opposed to the Municipal Darwinism going on in Europe are the aforementioned Anti-Traction League, whose main strongholds are, significantly, in what used to be Asia, Africa and South America. London and, by extension, the other Traction Cities are opposed to the Anti-Traction League not only for ideological reasons but also practical ones: if they can open a way into the rich lands behind the Himalayas they could live for a thousand years hunting static settlements there. In other words, London is once again threatening to become a colonial power, which, the book is clear, would be A Bad Thing (although, again, we have Tom’s uncertainty on this point to leaven any preachiness that might otherwise come through in Reeve’s tone).
I think Mortal Engines slightly strays into exoticism here – certainly the staunch Anti-Tractionist Asian woman Anna Fang is described in the stereotypical Mysterious Oriental terms which unchecked steampunk tends to stray into. But, on the same note, it’s hard to see what Reeve could have done to avoid this: at least we do actually get to visit Batmunkh Gompa, and it is not entirely orientally unfathomable; and perhaps we can say, too, that what orientalism we do get is influenced by Tom’s necessarily imperial (because London) outlook.
I’m trying to redeem Mortal Engines because I do actually think it’s quite astute on how oppression actually works, and on the skewed perspectives that help to perpetuate it. And, also, undoubtedly, because it’s a fascinating world to visit, accessibly rich in detail without being bogged down with it thanks to the steampunk aesthetic that allows us to assume things that aren’t necessarily made explicit in the text. I enjoyed it quite a lot, and intend to find time to re-read the rest of the series this year. Or next year. Who knows.