Written by Philip Reeve, the Mortal Engines Quartet (also known as the Hungry City Chronicles and Predator Cities) and its prequel the Fever Crumb Series are by far some of the best novels I have ever read. And despite being optioned for a film series (purportedly by Peter Jackson himself), the books, and Reeve, have never really become the household names that they deserve to be. Having recently revisited both series, I’m here to tell you why these books need to be read by everyone.
Like nothing you’ve seen before
The Mortal Engines Series is set in a post-apocalyptic world that has been ravaged by an ancient conflict known as the “Sixty Minute War” where the expansive and irradiated wastelands are roamed by Traction Cities, fully mobile and hugely monstrous cities, capable of devouring smaller city-states in a practice called Municipal Darwinism. The Tractionists are directly opposed by the Anti-Traction League, who still live in static cities, and it is this conflict that creates the main backbone of the four books.
The Fever Crumb Series is set long before the events of the original books and focuses on the founding of The Movement and the birth of the very first Traction City, and the war that arises from the multiple factions that want to stop such technology from existing.
Philip Reeve’s books have been called many things – post-apocalyptic, steampunk, young-adult – but however you categorise them, one thing is clearly apparent: they are brilliantly written and fantastically imagined and the sheer extent and complexities of the world and the machines the Reeve has created truly mind-blowing.
It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there
One of the most remarkable things about both of these series is just how dark Reeve is willing to go with his story and with his characters. Despite all the books containing several child protagonists, Reeve never shies away from the seriousness of real world issues or the harsh brutality of death, unceremoniously dispatching likable characters in such realistic and shocking ways. Nothing is sugar-coated in Reeve’s world, and his book are filled with many sobering and thought provoking moments, the kind often lacking from such epic and large-scale books as these.
Despite his immense imagination and the mindboggling scale of the novels, Reeve nevertheless keeps his characters at the front and centre of his stories, making his books as much of a character study as they are an epic fantasy, but that doesn’t mean that he puts the action on the backburner for the sake of the characters. In fact, he does the opposite, writing fast paced and intense action sequences from the eyes of the people caught up in the middle of them, people you care about and seriously worry that they might not make it out alive. Reeve’s description of war and death are refreshingly frank and he handles these serious and weighty issues with an unflinching stance. They say that war is hell, and Reeve really makes you believe that it is.
But it is not just war and death that fill the pages of these books. Reeve tackles a great number of serious issues. The topics the books cover include science vs religion, fear of the unknown, racism, terrorism, the essence of freewill, politics, fanaticism for a cause, kidnapping, love and loss, and the perils of raising a child. Each one of these themes, seen mainly through the eyes of children, is handled maturely and seriously, and they never stop the books from being immensely enjoyable. Reeve never lets his themes and issues get in the way of a good story, and the ones he is telling and truly excellent.
And despite all the death and destruction, there is something undeniably beautiful about Reeve’s world. The Traction Cities, the series’ biggest selling points, are described in such a way that they seem almost magical. Reeve has created a world that grips you from the very first page of the very first book and won’t let you go. There is something strangely seductive about the desolate wastelands and the huge mobile cities, about the rust and the grease and the grim. Despite all the darkness that permeates the world, you can’t help but want to be a part of it all.
Not your average heroes
The Mortal Engines Quartet focuses on the life of a young museum curator called Tom Natsworthy and follows the adventures he has with his friend (and later wife) Hester Shaw, a character so emotionally and physically scarred that you just can’t help but love her. What makes Tom such a great protagonist is that fact that he is not a hero. A consummate everyman, Tom starts off as a curious and naive child and grows into a comfortable and loving family-man. He may get dragged on perilous adventures, but he is never the hero he secretly wishes he could be. He gets scared, he gets flustered, and he panics. He leaves the heroics up Hester Shaw and (later) their daughter Wren. His unremarkable life and surprisingly normal character arc is so atypical for a central character that it makes him all the more likable and relatable. He is a familiar face in a fantastical world and he makes for an excellent central character.
But the main character is only as good as his supporting cast, and Philip Reeve surrounds him with some truly unforgettable faces. The most important of these is Hester Shaw, the Quartet’s second primary character, and one of the most well written in the entire series. Bloodthirsty and borderline psychotic, she is malicious and twisted and should by all means be immensely unlikable, but Reeve is able to inject her with enough likable qualities (she is loving, understandably insecure, and fiercely loyal) and turns her instead into a fantastic antihero, unafraid to get her hands dirty and to do the jobs deemed too immoral by others.
The other characters are just as good, all equally fleshed out and believable. There’s Wren Natsworthy, the headstrong and impulsive daughter of Tom and Hester, who dreams to have adventures just like her parents, but finds the reality of them all too sobering. There’s the tragic Anna Fang, compassionate and friendly yet incredibly deadly. There’s the seemingly bumbling and affable Nimrod Pennyroyal, who undergoes one of the Quartet’s most interesting character arcs. There’s Oenone Zero, the smart and daring Anti-Tractionist who just wants to see an end to the war.
And of course there’s the deadly Stalker Shrike, a corpse brought back to life with Old-Tech machinery, who follows Hester across the wastelands with a terrifying single-minded determinedness. He is a horrifying creation, brilliantly described by Reeve, whose chilling appearance his countered by his affection for Hester. As the Quartet progresses, he becomes conflicted and struggles with his own purpose and existence. The crisis and growth he undergoes as he tries to better understand himself and the world around him are deftly handled by Reeve and, coupled with his unique and haunting appearance, make him a truly unforgettable character.
The Fever Crumb Series is just as equally full of memorable and well written characters. Like he did in the previous series, Reeve twists the conventions on heroes and heroism on their heads. This time he makes not only his main character an atypical protagonist, but extends this subversion onto almost all of the supporting characters as well, casting the majority of them as intellectuals and pacifists.
Fever Crumb, the titular character, is an apprentice engineer, perfectly happy with her life among machinery and libraries, but she is thrust on a dangerous and adventurous path and her old life is lost to her. Fever goes through an interesting character arc, starting out the first novel with a strictly rational mindset, but over the course of the three books she slowly learns to see the world through her emotions. The change to her mindset is deftly handled by Reeve, and it isn’t at the expense of her character. Fever thankfully remains a notably unheroic hero, thrust into exciting scenarios rather than actively seeking them out.
Fever’s father, the sympathetic Gideon Crumb, is an engineer and is quite definitely a lover and not a fighter. Kit Solent is a protective and likable character, and although good at putting on a brave face, he is an archaeologist at heart and the series make it clear that he is in way over his head when the stakes get raised. Arlo Thursday is an inventor and a romantic, almost unaware of the world that exists beyond his workroom door. In fact, the only character who shows traditional heroic qualities is the morally ambiguous Wavey Godshawk, a woman who is as deadly as is she is beautiful, but even she is a technological genius.
One of the most interesting characters in the Fever Crumb Series is the urchin Charley Shallow. Less intellectual than the rest of the cast, but still very smart and cunning, he constantly walks a thin tightrope between good and evil. He is an incredibly compelling character, one who’s every move keeps you on the edge of your seat. It is incredibly refreshing to read a series of books where the main characters are all so notably unheroic and where their intelligence is their greatest skill. The fact that the novels make for such action packed and gripping reading is a testament to Reeve’s skills as both a storyteller and a character creator.
A remarkable piece of work
Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines and Fever Crumb series are some of the most expertly realised and hauntingly poignant pieces of fiction that I have ever read, with breathtaking imagination and imagery, and brilliantly complex and conflicting characters. You will laugh, you will cry, and you will never forget the world or the characters that you have immersed yourself in. These are seven books that I will never stop recommending to people
And with Reeve posting a rough draft of the opening chapter of the fourth Fever Crumb novel on his blog as a Christmas present last year, it seems as if this magical world still has much to offer.
The Mortal Engines Quartet (Mortal Engines, Predator’s Gold, Infernal Device and A Darkling Plain) and the Fever Crumb Series (Fever Crumb, A Web of Air and Scrivener’s Moon) are published by Scholastic and are available in all good booksellers. The copies read for this review were bought by its writer.