Mortal Engines

Mortal Engines
Mortal Engines  
Mortal engines.jpg
Author(s) Philip Reeve
Cover artist David Frankland
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Series Mortal Engines Quartet
Genre(s) Science fiction
Publisher Scholastic
Publication date 2001
Media type Print (hardback and paperback)
Pages 293
ISBN 0-439-97943-9
OCLC Number 50714166
Followed by Predator's Gold

Mortal Engines is the first of four novels in Philip Reeve's quartet of the same name, which is also known as the Hungry City Chronicles in the United States. The book has won a Nestlé Smarties Book Prize and was shortlisted for the 2002 Whitbread Award.[1]



The book is set in a post-apocalyptic world, ravaged in ages past by a nuclear holocaust known as the "Sixty Minute War," which caused massive geological upheaval. To escape the earthquakes, volcanoes and other instabilities, a Nomad leader called Nikola Quercus, who changed his name to Nikolas Quirke, designed a system known as Municipal Darwinism, where entire cities essentially become immense vehicles known as Traction Cities, and must consume one another in order to maintain themselves in a world deprived of most natural resources. Although the planet has since become stable again, Traction Cities are still used despite the fact that they were intended to escape from natural disasters, and the new world order continues.[2]

Much technological and scientific knowledge was lost, and what remains of "Old Tech", artifacts remaining from our more developed society, are dug up and pored over by scavengers and archeologists. Europe, some of Asia, North Africa, Antarctica and the Arctic are inhabited by Traction Cities, and North America is a radioactive wasteland, while much of the rest of the world is the stronghold of the Anti-Traction League, an organisation that seeks to stop cities from moving and thus stop the intense consumption of the planet's resources. In the world of Traction Cities, nations no longer exist - each city is an individual state.


London is the principal Traction City in the novel. London's society is divided into four major and a number of minor Guilds. The Engineers are responsible for maintaining the machines necessary for the survival of London, many of which are found by the guild of historians. The Historians are in charge of collecting and preserving highly prized, often dangerous, but often decorative and sometimes even useful ancient artifacts which are sought after and traded, the head of this guild is Thaddeus Valentine. The Navigators are responsible for steering and plotting the course of London. The Merchants are in charge of running London's economy. London is officially ruled by an elected Mayor. The Lord Mayor is Magnus Crome, who is also the head of the Guild of Engineers.

Like most Traction Cities, London is shaped like a wedding cake, built on a series of tiers. This encourages the system of social classes, with the wealthier nobles living at the top of the city and the lower classes living further down, closer to the noise and pollution of the city's massive engines. Atop the whole of London, however, sits St Paul's Cathedral, the only building in London - and indeed all traction cities - known to have survived from pre-traction times. It is almost unmistakably the seventeenth century edifice designed by Sir Christopher Wren, because Chudleigh Pomeroy says 'It wasn't built to move'.[3]

Explanation of the novel's title

The title is a quotation from Act III, Scene iii of William Shakespeare's play Othello ("Othello: And O you mortal engines whose rude throats / Th'immoral Jove's dread clamors counterfeit..." - Line 352). It refers to the fact that the society of Traction Cities is not sustainable living (see Municipal Darwinism), and that the cities' engines are indeed mortal. The phrase ‘A darkling plain’ appears in the poem ‘Dover Beach’ by Matthew Arnold. (24 December 1822 – 15 April 1888) an English poet, and cultural critic “And we are here as on a darkling plain , Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight”.

Plot summary

Part One

The main character of Mortal Engines is Tom Natsworthy, a fifteen-year old orphan and a third class apprentice in the Guild of Historians.

The book opens with London chasing the town of Salthook over the dry bed of the North Sea, into Europe (now known as the Great Hunting Ground). Salthook is soon captured and dragged aboard. While assisting the head of the Guild of Historians, Thaddeus Valentine, in searching for relics in the captured town, Tom saves him from a knife-wielding girl. The girl jumps off London to evade pursuit, and Valentine pushes Tom off as well.

Tom awakens on the bare mud of the Great Hunting Ground, a desolate wasteland stretching in every direction. The girl, Hester Shaw, is there. She claims that Valentine killed her parents, scarring her horribly, and starts following London's wheel marks to try and catch up to it. Tom follows her.

The next morning, an upset Katherine is told by Valentine that Hester dragged Tom down the chute with her. Magnus Crome, the Lord Mayor, arrives at their home and has a private discussion which Katherine eavesdrops on. She finds out that Crome is sending Valentine on a reconnaissance flight between London and its mysterious goal, and that he is preparing something called "MEDUSA".

Tom and Hester keep walking through the Hunting Ground, and Hester tells Tom about her parents. They were killed by Valentine when she was young, because her mother refused to give him something called "MEDUSA". Later that day they encounter a small town, and Tom trades his seedy for some food. Unfortunately, they are tricked and drugged, with the intention of being sold as slaves at an upcoming "trading cluster" (a gathering of small towns for trading purposes).

Back in London, Crome speaks to a mysterious agent named Shrike (called Grike in the North American version), instructing him to take an airship and hunt down Hester Shaw. Valentine leaves on his reconnaissance mission, and Katherine decides to investigate about MEDUSA in his absence.

Tom and Hester escape from captivity, and a pilot named Anna Fang agrees to help them get home to London. She takes them aboard her airship, the Jenny Haniver, and they fly to Airhaven, an airborne Traction City kept aloft by an array of balloons. While eating at a cafe with some of Anna's friends, they are attacked by Shrike, who has managed to track them down. It is revealed that he is a Stalker, a robotic killing machine containing a human brain. In the resulting battle Airhaven is greatly damaged, but Tom and Hester manage to escape in a hot air balloon.

While they drift away on the wind, Hester tells Tom that she used to know Shrike. He found her half-dead after her parents' murder, when she was abandoned in the Great Hunting Ground, and he raised her. When she found out who Valentine was, and swore revenge, Shrike forbade her from going. So she ran away from him, and when she finally did find Valentine Tom thwarted her assassination attempt. However, she has no idea why Shrike was on a mission from the Lord Mayor of London.

The balloon eventually drifts down in the Rustwater Marshes (somewhere in Central Asia), and while Tom and Hester fly through the Rustwater marshes, Shrike catches up to them again. Hester asks him how he knows the Lord Mayor, and he replies that he went to London looking for her, but found Magnus Crome instead. Crome sent Shrike after Hester, in return for "his heart's desire." Before it is revealed what that is, Shrike is run over by a speeding town, which Tom and Hester narrowly avoid being run over by. They board the town that was chasing it and find that it is a pirate suburb, and they are taken captive.

Back on London, Katherine makes an appointment with Crome, who refuses to tell her anything. She decides to track down an apprentice Engineer who was nearby the waste chute the night Tom and Hester disappeared, and is horrified by the conditions she finds down in the Gut. Prisoners are being worked to death, and fed on their own faeces. She finds the apprentice, however, a pale boy her age named Bevis Pod. Bevis tells her that he thinks the Guild is building Stalkers, and that MEDUSA is some kind of device that London is relying on for survival. He agrees to help her sneak into a Guild meeting to discover more.

Meanwhile, Hester finds that she knows the mayor of the pirate suburb; his name is Chrysler Peavey, and she met him while she lived with Shrike. He refuses to let them go, until he realises that Tom is a Londoner. Peavey has delusions of becoming a gentleman, and agrees to free them if Tom teaches him etiquette.

The pirate suburb is heading through the marshes towards a mysterious prize. Ahead of them lies the Sea of Khazak, and a place called the Black Island, which houses a small static town and a refueling depot for airships. Peavey reveals that Airhaven has landed there to repair, and he intends to seize it. His suburb is amphibious, and inflates air-tanks to cross the sea to the Black Island.

Back in the Rustwater Marshes, Shrike (Grike) pulls himself free of the mud, having survived being run over. He follows the suburb's trail.

The Jenny Haniver bombs the suburb before it reaches the island, and Peavey reveals that Anna Fang is an Anti-Traction League agent. While crossing the Sea of Khazak, the suburb runs into a reef and sinks, Tom, Hester, Peavey and a handful of pirates reach the shores. Peavey refuses to give up and leads them onward, despite the fact they no longer have any chance of capturing Airhaven. As Airhaven is about to take off, Peavey is caught in quicksand and his pirates mutiny and shoot him before he sinks. They accuse Tom and Hester of ruining their lives, and are about to kill them when Shrike shows up and kills the pirates.

That same night on London, Katherine and Bevis sneak into a secret Guild meeting and learn that MEDUSA is an ancient superweapon recovered from an American military base. Crome intends to use it to break through the Shield-Wall, an immense fortress-city blocking the only pass into the lands of the Anti-Traction League, protecting them from hungry cities. First, however, he intends to test fire it. The Engineers watch, entranced, as the dome on top of St. Paul's Cathedral begins to open.

On the Black Island, Shrike reveals that "his heart's desire" was Hester as a Stalker; in return for killing her, Crome agreed to resurrect her as Shrike's mechanical daughter. He is about to kill her when Tom grabs a sword from one of the fallen pirates and kills him. Hester screams at Tom, claiming she would have been happier as a Stalker. Their fight is interrupted as the northern sky fills with a green light.

On London, Katherine and Bevis watch as MEDUSA fires a brilliant ray of energy at a city that had been chasing London. It is incinerated entirely, and they are horrified, but the people of London only cheer.

Part Two

On the Black Island, Tom and Hester are found by a patrol that includes Anna Fang. Tom is shocked to find that she is an agent of the Anti-Traction League, but realises she is still his friend. She tells him that she suspects the green flash was related to MEDUSA, and has learnt that London is headed for the Shield-Wall. Tom and Hester agree to go there with her.

They fly east in the Jenny Haniver, stopping at several Traction Cities which are all fleeing away from the scene where MEDUSA was fired, terrified that London is unstoppable. After flying over the Himalayas, which have grown to encircle the entire land of Shan Guo (leading nation of the Anti-Traction League), they arrive at the Shield-Wall: a massive wall of basalt and metal built across a mountain pass, with the city of Batmunkh Gompa built on its interior side. Tom and Hester attend a military strategy meeting, where Anna Fang urges the governor of the Shield-Wall to launch his fleet of gunships and destroy London before it can come into range. Tom is upset at this, and goes to explore the city and come to grips with his feelings. While exploring, he recognises Valentine in disguise, and follows him.

As London heads towards the mountains, Katherine spends much time in the History Museum, where she is hiding Bevis from his superiors, and slowly falling in love with him. While speaking with some of the Historians, she learns that her father used to go on expeditions with a woman named Pandora Shaw, and finds that she was murdered six or seven years ago, leaving behind a daughter named Hester Shaw. Katherine realises that her father must have killed Hester's parents, and is heartbroken.

At the Shield-Wall, Tom loses track of Valentine and goes to warn Anna Fang instead. She suspects Valentine's mission is to destroy the Shield-Wall's air fleet, and goes to stop him. Tom then finds Hester and tells her that Valentine is in Batmunkh Gompa. They go to the top of the Shield-Wall, where the fleet is burning, and chasing after Hester, Tom gets lost in a maze of tunnels that go through the wall. He emerges on a battlement where Anna Fang and Valentine are locked in a sword fight. Valentine, however, is no match for Fang who eventually disarms him. Valentine manages to buy enough time for his airship to arrive, which distracts Fang long enough for him to grab his fallen sword and run her through. With her last breath, Anna Fang promises Valentine that Hester Shaw will find him. Thaddeus leaps off the battlements onto his airship, to escape.

Tom links up with Hester and they realise they have to stop London from reaching the Shield-Wall; now that the fleet has been destroyed, it is defenceless. They take the Jenny Haniver and follow Valentine's airship west, towards London.

At the same time, Katherine and Bevis are assembling a bomb to try and destroy MEDUSA. They are discovered by security from the Guild of Engineers, but the Historians help them escape. They reach the Top Tier, where a function is being held to celebrate the arrival of London at the Shield Wall, and Bevis hastily hugs Katherine and whispers "I love you". Tom sets Hester down on the same tier, and promises to circle and return for her, but he is attacked by Valentine's airship (which has already dropped Valentine off at the function). Tom shoots the airship down, and it lands in a fiery heap on the Top Tier, killing Bevis.

Hester is captured by the Guild of Engineers' security Stalkers, and taken to St. Paul's. Valentine and Crome are there, preparing to fire MEDUSA. Katherine arrives just as Valentine is about to kill Hester, and throws herself in front of the blow, run through by his sword. She falls on MEDUSA's keyboard, damaging it, and Valentine calls for help. Only Hester helps him; the Engineers are worrying about MEDUSA.

The flames from Valentine's airships are consuming the Top Tier, and Valentine and Hester carry Katherine out onto the roof of St.Paul's. Tom brings the Jenny Haniver down to rescue them, but Katherine has died, and Valentine shouts at Hester to save herself. She jumps onto the airship, and they fly away just as MEDUSA's energy beam misfires, incinerating the device along with most of London.

Tom is devastated over the loss of his city, and of Katherine - but he realises he barely knew Katherine, and it is Hester that he loves. Together the two of them fly away in the Jenny Haniver to start a new life.

Movie Adaptations

In December 2009, it was stated that the New Zealand filmmaker Peter Jackson intended to make a movie based on Mortal Engines.[4] In April 2010, it was confirmed that WETA are in fact working on the movie, and that Peter Jackson will be both directing and producing. Apparently the film is to be shot in Stereoscopic 3D.[citation needed]

See also

Book collection.jpg Novels portal


  1. ^ Peter Jackson Sets Sights on Post-Apocalyptic Terror
  2. ^ Reeve (2001). Mortal Engines. p. 42. 
  3. ^ Reeve (2001). Mortal Engines. p. 63. 
  4. ^ Chapman, Katie (22 December 2009). "Peter Jackson to adapt sci-fi series". The Dominion Post. Retrieved 26 October 2011. 

External links

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