Big Wheels Keep on Turnin

Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve (2001)

I just finished this book for my Literature for Children class, which is supposed to cover kid’s books from infancy through 6th grade. Mortal Engines is NOT for kids that age. I’m not sure what my professor was thinking.

I’m not even sure where to begin to explain this book. It is all over the place. But here goes.

The first of a four-book series, Mortal Engines sets the stage–a stage that is a barren, post-apocalyptic world that was destroyed by the Ancients’ nuclear Sixty Minute War, and in which most of the cities are Traction Cities, which roll around on huge tank-like tracks and devour smaller cities to accumulate resources.

Orphan Tom Natsworthy works in London (where all power is controlled by Lord Mayor Magnus Chrome) as an Apprentice Historian , whose job is to find and preserve artifacts from the Ancients, such as “seedies” and computer scraps. Tom meets his idol and Head Historian Thaddeus Valentine, and in a sudden bustle, saves him from a disfigured knife-thrusting girl, who jumps off the moving city. To Tom’s surprise, Valentine pushes him off after the girl, causing Tom and the reader to question his heroic and handsome appearance. Amazingly, both Tom and the girl, whose name is Hester Shaw, survive the fall but are now stranded in the desolate “Hunting Grounds.” Hester is on a mission though–a mission to kill Valentine, whom she says murdered her parents and left her with her scarred face–and Tom is left with no other options but to go with her.

Meanwhile, Magnus Chrome sends his man Valentine off on a secret operation and Valentine’s daughter Katherine (whom Tom has the hots for) sets out to solve the mystery of this scar-faced girl who tried to kill her dad. Katherine, who has always been on the upper crust of London society, soon learns some of the shady ways the city operates, and the golden image of her father, her best friend, comes into question.

The chapters bounce back and forth mainly between Tom’s storyline and Katherine’s storyline, with a few side jumps to Valentine, Chrome, and Shrike (a.k.a. Grike in the North American version–what’s that about?), the post-death-robot-killing-machine-but-maybe-still-has-a-heart-of-some-sort fella. Although it took me a while to follow what was happening, Reeve definitely keeps your interest by all the jumping. It was a page turner, for sure.

But a children’s book? I don’t think so. Not only did it deal with really intense apocalyptic, environmental, and imperialistic issues, but the violence is CRAZY. I think I can tell you, without ruining any plot lines, that SO MANY PEOPLE DIE IN THIS BOOK. In HORRIBLY awful ways–sword through the throat, sword through the chest, explosions, nuclear meltdown, the list goes on and on… At the end, I said out loud,  in my quiet, sunny apartment, WHAT THE…..? Like many books in series, the ending isn’t really an ending, but I’m not sure that I’ll pick up the next one. There are only so many more characters left, and I don’t really feel like watching them kick the bucket too.

1.5 stars


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