Philip Reeve – Mortal EnginesDecember 22nd, 2010 by Peter
Confession time; I love Steampunk. I can’t go as far as to say I am a Steampunk; I don’t have the money or the piston operated top hat, but I wish I did, and that’s enough to identify me with those magnificent men and their logistically unfeasible flying machines. It is perhaps a by-product of admiring the style and manners of Victorian England and playing too many video games, but I will nevertheless make no apologies for it; I unashamedly love Steampunk.
As such, it was with delight and perhaps slight trepidation (a certain restrained joy, I suppose?) that I took to Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines on the recommendation of a friend. As much as I love the genre, I must admit to never having attempted a book of it before, limiting myself to only comics, games and artwork. It was much to my elation then that I discovered in Mortal Engines to be more than just a vehicle for Steampunk ideas (it was a worst case scenario thought; there are a lot who will cash in on niche fads), but a fully formed and engaging universe. Mortal Engines is the first part of a Quartet, and I can proudly declare I am instantly scrambling for the others.
Allow me to set the scene: It is the future, by some thousand years or so, and the world as we know it has been destroyed; from the back-story given we assume we were the architects of our own demise. In this dystopian future, humanity has developed into what is known as ‘The Traction Age’; known as such for the evolution of cities from static, sprawling urban settlements into huge, stacked, mobile dwellings that trundle across barren wastelands in search of other Traction Cities to devour; this is what they call ‘Municipal Darwinism’ at work; the evolution of Survival of the Fittest for the Traction Age. As the story progresses, we are presented with an array of ethical issues arising from this new doctrine, and the dangerous limits some people will go to in the name of this ‘Dog eat Dog’ world.
What struck me first about this wondrous world, is that it looks to our future. Standard Steampunk relies on the ‘what if’ with regards to our past, and how if the Victorian Age had been an era of technological advancement on the scale of the 20th Century, how life would have been. Reeve instead uses the future, allowing him an entirely blank canvas with which to work and manipulate his Steampunk odyssey; the traditional elements of Steampunk are there; airships, archaic fashion, etcetera, but Reeve is free to do with them as he wishes.
With the past so carefully untouched, Reeve is also able to ground his novel with a certain realism; their past, our present, still happened, and their references to it give authority to the notion that the fantasy of Mortal Engines is not entirely balderdash. It is, of course it is, but with our continuum so firmly untouched by Reeve, we are able to accept his world without the sense of alien displacement that may come from someone who has re-written history in an obvious manner.
Stylistically, Reeve writes with elegance, without being overblown. There is a delicate precision to his writing; always using the words to give necessary detail. He is never flamboyant; every word seems designed to further character development or push the plot along. It never becomes bogged down in pages of superfluous introspection or emotional diatribe; the character’s thought processes are conveyed with a startlingly real simplicity. If anything, Reeve is sometimes too brisk in his description, and the reader who is not careful may find a double-take necessary. This would hardly be worth mention were it not for the fact he does this once at a fairly crucial point of character interaction.
The story is an exploratory one. Our protagonists travel mainland Europe, introducing us to places from our present, transformed into new and exciting places we wish we could visit. This is Reeve revealing to us the world he has created, whilst seamlessly driving his story forward without the feeling that the plot is being forced through spaces too small just to accommodate the exploration. Reeve furthermore holds no punches with his plot. Reeve’s precise writing is often very matter of fact, giving an often gritty, occasionally sinister and, at points, undeniably dark edge to the text. Additionally, Reeve flips easily between the surprisingly humorous, which is welcome, as well as the heart wrenchingly tragic.
All of this combines to make Mortal Engines an unforgettable, engaging read from its timid, isolated beginning to its open ended, overwhelming conclusion. A dangerously addictive universe, Philip Reeve takes Steampunk and makes it his own with a style and grace I could never have expected. Moving metal cities, airships, sky pirates and amusing made-up curse words.
What’s not to love!?