I believe that some of the very best speculative fiction can be found on the shelves of the Young Adult section in bookshops and libraries. A case in point is the marvellous work of British author Phillip Reeve, in his Mortal Engines Quartet. If you were to ask me what speculative fiction books we should be shoving into eager readers’ hands, these books would come first. Rumour has it that Peter Jackson is interested in adapting the books for film, but after The Hobbit trilogy, who knows? Handled by the right people I’d certainly love to see this story on the big screen.
Here’s why …
‘It was a dark, blustery afternoon in spring, and the city of London was chasing a small mining town across the dried-out bed of the old North Sea.’
That’s the opening sentence of Mortal Engines, the first book in the series. And how cool is it? How absolutely imaginative and attention-grabbing and Wow! I have to keep reading! I dunno, maybe it doesn’t grab you. But it sure as hell grabbed me. I kept on reading and raced my way through all four books of the series. For me, this series stands up there with the amazing Chrestomanci books by the late and much-missed Diana Wynn Jones (whose books I also highly recommend!) and leaves a great many more in the dust.
The series is set in a post-apocalyptic future in which the world lies in ruins following The Sixty Minute War. The cities that survived the onslaught now exist on huge traction feet, like heavy-machinery caterpillars, and roam the world’s wastelands in search of resources. In many cases the big cities devour the small, and sometimes trade with each other if a clear-cut victory is in doubt. Each city is its own little nation, with rules and history and political ambitions.
London just happens to be more ambitious than most …
The action of the series centres on two main characters: Tom Natsworthy and Hester Shaw. Tom is an apprentice historian who crosses paths with the mysterious and maimed Hester when she appears in his home city of London seeking revenge on the man who tried to kill her. From their first fateful encounter it’s clear that Tom and Hester are destined to travel a path fraught with mystery and danger. Their lives are inextricably entwined. The series is about these two people as much as the life-and-death struggles of the cities and the fierce politics and war stuff that goes on.
It’s really great to see a YA series with two central characters, male and female, where both are treated with equal agency and respect. There’s a lot said about the idea that girls will read books starring boys, but boys won’t read books starring girls – and that the bias continues into adulthood. I honestly don’t know how prevalent it is, even though anecdotally I do think there is a great deal of merit to the proposition. Certainly it’s hard to get boys/men to identify with girls/women in books/media when, culturally, women are seen as inferior in just about every way. Nobody daydreams about being the inferior person. Most people daydream about being the hero. And in human culture, for the most part, that means being a man. But in his books Reeve does a great job of telling his story with an even hand, and I can’t imagine people turning off because of Hester. She’s a wonderful character – and so is Tom.
(In a weird way they kind of remind me of Steve Rogers and Natasha Romanov aka Captain America and Black Widow. Love those two together. And I’m sorry, why is there not a stand-alone Black Widow movie???? Let Whedon do it. It’s not like he’s busy or anything …)
Okay, back to the books. Mortal Engines comes first, then it’s Predator’s Gold, Infernal Devices and A Darkling Plain. The world opens out as the story progresses, introducing us to the other major players in this desperate battle for supremacy over the surviving populations of the earth. I don’t want to get more detailed than that because generally speaking I don’t do spoilers. I just leap up and down waving my hands in the air shrieking Read this! Read this!
And that’s what I’m doing now. Truly. Grab yourself a copy of Mortal Engines. I can’t imagine you won’t be thrilled and delighted and enthralled and hooked within a page or two. Me, I was hooked after that first sentence. Reeve is a splendidly delicious writer. He has class, he has style, he has an astonishing imagination, enormous compassion and empathy, and a truly elegant turn of phrase. This series is what speculative fiction should be: boldly inventive, heartwarming, entertaining, thought-provoking. Simply put, I think it’s some of the best writing ever in the genre.
If you do read these books and love them, know that there is also a prequel trilogy: Fever Crumb, Web of Air and Scrivener’s Moon. Being hideously behind in my reading I’ve got the last two on my Must Read pile, but I hope to get cracking on them soon.