Mortal Engines – [The Hungry City Chronicles #1] – Philip Reeve

The great Traction City London lumbers after a small town, eager to strip its prey of all assets and move on.

Resources on the Great Hunting Ground that once was Europe are so limited that mobile cities must consume one another to survive, a practice known as Municipal Darwinism.

Tom, an apprentice in the Guild of Historians, saves his hero, Head Historian Thaddeus Valentine, from a murder attempt by the mysterious Hester Shaw — only to find himself thrown from the moving city by Valentine himself and stranded with Hester in the Out Country.

As they struggle to follow the tracks of the city, the sinister plans of London’s leaders begin to unfold…


Why you should read this book

The novel has won the Nestle Smarties Prize and was shortlisted for the the Whitebread Prize.  Novel has generated three sequels and two prequels.  In the U.S. the books are marketed as “the Hungry City Chronicles.” Peter Jackson picked it up and made it into a pretty decent movie.

If you have seen Howl’s Moving Castle, this takes it a bit further and instead of a moving house, you get a moving city with everything it encompasses. The logistics of how a city moves were lost in time and we’re told that static cities are a thing of the past for at least 1000 years. Bigger cities like London swallow up smaller cities and towns and even farms. It’s Darwinism on wheels.

As Tom and Hester (whose name means “Star”) get to know each other during the ramblings in the countryside and even get drugged and nearly sold as slaves, we see through Tom’s eyes this magical world where archeology means digging through today’s present and the meaning and purpose of most items we’re currently using has been lost. A CD is used as a trading item for a few days lodging and a bit of food. It’s shiny and pretty and can work as a mirror.

The two characters work well together and Hester reveals bits of herself and why she hates Valentine enough to want to kill him. When she was little she witnessed how Valentine, a “long-time friend” of her mother’s came by one day and saw an artefact that her aviatrix mother discovered during one of her archaeological searches. Hester’s mother would often find rare and valuable items like ceramic vases and collectibles but this one was part of a large weapon which is called Medusa. Valentine asks for the item and when Hester’s mom (I think her name was Pandora) refuses to give it up, she gets killed (stabbed) and Hester barely escapes Valentine by running away but not before he slashes her face.


I liked how for a YA book, it wasn’t filled with drama, love triangles or messy situations. It’s a clean book with better focus on the story than on making Tom and Hester fall in love. It does eventually happen but it’s a natural outcome rather than a result of forced situations (like most books are).

“Was this what falling in love was like? Not something big and amazing that you knew about straight away, like in a story, but a slow thing that crept over you in waves until you woke up one day and found that you were head-over-heels with someone quite unexpected”

I loved the description of London and the way this mega place moves about. The mining town saw the danger and turned tail, but already the huge caterpillar tracks under London were starting to roll faster and faster. Soon the city was lumbering in hot pursuit, a moving mountain of metal that rose in seven tiers like the layers of a wedding cake, the lower levels wreathed in engine smoke, the villas of the rich gleaming white on the higher decks, and above it all the cross on top of St. Paul’s Cathedral glinting gold, two thousand feet above the ruined earth.


London will never stop moving. Movement is life. When we have devoured the last wandering city and demolished the last static settlement we will begin digging. We will build great engines, powered by the heat of the earth’s core, and steer our planet from its orbit. We will devour Mars, Venus, and the asteroids. We shall devour the sun itself, and then sail on across the gulf of space. A million years from now our city will still be traveling, no longer hunting towns to eat, but whole new worlds!”

When a massive city runs out of fuel, it cannot move anymore and it can become prey for other, smaller cities. It is shown in the book when Tom and Hester run across a smaller city which was being “devoured” by other towns. Metal was stripped apart, cities would come and “feed” from miles away. Everything was re-purposed and recycled as the The Great Hunting Ground was becoming scarce in prey.

And I also loved the world building.

  • The Great Hunting Ground – Consists of Europe and Northern Asia, and is the domain of the Traction Cities. It is a muddy wasteland, in which the constant movement of the cities has destroyed all vegetation. The land is identified by city-dwellers as the “Out-Country”.
  • The Dead Continent – North America, supposedly reduced to an irradiated wasteland by the Sixty Minute War.
  • He ran across the main hall and down galleries full of things that had somehow survived through all the millennia since the Ancients destroyed themselves in that terrible flurry of orbit-to-earth atomics and tailored-virus bombs called the Sixty Minute War

  • MEDUSA is an Ancient superweapon that was reconstructed in London’s Saint Paul’s Cathedral. It’s alluded to being an energy beam that radiates from the weapon’s firing head. Some people didn’t like this as they said it was a waste, as they cannot salvage anything.
  •  “What is a MEDUSA?” asked Hester. “You know something, don’t you? About what my mum and dad were killed for?” “I’m afraid not,” the aviatrix replied. “I wish I did. But I heard the name once. Six years ago another League agent managed to get into London, posing as a crewman on a licensed airship. He had heard something that must have intrigued him, but we never learned what it was. The League had only one message from him, just two words: Beware MEDUSA. The Engineers caught him and killed him.” “How do you know?” asked Tom. “Because they sent us back his head,” said Miss Fang. “Cash on Delivery.” That evening she set the Jenny Haniver down on one of the fleeing towns, a respectable four-decker called Peripatetiapolis that was steering south to lair in the mountains beyond the Sea of Khazak. At the air-harbor there they heard more news of what had happened to Panzerstadt-Bayreuth. “I saw it!” said an aviator. “I was a hundred miles away, but I still saw it. A tongue of fire, reaching out from London’s Top Tier and bringing death to everything”


The bad bits:

There is a large amount of obvious foreshadowing, and many of the characters are thinly sketched. In many regards they feel like simple avatars for the expression of the world around them. Yet again, the idea of this novel is certainly bigger than the novel’s telling. In a charming way the novel’s faults appear whimsical in adulthood, with the world existing as a patchwork of unique science fiction ideas.

Almost everything about it was geared toward young readers, from the young wholesome protagonists who are eager to throw themselves into the fray, to their fight to overthrow a corrupt system, to their grand magnanimous ideals, to the industrialised dystopian setting, to the bleak look at an environmentally devastating future, to the moustache twirling villains, to the non-stop action, and the list goes on, right into the spoilers. So I’ll stop listing things here.

All in all, a highly recommended series, possibly best aimed at 13-16 year olds, who are looking for something in a science fiction vein. It’s certainly much better written than The Hunger Games and has as interesting or more interesting a world and characters!

I wish I had read this book about 20 years ago ’cause I know I would have given it a 5/5.

[imdb id=”tt1571234″]

One thought on “Mortal Engines – [The Hungry City Chronicles #1] – Philip Reeve

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: