The Mortal Engines – Before the Adaptation

It’s going to be another year until The Mortal Engines, based on a novel by Philip Reeve hits cinemas. Time to look at a book that is supposed to be the first chapter of a «new saga».

Hester Shaw didn’t have it easy. Well, she did. And then she didn’t. Having lived a fatherless life on a static island in a world where cities are giant behemoths on wheels, it all was upended when Thaddeus Valentine showed up. The man, a famous explorer and Historian from the city of London, killed her mother and scarred her by slashing his sword across her face.

Now Hester is out for revenge.

This is pretty much where it looks like where the movie, opening in cinemas December 2018, appears to open. Only that the book doesn’t open there. Because author Philip Reeve opens his book with Tom Natsworthy, an apprentice Historian third class. So let’s get this out of the way: Tom Natsworthy is the book’s biggest weakness. Not because his character is badly written, but because he just isn’t all that interesting. Pitted against someone as interesting and captivating as Hester Shaw, he will always pale, especially in a town eat town world.

That said, let’s get into it.

A Brilliant Concept

I’m a sucker for some good science fiction and The Mortal Engines nicely scratches that itch. It’s highly speculative and thinking about the logistics and underlying technology of cities on wheels as well as the world necessary to make moving cities work doesn’t add up in any way, shape or form. However, you’re in for quite the ride. This is a world where cities are on wheels eat each other – referred to as «Municipal Darwinism» in the book – and where the skies are the domain of the Aviators.

Traction City

A Traction City is a municipal body on wheels.

At its core, though, the book is not necessarily about how cities can be put on wheels and how cities in the skies can work out. It’s about how people see the world. This is especially apparent in the character of Tom Natsworthy, the book’s lead. He was raised in the faintly fascist city of London, led by an engineer with secrets, and he is a firm believer of municipal darwinism. This concept isn’t really elaborated upon, but just enough that we get the general idea of it. Basically, it’s okay for a city to prey on smaller cities in order to survive.

By far the best part is, though, that author Philip Reeve has elected to not make a big secret of the locations of his book. In many books of its caliber, the author would keep the reveal that it was Earth all along to the the third act, to make you go «Woah, what a twist». But Reeve has London the city we know today to be in England. Other cities feature as well, as do suburbs and towns. Tunbridge Wheels, formerly known as the static city Tunbridge Wells, is a pirate town, having been taken over by a band of ruthless men and women who used to travel in a smaller town. And when that town was eaten, they took over the larger town.

Giving the book a firm ground in reality makes it a lot more appealing and a lot more relatable in a sense. Especially when it concerns the Historians’ work. Because why are we supposed to care about furniture of the 21st century of some faraway planet? In fact, it becomes a challenge to figure out the less obvious locations such as The Black Island, near the great Shield Wall that separates the Hunting Grounds of the former continent of Europe and the bountiful lands of sortakinda Asia.

Hester Shaw, Hester Shaw

While the world is just about fleshed out enough to make sense in the context of the story – often making stuff up as the book goes along, it feels – the characters have a similar fate. Sometimes, it seems that the characters have to be whatever the scene requires them to be. This is especially apparent in the character of Tom Natsworthy who goes from a generally clueless character to a battle-ready pilot of an airship in a few paragraphs.

Hera Hilmar Hester Shaw

Hera Hilmar as Hester Shaw, photoshop by Reddit user letterstosnapdragon

On the other hand, there’s the breakout character of Hester Shaw. At around the halfway marker of the book, you will start to realize that you’re not actually all that interested in Natsworthy, because there’s Hester Shaw. Her backstory is actually fleshed out. She was raised by a robot after being hideously scarred and she’s on a quest for revenge. This beats «apprentice third class» and virtually no backstory by any length.

Too bad. Because an engaging pair of leads would have been nicer to have than just the one character that steals the show. It would have been interesting to have Natsworthy be a stronger character who doesn’t get convinced of any new idealistic view within three sentences. Or to fall back on his old views whenever the scene calls for it so that there’s a few lines of character drama and you remember that, yes, Tom Natsworthy is indeed a character that is in this book.

Still, The Mortal Engines is a quick, fun read that lives mostly off its concept and Hester Shaw rather than the lead character who we’re introduced to first. It suffers from the occasional internal inconsistency, namely the spelling of Anti-Traction that is sometimes spelled AntiTraction, which is something every good editor should have caught.

A Look at The Movie

Trailer Screengrab Hester Shaw

Hester Shaw, as portrayed by Hera Hilmar in the first trailer of Mortal Engines

The movie, however, seems to have realized this. In the trailer, you see one character and one character only: Hester Shaw, played by Hera Hilmar. There is one thing noticeably different about the appearance of the Icelandic actress: Her face. In the book, she’s described as hideously scarred and missing an eye. However, Hera Hilmar’s eyes seem intact, even though we don’t see the lower half of her face as it is covered by her trademark red shawl from the movie.

Other than that, there’s not much to be seen other than spectacle, again focussing on the book’s strengths, namely the Traction City of London. All in all, the movie looks like a good thing to be excited about.




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