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Mortal Engines (and the Hungry City Chronicles) by Philip Reeve.

Updated on February 3, 2010
David Frankland's beautiful original cover art.
David Frankland's beautiful original cover art.

"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."

This was one book that had me from the opening sentence, and the series is an all-time favourite of mine. I'd have to say I disagree that these books should be resigned to "Young Adult" or childrens' sections - not that there's anything wrong with YA fiction, far from it - as an "Old Adult" I found more than enough here to keep me going.

Reeve's world is astonishingly well imagined, easily the best world-building I've read since Sun of Suns, a future founded on Municipal Darwinism that has thoroughly Steampunk sensibilities: It features huge belching cities, airships, Londoners, mechanical men, the freedom of the airways and the misery of slavery.

This is a world where cities chase and eat each other, the Resurrected dead stalk the earth, and lives are bought, sold, won and lost daily.

Listen to an extract from the book.

It's YA fiction Jim, but not as we know it...

OK. I understand why Mortal Engines is classified as Young Adult; the protagonists are teenage (and later make way for more teenagers), and the story is one of adventure, love and growing up. However, there's a major difference between this work and other YA fiction I both like (Skullduggery Pleasant?) and otherwise (Harry Potter?) - life is cheap in the Hunting Grounds. There are major characters that die - sometimes unexpectedly - in Mortal Engines, and I found this refreshing. These stories are dark, well constructed and have plots that twist like a snake fighting a mongoose - don't pass over them just because they're in the childrens' section!

The books follow the lives of Tom Natsworthy, an Apprentice Historian from London, and Hester Shaw, a scarred outcast. He's no hero, and she's not beautiful. Tom is a perfect everyman protagonist, and Hester is a lovable rogue - initially, at least. Reeve sends our heroes across land and air, under the sea, over the Arctic ice, to the mountains of the orient...

All four books (Mortal Engines, Predator's Gold, Infernal Devices, and A Darkling Plain) are incredibly tightly plotted; plans fail with gay abandon, old adversaries return, heroes fall and villains rise, with practically every chapter involving some kind of plot twist, revelation, or reversal of fate. The characters and locations are pretty solidly constructed, although there are a few too many "coincidences" in places for me to keep by disbelief suspended. However, they are a joy to read and will definitely be passed to my children when they're old enough.

The last word:

PROS:

+ Steampunk, death, poverty and misery are all refreshing!

+ Tightly plotted, interesting characters

CONS:

- Some dubious "miraculous escapes" in later books

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