Mortal Engines

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Mortal Engines
Mortal engines.jpg
AuthorPhilip Reeve
Cover artistDavid Frankland
CountryUnited Kingdom
SeriesMortal Engines Quartet[1]
GenreYoung adult
Publication date
16 November 2001
Media typePrint (hardback and paperback)
Followed byPredator's Gold 

Mortal Engines is a young-adult science fiction fantasy novel by Philip Reeve, published by Scholastic UK in 2001. The book focuses on a futuristic, steampunk version of London, now a giant machine striving to survive on a world running out of resources.

Mortal Engines is the first book of a series, Mortal Engines Quartet, published from 2001 to 2006.[1][2] It has been adapted as a 2018 feature film by Peter Jackson and Hollywood, though its movie universe is different than that of the book.[3]

The book has won a Nestlé Smarties Book Prize and was shortlisted for the 2002 Whitbread Award, as well as the ALA's Notable Books for Children award in 2004.[4][5] Mortal Engines is among those which is going to be voted upon for their favourite Blue Peter Book Award winning title from the last two decades as part of celebrating 20 years of brilliant children's books.[6]



The book is set in a post-apocalyptic world, ravaged by a "Sixty Minute War" that was so violent it caused massive geological upheaval. To escape the earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and other instabilities, a Nomad leader called Nikola Quercus (known as god Nicholas Quirke by the time of the book) installed huge engines and wheels on London, and enabled it to dismantle (or eat) other cities for resources. The technology rapidly spread, and evolved into what is known as "Municipal Darwinism". Although the planet has since become stable, Municipal Darwinism has spread to most of the world except for some parts of Asia and Africa. Much technological and scientific knowledge was lost during the war. Because scientific progress has almost completely halted, "Old Tech" is highly prized and recovered by scavengers and archaeologists. Europe, some of Asia, North Africa, Antarctica, and the Arctic are dominated by Traction Cities, whereas North America was so ravaged by the war that it is often identified as "the dead continent", and the rest of the world is the stronghold of the Anti-Traction League, which seeks to keep cities from moving and thus stop the intense consumption of the planet's remaining resources.

London is the principal Traction City in the novel, which has returned to a Victorian-era society. London's society is divided into four major and a number of minor Guilds. The Engineers are responsible for maintaining the machines necessary for the survival of London, many of which are found by the Guild of Historians. The Historians are in charge of collecting and preserving highly prized, often dangerous artefacts. The Navigators are responsible for steering and plotting the course of London. The Merchants are in charge of running London's economy. London is officially ruled by an elected Mayor. The Lord Mayor is Magnus Crome, who is also the head of the Guild of Engineers. Like most Traction Cities, London is built on a series of tiers. This encourages the system of social classes, with the wealthier nobles at the top of the city and the lower classes further down, closer to the noise and pollution of the city's massive engines. Atop the whole of London sits St Paul's Cathedral: the only building known to have survived the Sixty Minute War.


The book starts with the traction city of London chasing and catching a small mining town called Salthook. Tom Natsworthy, a teenage Apprentice Historian, is sent to the "Gut" of London, where towns are stripped for resources, after he skips a chore. Tom incidentally meets the Head of the Guild of Historians, Thaddeus Valentine, along with his daughter, Katherine. One of Salthook's residents, teenager Hester Shaw, attempts to assassinate Valentine, but Tom interferes and chases her. She reveals a disfiguring scar on her face and claims Valentine caused it, before escaping the London police through a chute. When Tom informs Valentine of her name, Valentine pushes him down into the chute. Tom and Hester recover outside of London within the Hunting Ground, and after an argument start following the city's tracks to reboard it.

The pair eventually boards a small town called Speedwell, where the owner Orme Wreyland drugs them and plans to sell the pair as slaves for profit at a trading cluster. Tom and Hester escape from Wreyland, meeting a friendly airship pilot called Anna Fang, who takes them in her airship the Jenny Haniver to the neutral flying city of Airhaven where they can find passage to London. At Airhaven, they are then attacked by a cyborg "Stalker" called Shrike, who was sent after them by the London Mayor Magnus Crome to kill them and bring their bodies to him.

Tom and Hester escape by stealing a hot-air balloon and drift over the Hunting Ground. Hester reveals that when she was a child, her parents were killed by Valentine as they would not give up an Ancient machine. Valentine then injured her and believed that she was dead. Hester escaped, and Shrike took care of her for most of her childhood. Despite the fact that Shrike was not supposed to have feelings, he developed a fatherlike bond with her. Wanting to avenge her parents, Hester left Shrike despite his pleas for her to stay and travelled to London. Shrike followed her, reaching London first, but was captured by Crome and used to create more Stalkers for London.

Hester sees that a London-built scoutship is following them and lowers the balloon onto the Hunting Ground. The scoutship, with Shrike on board, finds the pair and the Stalker confronts them. Before he can explain why he wants Hester to die, two chasing towns run over him, and Tom and Hester manage to board the second of these, a pirate town called Tunbridge Wheels. The mayor, Chrysler Peavy, who knows Hester from her days with Shrike, frees Tom as he is a resident of London and Peavy wishes to learn etiquette worthy of a Londoner gentleman. Tom convinces him to free Hester, and Peavy informs them that he plans to consume the downed Airhaven. While charging at it over shallow water, Tunbridge Wheels beaches on a coral reef, sinking it whilst the survivors escape inland with Tom and Hester. Whilst attempting to feebly retake Airhaven, Peavy gets stuck in a bog and his pirate subordinates shoot him, then attempt to execute Tom and Hester, but Shrike intervenes and kills the remaining pirates. Shrike explains to Hester that Crome had agreed to resurrect her as a Stalker similar to him after he brings back her body. She agrees to this, but Tom intervenes by stabbing Shrike in the eye, shutting him down and saving her life.

Valentine is sent away by Crome on a "secret mission", much to Katherine's dismay. Suspicious of her father, Katherine begins investigating events in London with the help of Apprentice Engineer Bevis Pod, whom she befriends after discovering he witnessed Tom chasing Hester. They discover that Valentine salvaged a monstrous ancient weapon called MEDUSA for London, and that the Guild of Engineers have reassembled it inside St Paul's Cathedral. The Cathedral's dome splits open to reveal MEDUSA, which is then used to destroy a much larger city pursuing London.

Tom and Hester are rescued by Fang, who is revealed to be an Anti-Traction League agent, and takes them to the Shield Wall of Batmunkh Gompa which protects the nation-state of the League. Fang suspects that the weapon that London has reassembled will be used to destroy the Shield Wall, and warns League Governor Khan of MEDUSA. Khan is skeptical that London will attack, but Fang insists that they should bomb London to destroy the weapon. Convinced that the League will kill innocent people and angry at the idea of destroying his home, Tom storms out and discovers Valentine has infiltrated Batmunkh Gompa as a monk. Tom raises the alarm, but Valentine successfully cripples the League's northern fleet of airships. Valentine duels and kills Fang by stabbing her in the neck, before escaping in his own airship the 13th Floor Elevator. Tom and Hester take the Jenny Haniver and fly it back to London in the hope of stopping Valentine and MEDUSA themselves.

With MEDUSA finally launched, Crome begins guiding London east towards the Anti-Traction League's base behind the Shield Wall of Batmunkh Gompa in order to destroy their defenses and devour all of their settlements. After Valentine returns, Katherine learns that MEDUSA was originally found by Hester's mother Pandora, and that he had killed her to steal it for London. He also admits that Katherine was likely Hester's half sister. Disillusioned, and horrified by the destructive power of the weapon, Katherine and Bevis conspire to plant a bomb to destroy MEDUSA, but are caught in their attempt.

The Guild of Historians, led by Tom's boss Chudleigh Pomeroy, come to their aid, and battle with the Engineers. Katherine travels up to the Top Tier to Saint Paul's Cathedral, with Bevis disguised as her captor. Tom and Hester arrive, and Hester attempts to fight her way to Valentine to avenge her parents. Tom is attacked by the 13th Floor Elevator above London and shoots it down. Bevis is killed when the airship crushes him, but Katherine is able to reach Saint Paul's Cathedral. Inside, she sees Hester brought before Valentine. When he attempts to kill her, Katherine jumps in her father's way and is fatally wounded. She falls onto a keyboard, interrupting the firing sequence of MEDUSA, and causing it to malfunction. Valentine and Hester, briefly putting aside their differences, try to take Katherine to Tom to get help, but she dies before they can reach him.

Hester leaves with Tom in the airship, while Valentine chooses to stay behind in London. MEDUSA finally misfires, obliterating most of the city and killing Valentine. Hester tries to comfort a grief-stricken Tom as they fly away in the Jenny Haniver, apparently the only survivors of the incident, and make their way to the Bird Roads.


A few of the people in Mortal Engines are named after places in Devon, where Reeve lives, including Chudleigh, Tamerton Foliot and the River Plym. In the quartet, Miss Plym and Chudleigh Pomeroy are both in the Guild of Historians, and Tamarton Foliot is an "Alternative" historian. Both Shrike and Smew are named after birds, and Pennyroyal is named after a flower.[7]

  • Hester Shaw, a wild 15-year-old girl. She is with copper hair and gray eyes.
  • Tom Natsworthy, a 15-year-old boy who is an apprentice Historian at the beginning of the series. Tom eventually has many diverse adventures across the world. Tom greatly admires the head of historians, Valentine. Tom possesses the trait of having a very strong sense of curiosity.
  • Anna Fang, an Asian pilot and former owner of the Jenny Haniver, she is also a leading agent of the Anti-Traction League. She is killed at the end of Mortal Engines but is Resurrected as the Stalker Fang, who overthrows the rulers of the League and installs herself as a military dictator.
  • Thaddeus Valentine, a dashing and handsome Historian often idolised by younger Historians - though his less public image involves murder and thievery as an agent of London. He is killed in the destruction of London by MEDUSA. He is, in fact, Hester's biological father.
  • Shrike (also known in the American release of the series as Grike), an ancient Stalker who raised Hester after her parents were killed.
  • Katherine Valentine, Thaddeus Valentine's daughter. After uncovering her father's dark secret, she attempts to stop him with help from Bevis Pod and the Guild of Historians. She is accidentally killed by Thaddeus shortly before the destruction of MEDUSA and London.


The title is a quotation from Act III, Scene iii of William Shakespeare's play Othello ("Othello: And O you mortal engines whose rude throats/Th'immortal Jove's dread clamors counterfeit..." – Line 352). It refers to the fact that the society of Municipal Darwinism is not sustainable living and that the cities' engines are indeed mortal.


Philip Reeve has stated that his plans to write a science fiction novel were laid in the late 1980s.[8]

The original drafts were intended to be an adult novel but after several rejections, Scholastic said they might be interested in Mortal Engines as a children's story. In the refactoring the story was simplified, removing several characters and much content such as the city politics that Reeve thought would not be interesting to children.[9]

The Mortal Engines world was originally written as an alternative universe set in the early 1900s, but Reeve says this turned out to require just too much explaining as how and where history could have diverged. He was inspired to start then due to The War of the Worlds.[9]

Critical reception[edit]

On Goodreads, ''Mortal Engines'' has a score of 3.92 out of 5.[10]

Publishers Weekly praised the book, calling it "staggering feat of engineering ... [that] ... offers new wonders at every turn".[11]


A film adaptation by Peter Jackson was announced in 2009.[12] In October 2016, Jackson announced that the film would be his next project as producer and co-writer, alongside long-time collaborators Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens. The film was directed by Jackson's long-time collaborator Christian Rivers.[13][14][15] The film premiered on 27 November 2018. It was released in the United Kingdom on 7 December 2018, and on 14 December 2018 in the US, received negative reviews and was a commercial failure.

On 23 February, 2020, online publication TechRadar published an article about the books that should be adapted for television; Mortal Engines is ranked the first as it hints about a high-impact TV series which is waiting to be made.[16]


  • Henry Keazor: "'Mortal Engines' und 'Infernal Devices': Architektur- und Technologie-Nostalgie bei Philip Reeve", in: Techniknostalgie und Retrotechnologie, edited by Andreas Böhn and Kurt Möser, Karlsruhe 2010, p. 129 - 147

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Hungry City Chronicles / Mortal Engines Quartet series listing at the Internet Speculative Fiction Database. Retrieved 23 November 2019. Select a title to see its linked publication history and general information. Select a particular edition (title) for more data at that level, such as a front cover image or linked contents.
  2. ^ Baker, Deirdre (4 August 2012). "More, What Came from the Stars, Summer of the Gypsy Moths, Mortal Engines, The Girl With Borrowed Wings: mini reviews". Toronto Star. Toronto, Ontario. Retrieved 9 August 2012.
  3. ^ Leadbeater, Alex (5 June 2018). "The 7 Biggest Changes Mortal Engines Makes To The Book". Screen Rant. Retrieved 29 October 2019.
  4. ^ Miska, Brad (22 December 2009). "Peter Jackson Sets Sights on Post-Apocalyptic Terror". Bloody Disgusting. Archived from the original on 24 December 2009. Retrieved 23 December 2009.
  5. ^ "2004 Notable Children's Books". Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC). Retrieved 22 January 2020.
  6. ^ BookTrust (20 February 2020). "Blue Peter celebrates 20 years of favourite children's books – time to pick a winner!". BookTrust. Retrieved 22 February 2020.
  7. ^ Jones, Rhys (9 October 2010). "An Interview with Philip Reeve". Retrieved 30 October 2010.
  8. ^ "The Mortal Engines Quartet…". Archived from the original on 1 June 2014.
  9. ^ a b SFFS Guest Talk – Philip Reeve. Nottingham University: YouTube. Archived from the original on 6 June 2016. Retrieved 27 November 2016.
  10. ^ "Mortal Engines (The Hungry City Chronicles, #1)". Archived from the original on 4 September 2018. Retrieved 26 November 2018.
  11. ^ "Children's Book Review: MORTAL ENGINES by Philip Reeve, Author . HarperCollins/Eos $16.99 (310p) ISBN 978-0-06-008207-9". Retrieved 26 November 2018.
  12. ^ Barton, Steve (23 December 2009). "Peter Jackson Revving His Mortal Engines". Dread Central. Archived from the original on 2 October 2013. Retrieved 3 October 2015.
  13. ^ Evans, Alan (25 October 2016). "Peter Jackson to produce film based on Mortal Engines books". The Guardian. Archived from the original on 25 October 2016. Retrieved 25 October 2016.
  14. ^ Evans, Alan (25 October 2016). "Peter Jackson to produce film based on Mortal Engines books". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Archived from the original on 25 October 2016. Retrieved 25 October 2016.
  15. ^ "Peter Jackson to try his hand at dystopian YA films with Mortal Engines". 25 October 2016. Archived from the original on 25 October 2016. Retrieved 25 October 2016.
  16. ^ St Leger, Henry; Roberts, Samuel (23 February 2020). "7 books that HBO, Netflix or Amazon should adapt for television". TechRadar. Retrieved 24 February 2020. 1. Mortal Engines
    Wait, didn’t we just have a film adaptation? There was a Mortal Engines movie back in 2018, produced by Peter Jackson and starring Misfits’ Robert Sheehan, but no one was much impressed by it. The four-part book series, by Philip Reeves, offers a thrilling, bleak, and immense post-apocalyptic dystopia, in which giant lumbering machine-cities chase each other across ravaged plains for spare parts.
    It’s a story of risk, robots, romance, and rollicking adventure – with a good dose of enthusiasm (and scepticism) for the wonders of engineering, especially in times of war. While you’d need the budget to do it justice, there’s certainly a high-impact TV series waiting here to be made.
  • Keazor, Henry (2010). "'Mortal Engines' und 'Infernal Devices': Architektur- und Technologie-Nostalgie bei Philip Reeve". In Böhn, Andreas; Möser, Kurt (eds.). Techniknostalgie und Retrotechnologie. pp. 129–147.

External links[edit]