Mortal Engines

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For a collection of short stories by Stanislaw Lem, see Mortal Engines (Lem).
Mortal Engines
Mortal engines.jpg
Author Philip Reeve
Cover artist David Frankland
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Series Mortal Engines Quartet
Genre Youth Fiction 12 and up. Young Adult/Teen Science fiction
Publisher Scholastic
Publication date
Media type Print (hardback and paperback)
Pages 293
ISBN 0-439-97943-9
OCLC 50714166
Followed by Predator's Gold

Mortal Engines is the first of four novels in Philip Reeve's quartet of the same name. The book focuses on a futuristic, steampunk version of London, now a giant machine striving to survive on a world running out of resources. The book has won a Nestlé Smarties Book Prize and was shortlisted for the 2002 Whitbread Award.[1]


The book is set in a post-apocalyptic world, ravaged in ages past by nuclear warfare, the "Sixty Minute War", which caused massive geological upheaval. To escape the earthquakes, volcanoes and other instabilities, a Nomad leader called Nikola Quercus, designed a system, where entire cities became immense vehicles known as Traction Cities, and must consume one another in order to maintain themselves in a world deprived of natural resources. Although the planet has since become stable again, Traction Cities are still used despite originally having been intended to escape from natural disasters.

Much technological and scientific knowledge was lost, and what remains of "Old Tech", artifacts remaining from our more developed society, are dug up and pored over by scavengers and archeologists. Europe, some of Asia, North Africa, Antarctica and the Arctic are inhabited by Traction Cities, and North America is a war-ravaged wasteland, while much of the rest of the world is the stronghold of the Anti-Traction League, an organization that seeks to keep cities from moving and thus stop the intense consumption of the planet's remaining resources, in an effort to restore the world to its prewar state of peace. In the world of Traction Cities, nations no longer exist - each city is an individual state.


London is the principal Traction City in the novel, which, now many hundreds of years after the sixty-minute war, has returned to a Victorian-era society and technological state. 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, but decorative and sometimes even useful ancient artifacts which are sought after and traded; the head of this guild is Thaddeus Valentine. 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 shaped like a wedding cake, built on a series of tiers. This encourages the system of social classes, with the wealthier nobles living at the top of the city and the lower classes living 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 in London - and indeed all traction cities - known to have survived from pre-traction times. It is almost unmistakably the seventeenth century edifice designed by Sir Christopher Wren.

Explanation of the novel's title[edit]

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.


The great Traction City lumbers after a small town, eager to strip it 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 an attempt on his life by the mysterious Hester Shaw, in an effort to save the city — only to find himself thrown from the city 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 and it becomes a race against time to save not only the greatest Traction City, but the world.


Philip Reeve has stated that his plans to write a science fiction novel were laid in the late 1980s.[2]

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 Reeve thought would not be interesting to children (city politics).[3]

The Mortal Engines world was originally written as an alternate universe in the early 1900s, but Reeve says this turned out to require just too much explaining as how and where history could have diverged.[3]

Movie adaptation[edit]

In December 2009, it was stated that the New Zealand filmmaker Peter Jackson intended to make a movie based on Mortal Engines.[4]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Miska, Brad (22 December 2009). "Peter Jackson Sets Sights on Post-Apocalyptic Terror". Bloody Disgusting. 
  2. ^ "The Mortal Engines Quartet…". 
  3. ^ a b SFFS Guest Talk - Philip Reeve. (Nottingham University: Science Fiction & Fantasy Society). 
  4. ^ Chapman, Katie (22 December 2009). "Peter Jackson to adapt sci-fi series". The Dominion Post. Retrieved 26 October 2011. 

External links[edit]