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 by a "Sixty Minute War", which caused massive geological upheaval. To escape the earthquakes, volcanoes, and other instabilities, a Nomad leader called Nikola Quercus installed huge engines and wheels on London, and enabled it to dismantle 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 Asia and parts of 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 archeologists. 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 artifacts. 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.

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.


Part One[edit]

The main character of Mortal Engines is Tom Natsworthy, a fifteen-year old orphan and a third class apprentice in the Guild of Historians.

The book opens with London chasing the town of Salthook over the dry bed of the North Sea, into Europe (now known as the Great Hunting Ground). The city has been lurking in what was formerly Britain, but for some reason the Mayor has decided to head back out into the Hunting Ground. The Londoners are simply happy to catch prey again, and Salthook is soon captured. While Tom is watching the catch, he hits another apprentice Historian who was bullying him, and as punishment is sent to work in the city's Gut for the night, to ensure that any valuable historical artifacts found in Salthook are not burned for fuel with the rest of the town. There, Tom is surprised and pleased to find that Thaddeus Valentine, the adventurous and charming leader of the Guild of Historians, is overseeing him. Tom starts enjoying his night: finding an ancient "seedy" (a Compact Disc) and developing a crush on Valentine's daughter Katherine. Among a line of Salthook's former citizens (now becoming citizens of London), a girl attacks Valentine. Tom chases the girl through the Gut, and reaches her. She tells Tom that her name is Hester Shaw and that Valentine had scarred her face. Valentine catches up to Tom just as she jumps down the chute, and Tom tells him what happened. Valentine tells Tom not to worry, but pushes him down the chute after Hester. Tom awakens on the bare mud of the Great Hunting Ground, where Hester Shaw claims that Valentine killed her parents, and starts following London's wheel marks. Tom follows her. Katherine is told by Valentine that Hester dragged Tom down the chute. Magnus Crome, the Lord Mayor, has a private discussion on which Katherine eavesdrops, wherein Crome is sending Valentine on a reconnaissance flight between London and its mysterious objective, and preparing something called "MEDUSA".

En route through the Hunting Ground, Hester tells Tom that her parents were killed by Valentine when she was young, because her mother refused to give him the "MEDUSA". Later that day they encounter a small town called Speedwell, and Tom trades his seedy for some food; but they are tricked and drugged, to sold as slaves at an upcoming "trading cluster" of small towns. On London, Crome commands a mysterious agent named Shrike to take an airship and hunt down Hester Shaw. Valentine leaves on his reconnaissance mission, and Katherine decides to investigate MEDUSA in his absence.

Tom and Hester escape from captivity, and a pilot named Anna Fang takes them aboard her airship, the Jenny Haniver, to Airhaven, an airborne Traction City kept aloft by balloons. At a cafe with some of Anna's friends, they are attacked by Shrike; the latter now identified as a Stalker: a robotic killing machine containing a human brain. In the resulting battle Airhaven is damaged, but Tom and Hester escape in an airship. In flight, Hester tells Tom that Shrike found her after her parents' murder, and raised her. When she swore revenge, Shrike forbade her from going, and she left without his permission; whereafter came her initial meeting with Tom. The balloon eventually drifts down in the Rustwater Marshes (in Central Asia), where Shrike catches them again, and reveals Crome sent Shrike after Hester, in return for "his heart's desire". Before he can reveal what that is, Shrike is run over by a speeding town. Tom and Hester board pirate suburb chasing it, and are taken captive. On London, Katherine makes an appointment with Crome, who refuses to tell her anything. She seeks an apprentice Engineer, named Bevis Pod, who was near the waste chute when Tom and Hester disappeared, and is horrified to find prisoners worked to death, and fed on their own faeces. Bevis tells her that he thinks the Guild is building Stalkers, and that MEDUSA is a device that London is relying on for survival, and agrees to help her sneak into a Guild meeting to discover more.

Meanwhile, Hester recognizes the mayor of the pirate suburb, Chrysler Peavey. He refuses to let them go, until he learns that Tom is a Londoner, and agrees to free them if Tom teaches him etiquette. Ahead of them lies the Sea of Khazak, and a place called the Black Island, which houses a small static town and a refueling depot for airships. Peavey reveals that Airhaven has landed there to repair, and intends to seize it. His suburb inflates air-tanks to cross the sea to the Black Island. In the Rustwater Marshes, Shrike pulls himself free of the mud, and follows the suburb's trail. The Jenny Haniver bombs the suburb before it reaches the island, and Peavey reveals that Anna Fang is an Anti-Traction League agent. While crossing the Sea of Khazak, the suburb runs into a reef and sinks, but Tom, Hester, Peavey, and a handful of pirates reach the shores. As Airhaven is about to take off, Peavey is caught in quicksand and his pirates kill him. Shrike then rescues Tom and Hester. On London, Katherine and Bevis sneak into a secret Guild meeting and learn that MEDUSA is an ancient superweapon recovered from an American military base, with which Crome intends to break through the Shield-Wall: an immense fortress-city blocking the only pass into the lands of the Anti-Traction League. On the Black Island, Shrike reveals that "his heart's desire" was Hester as a Stalker; wherefore Crome agreed to resurrect her as Shrike's mechanical daughter. He is about to kill her when Tom grabs a sword from one of the fallen pirates and kills him. Hester screams at Tom, claiming she would have been happier as a Stalker; but they are interrupted by the activation of MEDUSA. On London, Katherine and Bevis watch as MEDUSA destroys a city in pursuit of London.

Part Two[edit]

On the Black Island, Tom and Hester are found by a patrol that includes Anna Fang, who leads them to the Shield-Wall in the Jenny Haniver, stopping at several Traction Cities fleeing the explosion. Beyond the Shield-Wall, in the city of Batmunkh Gompabuilt, Tom and Hester attend a military strategy meeting, where Anna Fang urges the governor of the Shield-Wall to launch his fleet of gunships and destroy London. Tom is upset at this, and goes to explore the city and his feelings. While exploring, he recognises Valentine in disguise, and follows him. As London approaches the Shield-Wall, Katherine spends much time in the History Museum, where she is hiding Bevis from his superiors, and falls in love with him. From some of the Historians, she learns that her father used to go on expeditions with a woman named Pandora Shaw, and finds that she was murdered six or seven years ago, leaving behind a daughter named Hester Shaw. Katherine realises that her father must have killed Hester's parents. At the Shield-Wall, Tom loses track of Valentine and goes to warn Anna Fang, who suspects Valentine's mission is to destroy the Shield-Wall's air fleet, and goes to stop him. Tom then finds Hester and tells her that Valentine is in Batmunkh Gompa. They go to the top of the Shield-Wall, where the fleet is burning; and chasing after Hester, Tom gets lost in a maze of tunnels. He emerges on a battlement where Anna Fang disarms Valentine in a sword-fight, and where the arrival of Valentine's airship distracts Fang long enough for him to kill her. Tom and Hester take the Jenny Haniver and follow Valentine's airship towards London.

At the same time, Katherine and Bevis are assembling a bomb to destroy MEDUSA. They are discovered by security from the Guild of Engineers, but the Historians help them escape. They reach the Top Tier, where a function is being held to celebrate the arrival of London at the Shield Wall. Tom sets Hester down on the same tier, but he is attacked by Valentine's airship (which has already dropped Valentine off at the function). Tom shoots the airship down, and it lands in a fiery heap on the Top Tier, killing Bevis. Hester is captured by the Guild of Engineers' security Stalkers, and taken to St. Paul's, where Valentine and Crome are preparing to fire MEDUSA. Katherine arrives just as Valentine is about to kill Hester, and throws herself in front of the blow, run through by his sword. She falls on MEDUSA's keyboard, damaging it, and Valentine calls for help. Only Hester helps him. The flames from Valentine's airships are consuming the Top Tier, and Valentine and Hester carry Katherine onto the roof of St. Paul's. Tom brings the Jenny Haniver to rescue them, but Katherine has died, and Valentine shouts at Hester to save herself. They fly away just as MEDUSA's energy beam misfires, incinerating the device along with most of London.


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 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.[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] On 25th October 2016, Peter Jackson announced that WingNut Films has started work on producing a feature film to be directed by Christian Rivers. The script has been written by Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens. The movie will be financed by MRC and Universal, and shooting will get underway in March 2017 in New Zealand. Producers Zane Weiner and Amanda Walker, who both worked on The Hobbit, will be spearheading the NZ based team, along with Deborah Forte in the US.[5] The film is scheduled to be released on December 14, 2018.

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. 
  5. ^ "Peter Jackson - Timeline | Facebook". Retrieved 2016-10-24. 

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