Posts Tagged ‘Mortal Engines’



This is a delightfully fun and engaging tale with all the confidence you’d expect of Phillip Reeve, returning to the steampunk genre, if in a very different world, of Mortal Engines.

Here, rather than walking cities, we have sentient trains and K-gates – wormholes or portals, taking trains and their passengers instantly to different worlds and different planets – androids who may or may not be sentient, AIs who may or may not be divine, street urchins and renegade consciousnesses and hive monks. It is a richly imagined and realised world, only a brief fragment of which we see but with enough detail and verve to make the rest imaginable. A word which exists but which ever impedes the cracking pace Reeve creates.

The story follows Zen Starling, the aforementioned street urchin, fulfilling every child’s fantasy role: a meagre existence, relying on his hard working sister and occasional thefts, is transformed when he meets Nova and her employer Raven who reveal that he is actually a lost scion of the ruling Noon family and employ him to infiltrate their train to steal a valuable item. As is not-unexpected, an item whose value is more than financial: a powerful and dangerous artefact within the world created by Reeve.

On the surface, this is a fairly traditional heist tale: various exploits by Zen and Nova lead to them infiltrating the train and they steal the artefact; when abandoned by Raven and learning more about it, they cobble together a revenge heist to steal it back.

There is however, a real humanity in this book and sympathy, albeit generally directed at the non-human characters: the beautiful and  tender trains bearing tags and art with pride and the motoriks, robots and droids with ore soul than R2-D2 or C3PO. And Phillip Reeve is not scared to give the reader shocks: the fate of the sentient trains destroyed (killed?) in the heist and the fate of Nova and, even more so, the tagger Flex were genuinely shocking and moving in a young adult book. 

Reeves gives a nod to a number of classic and popular examples of the science fiction genre from  Blade Runner to Dune to Stargate with touches of Arthur C. Clarke. 

I hear rumours that this is the first of a trilogy and I hope that’s true because it’s a thoroughly enjoyable and thrilling ride 


For some reason, I cannot read this title without intuitively reading it in Latin hic iacit Arcturus.

I attended a literacy conference this week where Philip Reeve was – for wont of a better phrase – the keynote speaker and I was lent this book as an introduction to his work as – to my total shame – I’ve never read any! I’ve been aware of Mortal Engines and intending to read it – being a definite steampunk fan – but something’s always got in my way!

So… onto hic iacit Arctururs which is obviously based on the King Arthur legend.


Lets look at the cover above. We see a youthful face, armoured, with piercing blue eyes raised to Heaven in a saintly way. No one tells us that this face is Arthur’s but it is the assumption we make. But let’s look at it in more detail. The metaphor Reeve uses to describe Arthur is the bear: petty, violent and brutally violent. This is not the picture that decorates the cover.

So who else could it be? Gwyna the main character and narrator? Is the face sufficiently feminine rather than saintly to be a young woman? Possibly, but she is never a soldier and far more earthy than this character looks.

No, I think the picture is Peredur. A relatively minor character introduced a few chapters in and dismissed to return in the second half and become really very important! And there is a very obvious reason why this would fit with the femininity of the image.

Reeve seems to be creating a world that is closer to historical reality – with it’s hardships, horrors, tedium and petty brutality as well as beauty, stink and death. Listening to him yesterday, he described how he was inspired by John Boorman’s Excalibur and “lifted” (“stole”?) both the opening and closing scenes from it. It was lovely hearing him describe how as a teenager inspired by this film he devoured Arthurian mythology – in a remarkably similar way to the way I did myself.

Reeve sets the story deeply into the Celtic world, translating familiar names like Merlin into the more Welsh – and more authentic sounding – Myrddin; Tintagel become Din Tagel.

Myrddin is for Arthur what Alastair Campbell was for Tony Blair: Reeve shows him spinning and weaving the legends of Arthur from half-formed truths, ancient myths, lost religions and outright lies.

It is an explicitly metafictional book – a book about books – a tale of tales – a story of songs – which explores the powers of the transformative narrative word to bind and inspire, to create belief out of the air. We hear the tales we all know – Uthr transformed into the shape of his enemy to seduce Ygraine; the Lady of the Lake; Excalibur or Caliburn here; the Holy Grail – and we see the sleight-of-hand by which they were created.

And what I find amazing is that, just like Gwyna, we both recognise the lies for what they are and we are seduced by them ourselves.

There is something beautifully Shakespearean here. The gender ambiguities of Gwyna who becomes a boy, Gwyn, to be safe upon the road and the parallel story of Peredur kept safe from the army by being dressed as a girl echoes As You Like It‘s Rosalind.

I recall the series on Channel 4 not many months back called Camelot starring Joseph Fiennes as a not dissimilar Merlin – albeit one with genuine magic. In reflection, it’s such a shame they didn’t just dramatise this book which – despite the lack of raunchiness (breasts were bared nearly moment by moment and maidens defiled each episode!) – was so much more authentic, genuinely moving and just interesting.

On a separate point: Philip Reeve is fabulous! Clad in a three piece suit which my untrained eye wants to claim as gabardine and walking upright he looked like he had strode out of Dartmoor – which I guess he literally had! – where no doubt he was to return to find the footprint of a monstrous hound by his garden gate! He is, however, a truly inspirational speaker and I feel privileged to have heard him speak!