Goodreads: Mortal Engines
Series: Predator Cities Quartet #1
Historian Apprentice Tom has always admired the legendary Valentine, historian and explorer. However, when a girl named Hester Shaw arrives in his hometown of London claiming Valentine to be a villain, Tom’s world is upended. Suddenly, he and Hester are chasing London across the continent–one to return home and one to claim vengeance.
“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.”
Mortal Engines is a fast-paced, episodic novel focused on the action to the detriment of nearly everything else. Characters come and go quickly and situations are solved before they can ever become real problems for the protagonists. Onward, onward the story rushes, keen to introduce new scenes and new scenarios to keep readers engaged. Ultimately, however, it is difficult to engage with a story where the characterization is minimal and the relationships rushed.
The first thing readers will likely notice about the book is that Mortal Engines feels very much like a YA novel from the early 2000s. It is clean enough that, like The Giver and A Wrinkle in Time, it could easily be marketed as upper-middle grade and as well YA. It lacks a love triangle. It focuses on its story and does not suddenly become a romance when one thought one was reading a post-apocalyptic adventure. Whether or not readers will enjoy reading a YA that feels, well, like it almost shouldn’t be called YA since it’s missing all the recognizable tropes, will, of course, be up to personal preference. But at least Mortal Engines feels very different from most of what is currently on the YA market.
Regrettably, however, the book seems invested only in the action and not in building a well-developed story or well-developed characters. Scenes are very short, meaning that the protagonists can jump from one dangerous situation to another in order to keep the plot flowing. However, this also means every dangerous situation is resolved incredibly quickly. As a result, it is hard to feel worried for the characters because it is so evident they will be fine within a few pages. Allies and foes come and go with the scenes, making it likewise difficult to feel invested in them. Do we care who lives and who dies when we barely know them?
The minimal characterization also hurts the relationships, making them far from realistic. Relationships do not really develop in the book, having no time to do so. They are simply announced. Suddenly, two characters who talked to each other for awhile, are in love. There is no build up. There is no chemistry. We simply receive romances because, apparently, why not? I actually have trouble believing these romances exist because so little textual evidence suggests they should.
Even with a Peter Jackson film coming out, I have difficulty seeing Mortal Engines regaining new life as a beloved sci-fi adventure. There is a sort-of interesting premise buried at its core (mobile cities that chase each other for scrap metal–mainly because their inhabitants are too proud/stupid to stop moving and make a life off the land). However, the premise is simply a vague background to a series of episodes for Tom and Hester to fly across. Readers accustomed to fully-fleshed out world, lengthy plots, and simmering romances may find Mortal Engines not quite to their taste.