A Darkling Plain, the final book in Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines quartet, ends with “It was a dark, blustery day in spring and the city of London was chasing a small mining town across the dried-up bed of the old North Sea.”
The very same lines open the first book of the quartet, Mortal Engines (2001). Set in a post-apocalyptic world laid waste by the ‘60-minute war’, the steam punk novels feature traction cities on wheels criss-crossing the Great Hunting Ground to dismantle smaller towns, following a system of Municipal Darwinism.
The Anti-Traction League, head-quartered in Asia, is against the traction cities. It wants to make the world ‘green again’ by stopping the hungry cities. Apart from the high concept, the Quartet is also an entertaining yarn with fascinating characters and exhilarating action set pieces.
Angry Hester Shaw is a beautifully-flawed protagonist, who draws our attention and keeps it. From her introduction as she tries to kill Thaddeus Valentine, she is compelling, scar and all. The gentle, apprentice historian, Tom Natsworthy, with his faith in the goodness of people and respect for history and learning, makes for an apt foil to Hester’s otherness.
Lost in translation Robert Sheehan as (Tom) Jihae as Anna Fang and Hera Hilmar as Hester in stills from the film
After the war, there is no technology and ‘old tech’ salvaged by archaeologists and scavengers is very much in demand. Reeve has a lot of fun with this, with seedys (CDs) being priced possessions. Old tech also means weapons make their way into this world with devastating consequences. The books are peopled with a colourful cast of characters.
Shrike, the stalker, a resurrected cyborg, is fascinating for his love and devotion to Hester. Though he is a terminator-type creature, he has feelings and is finally the keeper of memories and worshipped as an ancient god.
The aviatrix Anna Fang of the Anti-Traction League and her machine avatar, Stalker Fang, present an extraordinary study of duality. And what of the lost boys, small children stolen from their homes and taught to steal in a kind of futuristic Lord of the Flies world? Little Fishcake, one of the lost boys, has an interesting character arc. There is also Sathya, a Green Storm (the radical wing of the Anti-Traction League) warrior from Kerala who resurrects Anna — a frightfully-wrong deed for the predictably right reasons.
Truth or something like it
Predator’s Gold (2003), the second book in the quartet, is set two years after the incidents of the first book, which ended with Tom and Hester flying into the sunset on the Jenny Haniver, Fang’s aircraft. The book introduces the indefatigable Nimrod Pennyroyal, an author whose experiments with truth are rather adventurous to put it mildly. There is the beautiful ice city of Anchorage ruled by the young Freya Rasmussen, who has the job thrust upon her, after her family is killed by an old-tech biological weapon. The book ends with Hester discovering she is pregnant and Anchorage settling in America, which till then was thought to be a nuclear wasteland.
Infernal Devices (2005) tells the story of 15-year-old Wren, Hester and Tom’s daughter. Wren is bored of the safe life at Anchorage and by stealing a book sets off a catastrophic chain of events. Incidentally K W Jeter, who coined the term steam punk for science fiction that is set in an alternate timeline, powered by steam instead of technology, also wrote a book called Infernal Devices (1987).
A Darkling Plain (2006), with a title taken from Matthew Arnold’s achingly-romantic poem Dover Beach, is about love and loss, the beginning and end of things and of hurting and healing. It is only right that the books end where they began with a wonderful story in between.
It is such a shame that the film was such a pedestrian adaptation of such rich material, especially considering master storyteller Peter Jackson wrote the screenplay. We can only hope there will be a better version in the future or some form of it.
The one where we discuss all things freaky and geeky