Philip Reeve's Hungry City Chronicles: Steampunk meets Darwinism

Reviews for Mortal Engines, Predator's Gold, Infernal Devices, A Darkling Plain and Night Flights.

Philip Reeve's Hungry City Chronicles: Steampunk meets Darwinism

A quartet of YA science-fiction novels taking place in a world of hungry cities on wheels. I picked up this series in stories after seeing Ian McQue's absolutely stunning cover art on the paperback set. This was back in 2019, when I was returning to my reading habit.

Readers who enjoy a steampunk dystopian world with YA characters can be satisfied with just the first book in this quartet, Mortal Engines. If you want to dip your toes further into the world, book two can also be added as a denouement to the story of the pairing from book one. If you're enjoying things at that point be warned in continuing - books 3 and 4 make some significant shifts to the world and central cast of characters, but the essence remains the same. There is also a prequel novella that I highly recommend reading anytime after the first book if you enjoy this world.

Ignoring everything else with the series, Ian McQue's cover art is astoundingly glorious. See his covers against each novel's original artwork, and read my reviews below!

#1 Mortal Engines

Published: 2001

Read: 21st August 2019
Reread: 17th March 2023

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.

Revisited this one so I can properly review it and ultimately finish the series. Before I even start talking about the book, I have to mention the absolutely stunning cover artwork that grabbed my attention in stores. I don’t mind the older illustrations from the early 2000s, but Ian McQue’s 2018 work is genuinely captivating and a brilliant representation of the scale and look of this universe - a lone figure staring at one of the almost unimaginable predator cities, with varying weather conditions.

The Mortal Engines world is a post-apocalyptic dystopia with steampunk flavours thrown in. After the 60-minute nuclear war that wiped out most of civilisation, large cities found ways to mobilise and began roving the world in a mechanically grotesque take on Darwinism on an anthropological scale. Yes, cities on wheels eat other smaller cities. There are other parties at play here, but I think this first book does an excellent job of introducing each group as we travel across this ravaged world.

He didn't feel like a hero anymore--he just felt sorry for this poor, hideous girl, and guilty at being the one who had trapped her here.

The plot starts in London with Tom, an innocent (orphaned) historian who is thrust into larger events involving the terribly-scarred Hester Shaw. So yes, your typical YA tropes are all here and they are played out. However what makes Mortal Engines stand out is its inventive world-building and unflinching attitude towards more real and dark moments - Shrike the stalker, as well as the whole finale, are highlights of the novel.

This was a lighter read with true escapism that still makes relevant social commentary on societal systems and the relationships we have with each other and our own pasts. From what I remember the sequel Predator’s Gold was an even better read than Mortal Engines, so I’m looking forward to tractioning onward through this series!

#2 Predator's Gold

Published: 2003

Read: Sep 06, 2019
Reread: 8th September 2023

Because it’s better to travel hopefully than to arrive.

Clearly something has changed since the last time I read Predator’s Gold, and thought it was better than Mortal Engines. This time around I found myself less awed at the world Reeves showed us in the first book, perhaps because it feels as if it is getting smaller. I was pleased to find a large sense of character challenge and adventure in the book, packed into an easy-to-read page count.

It’s been two years since MEDUSA destroyed London. Tom and Hester have been flying odd jobs for the Jenny Haniver. Things get complicated when agents of The Green Storm and Professor Pennyroyal appear. A large part of the book is set upon Anchorage, a peaceful trader city of the Ice Waste with a rich royal history and now seemingly spooky inhabitants. I can imagine another reason for my subdued enjoyment this time around was in the fact that I knew the truth of Anchorage’s mysteries. With the majority of the action restricted to these groups, Predator’s Gold does feel smaller in scope compared to Mortal Engines.

"We were more like ghosts than human beings. And now look at us. Look at yourself. The journey’s shaken us up and turned us about and we’re alive again."

The flip side of this is that Tom, Hester, Freya and other characters face some adult challenges and change drastically over the book. I was left a bit disappointed that certain developments were withheld from this story, especially knowing that book 3 of the series takes place 16 years later.

Looking forward to reading Infernal Devices, and I love how Reeve features titles of the books within the actual story!

#3 Infernal Devices

Published: 2005

Read: 13th September 2023

We die with the dying:
See, they depart, and we go with them.

It's a bummer that this series is going downhill considering how good the cover artwork was. Infernal Devices was a fast read, but had disappointing character developments that exacerbate the book's chosen focus.

It's been 16 years since the events of Predator's Gold. This was an interesting time-jump but felt contrived simply for the purpose of involving Tom and Hester's daughter Wren in the book's events. There is an interesting conflict now between the hardcore anti-tractionists The Green Storm and the remaining traction cities, but it seems illogical that this conflict has been extended over such a long time-frame. Whilst Tom and Hester are differently characterised to their last appearance, every other character seems to have not changed that much, making the time jump feel even odder.

“Everybody loves their parents. They may not always realise that they love them, they may hate them at the same time, but there’s always a little bit of love mixed in with the hate, which makes it really… complicated.”

Just when it seems that we will explore this interesting global conflict through the eyes of Dr. Oenone Zero and the Stalker Fang, the majority of the book is instead set on the pleasure city of Brighton. It is surrounded by interesting events, but the character focus in the plotting reduces a lot of this interest, and in a way, the stakes.

Whilst the conflict has been extended in novel ways, it seems Reeves has lost the thematic impact of the original traction city idea. At least the people we spent time with in this book are placed in interesting positions for book 4. On to the final book of the Mortal Engines quartet, A Darkling Plain.

#4 A Darkling Plain

Published: 2006

Read: 27th October 2023

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

A Darkling Plain uses its increased size to develop multiple perspectives in this already changed world of predator cities and static settlements. The society Reeves presents here is already significantly different to that which was presented to readers in book one, Mortal Engines, but here I was allowed to properly be immersed in it. This was unlike Predator's Gold, where I felt we were shown only the edges of the interesting places and events, or Infernal Devices, where new affairs were crafted quickly without proper justification or logic. Instead, the characters here shine in the range of views we receive and how they are individually built.

“I know that you will live on, and see marvellous things, and one day I hope have children of your own, who will be just as much of a worry and a joy to you as you were to me. That’s what History teaches us, I think, that life goes on, even though individuals die and whole civilisations crumble away”

It has been six months since the conclusion of Infernal Devices - the falling of Cloud Nine, seeming destruction of the Stalker Fang and the separation of the Natsworthy family. Reeves shows us how much can change in half a year, with peace talks and slow-changing mindsets after over a decade of war. Yet these are of course plunged back into danger by a few varied antagonists, each with their own agendas. A Darkling Plain has a large cast! We follow Thomas and Wren, Hester and the now once-born-pacifist Shrike, Theo, Professor Oenone Zero and General Naga, Kriegsmarshal Von Kobold, Fishcake and the warring personalities of Anna and the Stalker Fang. Yet each of these characters have significant moments, and are dispersed amongst the world far enough from each other that we gain insights into all the small and large happenings occurring. I also love that for the conclusion of this series, we return to London and what has become of it.

He thanked his gods that the harvester had come, and that he had a battle to fight and people to defend; no politics to confuse him, no super-weapons to worry about, just a chance to die like a warrior, sword in hand, facing the barbarians.

Another improvement upon previous books has to be Reeves's writing itself. There are some poetic descriptions of the war-ruined or vastly untouched natural landscapes that both assist the visualisations, and reflect the state of characters back upon themselves. A few times the author even inserts himself upon the world, in moves that make sense once you have completed the book. When the action comes, it is tense. This is due to Reeves's fearless approach to significantly harming and killing off characters, especially in the third act. Along the way, there are some unexpected complications - and the smaller more normal ones frustrate the key characters as much as they could possibly frustrate the reader.

I am not Anna, she had said, just a bundle of Anna’s memories… but what was anyone but a bundle of memories?

Despite having my grumbles and misgivings about books 2 and 3 in this quartet, A Darkling Plain delivered a beautiful conclusion to this world and story.

#0.5 Night Flights

Published: 2018

Read: 31st October 2023

Stories changed when you told them. You made up new details to please your listeners, you exaggerated things or left things out, and soon even you came to believe the new story was the real one.

A really nice return to the Traction Era world of moving cities. This novel takes place in the day leading up to Anna Fang entering the story of book one, Mortal Engines. However, it really should be read after that book, if not the whole series.

As Anna Fang travels to learn about London's plans, she reflects back on the stories creating an air of intrigue and mystique around her life. Readers are given three short stories, each at a different phase of Anna's past. The varied objectives, settings and characterisations give us neat insights into both Anna Fang's personality and this unique world.

Each of these three stories has a beautiful cover image and epic title: Frozen Heart, Traction City Blues, and Teeth of the Sea. To make things even sweeter, the novella is populated by gorgeous artwork. I really enjoyed how Anna was an adult travelling through some of the most interesting moving city settings from a low-to-the-ground perspective. These felt like fully fleshed out places, instead of sketches mentioned in passing from the first few books of the Mortal Engines quartet.

"It must be good to be so young, and so angry, and so certain that you're right."

Finally, Night Flights benefits greatly from Reeves's own improved writing flair. The sentences here use vivid and motion-based description to keep you engaged in this world. At the same time, the novella has been stripped down to providing only essential details and keeping the stories moving at a brisk pace. It felt like a natural evolution of the writing style, albeit in a shorter format, following Darkling Plain.

Ranking the Quartet (and prequel)

  1. #0 Night Flights - 4.5/5 ⭐️
  2. #4 A Darkling Plain - 4/5 ⭐️
  3. #1 Mortal Engines - 3.5/5 ⭐️
  4. #2 Predator's Gold - 2.5/5 ⭐️
  5. #3 Infernal Devices - 2/5 ⭐️


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