Steampunk’d 2013 Challenge: Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve

Mortal Engines (The Hungry City Chronicles, #1)
Standalone or Series? Series. The Hungry City Chronicles #1
Format: Paperback, 373 pages
Published: 2002 (first published 16th November 2001)
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Author’s Site:
Author on Tweeter: @philipreeve1
Buy Hardcover: The Book Depository

“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.”

The great traction city London has been skulking in the hills to avoid the bigger, faster, hungrier cities loose in the Great Hunting Ground. But now, the sinister plans of Lord Mayor Mangus Crome can finally unfold.

Thaddeus Valentine, London’s Head Historian and adored famous archaeologist, and his lovely daughter, Katherine, are down in The Gut when the young assassin with the black scarf strikes toward his heart, saved by the quick intervention of Tom, a lowly third-class apprentice.

Racing after the fleeing girl, Tom suddenly glimpses her hideous face: scarred from forehead to jaw, nose a smashed stump, a single eye glaring back at him. “Look at what your Valentine did to me!” she screams. “Ask him! Ask him what he did to Hester Shaw!” And with that she jumps down the waste chute to her death. Minutes later Tom finds himself tumbling down the same chute and stranded in the Out-Country, a sea of mud scored by the huge caterpillar tracks of cities like the one now steaming off over the horizon. 

This book was a lot of fun to read. It’s a quirky coming of age story, which blends the themes of revenge, the corruption of power and explores how our life experiences have shaped us and keep developing us. This series is set in a future where the gadgetry is cobbled together from old-world tech; since resources are scarce, most people live on traction cities. The cities trundle across wastelands in search of resources and take part in a system called Municipal Darwinism where small towns are usually ‘devoured’ or ripped apart by the larger cities. Most of Europe and Northern Asia is now known as “The Great Hunting Ground”.

There’s never a dull moment, and as the blurb says, poor Tom thwarts the assassination attempt against Valentine, races after the assassin, tumbles out into the world beyond his city, and that’s just the start. Expect Tom to go through a lot more. All this action is interspersed with some wonderfully contemplative scenes, that bring us closer to Tom and the somewhat ambiguous Hester. The humour makes it easier to consider such dark themes as murder, slavery and back-stabbing. Be prepared to have your funny bone tickled at inappropriate times. 

Tom’s an absolute sweetheart and stands out in a world where most people seem to act on “survival of the fittest”. He’s a city boy and proud of never having set foot on hard land. He’s used to the jittery, rumbling of metal beneath his feet. Imagine this gentle young man’s surprise when he is almost murdered and finds himself roaming actual land – well, muck – on his two feet, with a hardened, disfigured girl called Hester.

Hester is one of the strongest female characters I’ve come across, she’s a wonderful character – although she’s not particularly pleasant. There’s a connection between Tom and Hester. Despite his crush on Katherine – who is beautiful and sweet – he forms a bond with Hester, who is bitter, angry, disfigured and morally dubious. 

Katherine doesn’t feature as much as I assumed from the blurb. She reminds me of a female version of Tom, but she can afford to be sweet and kind hearted because she’s led quite the sheltered life. Tom’s kind nature is tested to its limits in the Out Country.

Philip Reeves has created one of the strangest and most fascinating worlds I’ve come across. In Mortal Engines the future is one in which our world is almost a myth, much of our technology was lost in a massive war, and future generations rely on old tech. 

I’d recommend this post-apocalyptic steampunk thriller to lovers of steampunk and quirkiness.

This book counts toward my Steampunk challenge: 6 books down and 24 to go 🙂


  1. I love that you’re participating in this challenge, because I’m finding out about all of these steampunk titles! I haven’t read a whole lot of steampunk, and I’m kind of iffy about the ones Goodreads has recommended to me. This sounds awesome, though, and I’m going to see if I can find it at my library.

  2. This sounds great! I’m surprised that I haven’t come across it before. Assassination attempts, steampunk worlds, great characters… yep, I’m pretty much sold. 🙂 Fantastic review, Katja! And thanks so much for putting this one on my radar.

  3. This sounds SO cool! I’ve never read this, but from the sounds of your review I think I would love it. I really like my steampunk with strong world building and a fast pace. It’s great that this was your first steampunk book; it obviously made enough of an impression to make you a fan of the genre. I don’t take full marks lightly; clearly I need to pick myself up a copy of this!

  4. Time really does fly, doesn’t it!

    Hester sounds marvelous. I love how she’s both strong – like most heroines – but that she isn’t exactly “nice.” It really makes her stand out from the sea of good and honorable heroines nowadays. The only other notable steampunk book I’ve read was Stormdancer by Jay Kristoff, which, though was really good, was a bit dull at parts. I guess the authors focus more on the world building than anything else, but it’s great that this wasn’t the case here.

    Hope I’ll be able to get my hands on this, because it sounds really good. And like Danny, I’m still looking for the steampunk book that will make me fall in love with the genre. 🙂 Great review!

  5. Oh, what a great review! I’ve been looking for some great steampunk books to get my mind in gear for my steampunk. This one sounds good!
    Thanks for the recommendation, Katya. 🙂

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