Mortal Engines (The Hungry City Chronicles #1)

by Philip Reeve

Scholastic, 2001

373 pages

I’ve always been fascinated by steampunk, possibly because I’m fascinated by all things Victorian. For those unfamiliar with the term, “steampunk” is essentially a combination of Victoriana, industrialism, and technology – whether in stories, movies, fashion, or art. The genre usually walks a fine line between the historic and the futuristic: corset-clad aviators piloting armored zeppelins, laser weapons mounted on wrought-iron pedestals, rubber-coated scientists building intelligent, clockwork-powered robots.

Despite my interest, it’s been years since I’ve read anything steampunk. But then one of my good friends, a fellow steampunk fan and a Read Like a Girl subscriber, showed up at my house toting Philip Reeve’s Hungry City Chronicles.

The four-part series is set thousands of years in the future, after society has rebuilt itself following the apocalyptic Sixty Minute War. Most human settlements are now built on mobile platforms, and much of the world lives according to a philosophy called Municipal Darwinism: larger cities roam the earth’s surface, devouring smaller towns for fuel and raw materials and enslaving or killing the citizens. Darwinists are also in constant conflict with the Anti-Tractionist League, an alliance of permanent surface settlements.

Mortal Engines, the series’s first novel, introduces Tom Natsworthy, a lifelong Londoner apprenticed to the city’s Guild of Historians. His home is the original traction city but fell from its leading position as other cities gobbled up more prey. In danger of becoming prey itself, London has spent 10 years in hiding – but now the city has come out of the shadows and is trekking across former Europe to fulfill some mysterious mission set by the autocratic Lord Mayor.

Through a series of missteps, Tom falls in with Hester Shaw, the would-be assassin of celebrity archaeologist Thaddeus Valentine. Valentine’s daughter Katherine is a smart, capable young woman who worships her father. As the story progresses, however, both she and Tom learn that Valentine is not all that he seems. Ultimately, they have to choose between their loyalty to him and to London and what they know is right and good.

Tom is technically the novel’s main character, but I’m reviewing Mortal Engines because the book’s women and girls are the ones who move the action. Once the story is really underway, Reeve gives nearly equal page time to Tom and Hester on the one hand and Katherine on the other. The two outlaws track London – and Valentine – across the wartorn wastes, while London-bound Katherine begins to uncover the the Lord Mayor’s horrific plan and her father’s role in it.

As Hester and Tom plow along, Hester and a mysterious woman named Anna Fang are the ones who make things happen. Both are action-oriented, sure of their goals, and clear on the truth. Hester is utterly fearless, and Anna is compassionate and wise but also a highly skilled warrior. Tom, meanwhile, is frightened, indecisive, and reluctant to let go of his rosy perception of London and its leadership. He spends much of the book following in Hester and Anna’s wakes, both literally and figuratively.

Back in London, Katherine is courageous, clever, and clear-headed. Once she realizes what needs to be done, she makes it happen, at tremendous personal cost. Her heart is soft, but for the right causes and people, and she turns a steely resolve against the evil she uncovers. While Tom plays an important role in the book’s final chapters, Katherine and Hester are the true saviors. And Tom’s role is an outgrowth of what he has learned from Katherine, Hester, and Anna. Through their leadership, the women cultivate courage, integrity, and resolve in him. He is able to do what he does because he is following their example.

Despite women’s numerous advances, our world is still disproportionately led by men. Women fill a dismally small percentage of government and executive positions, particularly at the highest levels. Still, progress continues, and I believe that books like Mortal Engines help move it forward.

In the hands of both girls and boys, such books instill a belief that women can lead effectively. Girls who believe they can lead are more likely to seek out leadership opportunities, thus building the skills and experience they need to obtain top positions in adulthood. They’ll be less likely to take an unfounded “no” for an answer or to cave into discrimination when it rears its ugly head. Boys who believe girls can lead are more likely to accept female leadership instead of dismissing it as “bossy.” They’re more likely to grow up to vote for, hire, or be willing to work for women leaders. And most importantly, men and women who believe women can lead are more likely to raise a new generation of women leaders.

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