Mortal Engines: The good, the bad, and the Municipal Darwinist

It’s been a long time hasn’t it? Far longer than I’d intended, with part ones that have no part twos, major events both in science and in my own life that have passed without statement, numerous nerdy things that I’d meant to write but never quite got round to.

But never mind all that. For anyone still bothering to follow these, I applaud the dedication. Give yourself a pat on the back (or a gold star, whichever you prefer), and feel free to read on. Or, as ever, feel free to not (I won’t mind, I promise!). I wouldn’t blame you; I’m more than a tad rusty!

So firstly a quick update on a couple of things:

1) I’ve now moved away from home (yay! Mum, Dad – no offence), having moved to the glamorous town of Telford, with its huge shopping centre and its 50 years of history (I’m fairly sure I’ve held books older than that). I’m enjoying my new job, and things are going well on that front.

2) My health: I’ve briefly touched on my health in the past, but, alas, that has taken a minor but permanent downturn. It’s absolutely nothing serious, don’t worry, it’s just not curable with current medicine, and it means I can’t eat greasy takeaway pizza anymore – although frankly I was getting tired of that so no great loss there. It made the final year of my time at uni a lot more difficult, but I got through it, and I’m alright now. Well, I’m not alright obviously, but I’m in much better shape than I was!

But on to the main event – a warning, as there are major spoilers, and an apology in advance if it seems a little ranty.

It has been something like a decade since I first read Mortal Engines, by Philip Reeve. Set  in the far future, the world (or Europe at least) is a barren place, with resources running low. Not a sound can be heard, save for the occasional passing city/town/suburb/whatever. Yes, the cities are on the march! Thanks to Nicholas Quirke (see the prequels), London is a city on wheels, and after years hiding in what was once Britain, London is hungry – for, in the world of Mortal Engines, cities eat smaller cities, which eat towns, which eat smaller settlements and so on, in a process known as Municipal Darwinism. It’s a fight for resources, and only the biggest and meanest survive. It is a harsh, harsh world.

Shrike and Hester
Shrike and Hester gaze out at the world

So naturally, we meet the main character as he cleans the exhibits in the London museum’s natural history section. Orphan Tom Natsworthy is a 15-year-old third-class apprentice, which basically means that he cleans stuff and occasionally gets sent down to the gut (where settlements are captured and rogues and criminals work the machinery). Unfortunately for Tom, who is rather timid and therefore completely unsuited to life on the ground, he ends up falling from London after chasing his hero Thaddeus Valentine’s would-be assassin through the gut. This assassin is quite possibly one of the best female characters in any book I’ve read. She is a complete badass, and her name is Hester Shaw.

Now, Hester is not a nice girl. As it later transpires, Valentine murdered her parents

Hester Shaw
Hera Hilmar as a lightly scarred Hester Shaw

when she was very young, and left a huge and ugly scar on her face in attempting to kill her too. Just a single slash of his sword left her with one eye, no nose, and a permanent sneer. Funnily enough, this did not go down well with Hester, but this scar is crucial to her character. She hates Valentine, obviously. She hates everyone else, for not seeing her beyond the scar. And, importantly for the story, she hates herself, for having the scar. She is a very, very angry person, and the scar is the main feature of her character, of how both she and other people see her.

But this isn’t a review of the book, so I’ll skip along. After reluctantly agreeing to help Tom get back to London (largely because she needs to get there too), the pair end up having quite an adventure, ending up in such places as Tunbridge Wheels, the pirate suburb; Airhaven, the neutral floating city; and Shan Guo, home of the Anti-traction league and the famous shield wall, keeping the traction cities from gobbling up the peaceful, static settlements beyond. In a fairly expected move from the author, Tom and Hester fall in love along the way.

But this is what makes their relationship particularly special. Unlike, it seems, the majority of media, Tom (at first) is not some brave, heroic figure. He is an apprentice historian, with a heart of gold, not steel. He would be much happier verbally sparring with archaeologists than physically fighting with secret agents. And neither is Hester typical; she is, if you’ll pardon the language, a complete bitch – completely understandable given her history, but the point remains – who would have quite happily left Tom in the dirt if he hadn’t also needed to get back to London. And frankly, even then it was 50/50.

But despite this, despite everything that has and will happen to them, they fall in love. This is where the book has an advantage over the film, and is one of my main criticisms of the latter. In the book, there is time for this to happen; it’s not love at first sight. Over the course of the book Hester slowly opens up to Tom, lets him see her softer, almost vulnerable side; for his part Tom saves Hester from the stalker Shrike (a stalker is a bit

Stephen Lang as Shrike, the relentless Stalker

like a terminator, except more terrifying because they are resurrected soldiers turned into machines, rather than just machines), shows a loyalty and tenderness towards her that she does not expect, and having been responsible for losing her scar-covering shawl during their chase through London, he buys her a new one. This is basically the first time anyone has ever bought Hester anything, and she is very much touched by the gesture.

Unfortunately, this scene is not in the film – and with the book having had to be condensed for the move to the big screen anyway, the relationship between Tom and Hester – such a special part of Mortal Engines – feels rushed, forced, and ultimately not truly believable. As someone with Asperger’s I’m not exactly an expert on the chemistry between people – to my regret – but as a fan of the books it’s nothing like as good. Do they look like friends? Yes, but no more. I should say however that both actors do a good job of portraying Tom and Hester – especially Robert Sheehan, given that he convinced me that he was Tom despite me having watched him as the completely different Nathan in Misfits a few days earlier. My only real criticism of Hester is that her scar is not bad enough. Normally I’m not one to complain about slight changes of appearance between book and film, but as the scar is so crucial to her character it’s a bit disappointing, as harsh as that sounds.


Meanwhile, back in London, Valentine’s daughter Katherine realises that her father is

Thaddeus Valentine
Hugo Weaving as London hero Thaddeus Valentine

not necessarily the hero he is made out to be. Being a smart girl with some sort of power (in that her fame as Valentine’s daughter means that she has access to almost everywhere, despite looking distinctly out of place in the lower levels of the city), she decides to investigate, enlisting the help of Bevis Pod, an apprentice engineer who was in the gut the night Tom left London and who saw what really happened. Her father, she finds out, is not only decidedly not a hero, he is in fact a murderer, an agent of London sent out to make the city successful whatever the cost. There is a good reason why he is Mayor Magnus Chrome’s right-hand man, and it’s not entirely for his archaeology. Katherine, in the brief time that they met, had decided that she quite liked Tom (who, in a stunning turn of events, had quickly decided that he really rather liked the kind, funny, beautiful daughter of his hero too, and initially wished that he could have been stuck in the out-country with her instead), and thus is very upset with her father when she finds out that he pushed Tom off London, and killed Hester’s parents, and had done other terrible things.

Katherine and Bevis work together to bring about the downfall of Chrome, Valentine and their plot to destroy the shield wall, with a little help from Tom’s fellow historians (resulting in a great battle in the museum, which again was left out of the film). Again, Katherine and Bevis fall in love, and although their story ends rather more abruptly than that of Tom and Hester, it is still a nice plot point, even if it’s a little more conventional. Although it’s less of an issue, that close relationship is not in the film. Bevis and Katherine are almost treated as a bit of a side story – which of course they are, but far more importance is given to them in the book. I like both characters so it’s a shame (particularly on the part of Bevis, due to not being given nearly enough screentime) but not entirely unexpected given the necessary compression of the story.

Credit where it’s due, Hugo Weaving as Thaddeus Valentine is very good, and frankly I’d expect nothing less from the man who was so brilliant as Agent Smith in The Matrix. I very much enjoyed both Jihae Kim as Anti-traction League agent Anna Fang (her airship,

Anna Fang
Jihae Kim as Anti-traction League agent Anna Fang

the Jenny Haniver, was different from what I imagined but if anything it was a positive change) and Stephen Lang’s Shrike. I was particularly glad that the film didn’t just use Shrike as a one-dimensional antagonist, showing the tenderness he has towards Hester as a result of having taken her in and taken care of her after her parents had been murdered; he remembers things from his pre-stalker past as well. Both are important parts of his character and both are in the movie.

Magnus Chrome was one character I didn’t understand. In the movie, he has no idea about the super weapon being built in St Paul’s, or why London is headed for Shan Guo; Valentine kills him when he finds out. In the book, as Mayor and leader of the Guild of Engineers (who effectively run the city), he not only knows about these events but is actually in charge of the entire thing. I’m not sure why they changed his character as it would have made little difference to the film but there you go.

And as for Tom’s stash of military-grade old-tech that he pulls out of absolutely nowhere at the start of the movie… He’s a third class apprentice. He is, as far as the people of London (and a number of his fellow apprentices) are concerned, an absolute nobody. He would not have been able to squirrel away a secret stash of extremely valuable, centuries-old military-grade hardware, especially hidden, as it is, behind a small curtain in an office of the very museum in which he works. Sorry, but no. I can understand why it was in the film (to move the plot along at a good pace), but it doesn’t really make sense.

Overall, then, I would say that Mortal Engines is an ok film. Certainly the two friends I went with (neither of whom has read the book) enjoyed it, so going off their opinions it’s a good standalone film worth seeing. Having read and enjoyed the book a fair few times, and having looked forward to the film for most of those 10 years since my first dive into Reeve’s universe, I found it a touch disappointing. I’m extremely glad to see it finally turned into a movie, as I’ve long thought it had potential for one, but it could have been so much better. I think it particularly stings as due to my age the first time I read it, I often dreamt of myself being Tom, having adventures across the world. In these dreams I flew the Jenny Haniver; I fought Shrike; I even, thanks to a certain someone I knew at the time, had my very own Katherine Valentine. In many ways I saw myself as being very like the Tom at the start of the story – I too enjoyed history, I too was anxious to please my superiors, I too (as I’m sure many boys do) spent some of the more mundane moments daydreaming about bravely rescuing beautiful girls from terrible fates. To my young mind I was Tom, and Tom was me. These days I even have an aviator’s coat of sorts.

It’s a book that I’m quite fond of, that I still occasionally read to this day, and that’s probably why I’m a bit disappointed. Not that I didn’t enjoy it, it’s a good film, but as I said above, it could have been fantastic, rather than merely decent. Maybe a TV series would do it more justice (if anyone from Netflix is reading this I’ll happily help out with the production wherever I can). I’d give it a solid 6 or 7 out of 10, given that some of the plot-squishing happens with basically any film based on a book, and thus is not really a fault of this particular one.

So, Peter Jackson – decent effort, far from perfect but given the necessary time constraints, not a bad job. I don’t suppose you’d like a go at Skulduggery Pleasant next?

All photos have been cropped from an original posted on Flickr by deepskyobject, used under the Creative Commons license found at