I don’t frequently read in the YA (young adult) genre, but when I hear other grown-ups call it their favorite, I understand why.
YA authors know that kids respond to obscurity with boredom. Most kids in that market haven’t perfected the I’m-going-to-pretend-to-understand-so-I-can-seem-cool thing. Young readers also expect things like plot and character development, mainly because these are reasonable things to expect of any story for any age reader.
The premise of Mortal Engines intrigued me: In a dystopian time thousands of years in the future, entire cities have been made mobile. In a literal take on a sort of Hobbesian world view, they chase and eat each other. The book opens with the city of London in hot pursuit of a forgettable little mining town as it scampers away across what had been the North Atlantic, but now is just a mud bed littered with skeletal remains of once-mobile cities. Times are hard and prey is scarce. London overtakes the small camp, consumes it, takes aboard a disfigured-girl-with-a-story as a prisoner (mystery!), and the game is on.
Pacing and clarity are standouts here. There’s the almost-obligatory dip into cliche, but not in a way that offends. Reeve offsets some of the weary aspects of his lead male with some charming little characterizations among the secondary cast. The foibles of British culture are still on display thousands of years after the city is hoisted up on giant tank tracks and set to chasing down French villages across a hellish background. Some of the witty asides had me laughing. Yes. Actually laughing.
Mortal Engines shows the effects of “Municipal Darwinism” on the public mores. The people are generally indifferent to life and death and guilt or innocence, and slavery is common. Tom plays the wide-eyed innocent a little too well. It’s hard to buy that he’d been an apprentice historian and yet unaware of some of the baser instincts on display among those he encounters.
I tend to rate young adult lit like this: Would the premise make a good story for grown-ups? If no, then it’s really children’s literature (at best). However, Mortal Engines earns its YA stripes thanks to a philosophically-interesting premise, some brave decisions on which characters to kill off, and its general refusal to talk down to the reader.