Mortal Engines

Mortal Engines
by Philip Reeves

Publishing Information: HarperCollins: New York, 2003
ISBN: 0060082070
Pages: 310 p.
Ages: 10 & Up

London is hunting

The great Traction City lumbers after a small town, eager to strip its prey of all assets and move on. Resources on the Great Hunting Ground that once was Europe are so limited that mobile cities must consume one another to survive, a practice known as Municipal Darwinism.

Tom, an apprentice in the Guild of Historians, saves his hero, Head Historian Thaddeus Valentine, from a murder attempt by the mysterious Hester Shaw -- only to find himself thrown from the city and stranded with Hester in the Out Country. As they struggle to follow the tracks of the city, the sinister plans of London's leaders begin to unfold....

Book Talk:
London, the great traction city, was chasing a small mining town across the dried out bed of the old North Sea. Prey was getting very scarce and some of the larger cities began to look hungrily at London. So the Lord Mayor decided it was time to leave their hideout and venture into the Great Hunting Ground. It was a town eat town world - Municipal Darwinism. The strong must eat the weak to survive. Once a town was eaten, its mechanical energy was then used by the predator town to keep itself going. The way of the world. In fact it had been this way for a thousand years since the great engineer Nicholas Quirke had turned London into a traction city. Progress.

Tom Natsworthy, an orphan, was an apprentice historian in the museum. He loved the chase and felt no pity for the town as London's huge hydraulic jaws closed on and then swallowed it. Unfortunately for Tom, an altercation with another apprentice landed him Gut duty. He had to go down into the belly of the city and help search through the rubble of the eaten town for any useful artifacts. He hated the job. But to his delight, his hero and the Lord Mayor's trusted advisor, head Historian Thaddeus Valentine was there that day with his beautiful daughter. As they went deep into the Gut they encountered the scavengers. People who actually lived on the earth and collected relics to sell. They all knew Valentine and one tall girl in a black scarf stepped up to him and said "I have something for you Valentine" and whipped out a long, thin-bladed knife. Tom quickly grabbed her wrist and flung the knife but the girl twisted away and ran down a catwalk. Tom followed her in quick pursuit, if only to impress Valentine and his daughter. Down they raced till they came to a rusty hole - the Waste Chute. When the girl turned to face him he saw that she was hideously disfigured. She hissed, "Why didn't you let me kill him." When Tom said he couldn't she said, "Ask him what he did to Hester Shaw," then as a police dart flew into her leg she turned and jumped into the waste chute. Valentine ran up and when Tom told him what happened and what was said, Valentine looked sorrowfully at Tom and then pushed him into the chute and he followed Hester down into the dark.

Subject Headings & Major Themes:

Adventure Stories
Cities and Towns
Science Fiction
Social Darwinism

Awards & Reviews:
ALA Notable Children's Books, 2004
School Library Journal Best Books, 2003
Smarties Book Prize, 2002
YALSA Best Books for Young Adults, 2004

BookList, September 1, 2003, p. 491
School Library Journal, December 2003, p. 144

Discussion Questions and Curriculum Support:
English/Language Arts: Use as a science fiction genre. Discussion of values - loyalty, trust, betrayal, revenge.

Activities: Write an essay describing these abstract concepts - give examples.

Questions for discussion:

  1. The main characters all had their trust in people shattered. What happens when trust is destroyed?
  2. How did Hester and Tom display loyalty?
  3. Name a character or two who were disloyal and why?
  4. Why did Hester and Tom want revenge? Were they justified? Who suffered because of their revenge? Should innocent people pay the price?
  5. How do you reconcile the need for revenge with the harmful effects of revenge?
  6. Describe how revenge can be a vicious circle.

Before the students get to the end of the book while London is on it's way to Shan Gao, propose a debate.

London should destroy the wall and the city because it needs new hunting ground to survive
London should leave these people alone and if the prey runs out, London should adapt and become static itself.

At the close of the book, have the students write an essay on fanaticism and how absolute power corrupts absolutely.   Relate this to the issues relayed in the debate.

Activity: If you lived in the time of Mortal Engines, where do you think you would choose to live - on a city like London, in a place like Shan Gao, in a scavenger town, or elsewhere? Explain why.

Art: The cities and towns were built from scavenged materials. Modern sculpture artists use everyday materials to make sculptures (Introduce students to some of these artists)

Activity: Have students make a sculpture out of scrap material.

Science: The cities were built on a traction system to keep them moving. How was this even possible?  

Activity: Build a model moving city.

A Junkyard mega-zone complete with race and science quiz and junkyard in the classroom.

Social Studies: Social Darwinism and the robber barons of the Industrial Revolution.

Activity: Relate Municipal Darwinism to Social Darwinism and to Darwin's theory of evolution. Have the students explain Municipal Darwinism according to Mortal Engines. Read and discuss about Social Darwinism and the robber barons. Compare the concept of municipal Darwinism with the role of industrialization in America.  


  1. Who had the power (or money) in both worlds. What were they like?
  2. How were the ordinary people treated in both worlds?
  3. What groups countered this system? (Anti-Traction League; Socialists; Progressives)   What did they do?
  4. Compare the workers in Chicago (from Upton Sinclair's book The Jungle) with the workers in The Gut. What happened to people who protested?

Websites: Wikipedia article with lots of links. Gives an overview, positive aspects, problems, application, and further links. A nice site for writing an essay on Social Darwinism-Reason or Rationalization. Gives a nice brief synopsis. Asks the question, were they robber barons or captains of industry?

Current Events: The Anti-traction league was an insurgency or movement to counter the principle of Municipal Darwinism.


  1. Why was it an insurgency? What were its goals? How did they accomplish this?
  2. What insurgencies are happening today? What are their goals? What are they doing?

Web-sites: Lots of links Very long and detailed article on the Iraqi insurgency.

Change and the status quo.   


  1. Why do people want to buck the status quo?
  2. Why is change (progress) imperative?

Activity: Debate the issue of maintaining the status quo vs. progress and the repercussions and benefits of both.

Activity: If you were an Apprentice Historian, what five objects would you pick to represent modern America to someone on the city of London?  

Classroom project: Make an artifact museum of things past and present that represent your town. Catalog and describe.

Web-sites:  Read this article about the National Millennium Time Capsule for inspiration. The capsule is designed to help Americans one hundred years from now understand what artifacts, ideas, or accomplishments represent America at this time in history.

Airborn by Kenneth Oppel, 2004
At the Sign of the Sugared Plum by Mary Hooper, 2003
City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau, 2003 (2005 RITBA Nominee)
Deathscent by Robin Jarvis, 2005

Feed by M.T. Anderson, 2002
The Giver
by Lois Lowry, 1993
The Jungle by Upton Sinclair, 1906
The Last Book in the Universe by Rodman Philbrick, 2000 (2002 RITBA Nominee)
The King of Shadows by Susan Cooper, 2000 (2001 RITBA Nominee)
A Matter of Profit, by Hilari Bell, 2001
1984 by George Orwell, 1949
People of Sparks, by Jeanne DuPrau, 2004
The Time Machine by H.G. Wells, 1895
Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, by Jules Verne, 1870
Tripods trilogy by John Christopher, 1967-1968
The Wind on Fire trilogy by William Nicholson, 2000-2002

Other Books by the Author:
Predator's Gold, 2004 (Book II in the series)
Infernal Devices, 2005 (Book III in the series)

About the Author:
Philip Reeve grew up in Brighton, where he worked in a bookshop for years while also producing and directing a number of no-budget theatre projects.

Philip then began illustrating and has since provided cartoons and rubbish jokes for around forty books, including the Horrible Histories series, as well as Murderous Maths and Dead Famous.

He's been writing stories since he was five, but Mortal Engines is the first to be published. Since then, Philip has written a new series for younger readers, Buster Bayliss. He is also writing and illustrating the definitive guide to Nelson for the Dead Famous series.

Philip lives in Devon with his wife and son and his interests are walking, drawing, writing and reading.