It’s World Book Day today, and in celebration of that fact, I look back over my favourite series of books and what makes them so great.
My favourite series of books is one which I hold to be as good as the likes of Harry Potter, but which has not achieved the same level of recognition – the Mortal Engines quartet by Philip Reeve. In spite of the fact that I’ve had four years away at University doing a course that heavily involved reading books, these ones in particular remain my favourites. The strange title comes from a quote from Act 3 Scene 3 of Othello, ‘And, O you mortal engines, whose rude throats/ Th’immortal Jove’s dread clamours counterfeit,/ Farewell! Othello’s occupation’s gone.’
For those who don’t know of this young adult series of books, the premise is as follows, and hold on to your hats, because it is a tad bonkers. At some unspecified point in the future, the natural world has been ravaged and the earth is a barren landscape following a nuclear apocalypse centuries earlier (the so-called ‘Sixty-Minute War’). But wait for it: cities are now great tiered constructions, powered by engines and moving on wheels, and they have mechanical jaws so as to harvest the parts of other cities or, as the books would have it, ‘eat’ them. (Yes, you read that right). The series is also populated by Stalkers – people whose brains have been put into robotic metal skeletons after their deaths so that they are reborn as killing machines. A veritable smorgasbord of often grotesque (but always well-imagined) supporting characters come into play as well. This world, strange though it may be, is fully fleshed out by Reeve, and you only get more drawn into it as you read on. The detail, and more importantly the thought that has evidently gone into it, is staggering.
Two main characters catapult us into the action – the shy, reticent trainee historian Tom Natsworthy, and the cruel, vengeful Hester Shaw, who quite literally bears the scars of her past. Both characters guide us through the sprawling metropolis of London and far beyond, through betrayals, grand schemes and more than a little bit of commentary on the environment. Displaying constant inventiveness in terms of new cities, new adventures, new gadgets and new characters, this series also has a lot going on under the metaphorical bonnet. The characters at the core of these stories have a great deal of depth to them, which takes its time to be uncovered, but is only all the more poignant and affecting when it is revealed.
To say more than this would be to spoil things, but from the first pages of Mortal Engines, through follow-ups Predator’s Gold and Infernal Devices, to the ending of final book A Darkling Plain, Reeve manages to balance matters very deftly between developing the many characters, developing the details of the world they inhabit, and getting in as many clever references to our own time as he can.
And what’s more, these characters are not the stereotypical hero-types you get in young adult books. They’re nuanced, and imperfect, and even detestable at times (that’s often the protagonists), but much more rounded for it. And also, once the final book has reached its end, it’s hard to imagine how they could have finished things any other way. Despite the sheer amount of literature I’ve read since this series, the Mortal Engines quartet remains the most satisfying and complete series of books I’ve ever read, with the finale being an out-and-out masterpiece.
All I would say is, seek the books out. They might just surprise you, as they did me, because the best books can often be just that – completely unexpected.