The character arc of Hester Shaw - a case study of Mortal Engine's most murderous mother...

Wednesday, March 27, 2024
In the heart of the "Mortal Engines Quartet" by Philip Reeve lies the intricate and compelling character arc of Hester Shaw, a narrative journey that spans across a vast, post-apocalyptic landscape where giant traction cities move on wheels and humanity clings to survival through steam punk based ingenuity and ruthlessness.

Hester Shaw emerges as a central figure whose personal evolution is as turbulent and dynamic as the world she inhabits.

This essay seeks to explore Hester's journey from a revenge-driven outcast scarred by past traumas in "Mortal Engines," through her complex relationships and moral dilemmas in "Predator's Gold" and "Infernal Devices," to her quest for redemption in "A Darkling Plain."

Her development is not just a personal odyssey but a reflection of the thematic depth of the series, touching on resilience, redemption, and the transformative power of love and forgiveness.

The character arc of Hester Shaw from Mortal Engines

Mortal Engines

In "Mortal Engines," the first novel of Philip Reeve's groundbreaking "Mortal Engines Quartet," readers are introduced to the post-apocalyptic world of Municipal Darwinism, where mobile cities roam the Earth on wheels, consuming smaller towns for resources.

Central to this narrative is the complex and intriguing character of Hester Shaw, whose personal vendetta and emotional journey after the death of her family and her time adopted by the Stalker Shrike provide a deeply human element amidst the grandeur of moving cities and steampunk technology. 

Driven by Vengeance

Hester Shaw is first introduced as a disfigured, mysterious young woman with a singular focus: to avenge the death of her mother and her own disfigurement at the hands of Thaddeus Valentine, a revered historian of the predatory city of London. 

Her facial scar, a constant reminder of her past, symbolizes the deep emotional and psychological scars she carries. Hester's initial portrayal as driven solely by revenge sets the stage for her complex character development. 

Her determination and resilience are evident in her relentless pursuit of Valentine, showcasing her strength and depth of character from the outset.

Unlikely Alliances and Personal Growth

Hester's journey takes a pivotal turn when she encounters Tom Natsworthy, a lowly apprentice historian from London, who becomes an unlikely companion after they are both expelled from the city. This partnership, born out of necessity, gradually evolves into a profound bond that challenges and transforms Hester. 

Through her interactions with Tom, who is initially naive and idealistic, Hester begins to confront her own deeply ingrained beliefs and motivations. Tom's natural kindness and genuine concern for her well-being offer Hester a glimpse of a life beyond revenge, prompting her to reconsider her path and the possibility of redemption and forgiveness.

Confrontation and Transformation

The climax of "Mortal Engines" sees Hester facing her nemesis, Thaddeus Valentine, in a confrontation that is as much about confronting her past as it is about seeking justice. This moment is crucial in Hester's arc, serving as a catalyst for her transformation.

 It is here that she must choose between the consuming desire for revenge and the new connections and possibilities that have opened up to her through her journey with Tom and others. 

Her decision reflects significant growth, moving away from the singular narrative of vengeance to embrace a more complex and nuanced understanding of herself and her place in the world.

Hester Shaw's Evolution

By the end of "Mortal Engines," Hester Shaw emerges as a significantly changed character. Her evolution from a vengeance-driven loner to a character capable of love, trust, and sacrifice underscores the novel's thematic exploration of redemption, resilience, and the human capacity for change. 

Hester's relationship with Tom, in particular, highlights her capacity for growth and her eventual openness to experiencing life beyond her initial quest for revenge.

hester shaw shrike concept art mortal engines

Predator's Gold

In "Predator's Gold," the second installment of the "Mortal Engines Quartet," Philip Reeve continues the saga of Hester Shaw, a character whose depth and complexity are further explored against a backdrop of steampunk adventure and societal upheaval. This essay examines Hester Shaw's character development in "Predator's Gold," highlighting how her internal struggles, relationships, and actions contribute to her evolution and underscore the novel's thematic concerns. 

Through examples from the novel, we can discern how Hester grapples with jealousy, insecurity, morality, and ultimately, personal growth.

Hester Shaw's Emotional Turmoil

Hester's journey in "Predator's Gold" is characterized by her battle with deep-seated insecurities and jealousy, primarily stemming from her relationship with Tom Natsworthy and their encounter with Freya Rasmussen, the leader of Anchorage. Hester's grotesque disfigurement, a constant source of personal angst, feeds her insecurity, especially in the presence of Freya, whom she views as a rival for Tom's affection. 

This emotional turmoil is vividly depicted when Hester observes Tom and Freya together, projecting her fears of abandonment and unworthiness. Hester's internal dialogue, laden with self-doubt and suspicion, reveals her vulnerability and the complexity of her character beyond her rugged exterior.

Actions Driven by Fear and Love

Hester's actions throughout "Predator's Gold" are often driven by a convoluted mix of fear and love. A pivotal moment illustrating this is her confrontation with Freya, where Hester's threats are motivated by a desperate attempt to protect her relationship with Tom. This scene highlights Hester's willingness to cross moral boundaries, underpinned by her fear of losing Tom. 

Her actions, though propelled by love, often verge on morally ambiguous, showcasing the darker aspects of her character and her struggle to navigate her emotions and decisions responsibly.

Moral Ambiguity and Consequences

The novel does not shy away from presenting Hester's morally questionable decisions, which serve as a critical aspect of her character arc. Hester's contemplation of abandoning Anchorage to its fate, driven by a survival instinct, poses significant ethical dilemmas. 

Her actions not only affect her relationship with Tom but also impact the broader narrative, creating tension and conflict. Tom's growing disillusionment with Hester's choices reflects the strain on their relationship and underscores the novel's exploration of morality, loyalty, and the consequences of one's actions.

Confrontation, Growth, and Redemption

Hester's evolution reaches a turning point as she is forced to confront the consequences of her actions. Her journey through adversity, both external and internal, catalyzes a reflective process, leading to acknowledgment and, eventually, growth. 

The decision to save Anchorage, despite her initial willingness to betray it, marks a significant departure from her self-preservationist tendencies. This act of redemption signifies Hester's growing sense of responsibility and her capacity for altruism, contrasting sharply with her earlier actions and highlighting her complex journey towards self-improvement.

hester shaw character study mortal engines

Infernal Devices

In "Infernal Devices," the third novel of the "Mortal Engines Quartet," Hester Shaw's character arc continues to evolve amidst the backdrop of a world still rife with conflict and transformation. This section of her journey introduces new dimensions to her character, particularly focusing on her roles as a mother and a partner, while delving deeper into her internal conflicts and the consequences of past actions. Hester's relationship with her daughter Wren, her ongoing struggle with her identity and self-worth, and the choices she makes in the face of new challenges illustrate significant growth and depth in her character.

The Introduction of Motherhood

The novel introduces Hester as a mother to Wren, adding a complex layer to her character. Hester's fierce protectiveness and deep love for Wren are juxtaposed with her fears of inadequacy as a parent. 

This is evident when Hester worries about the kind of role model she is for Wren, reflecting on her own violent past and the scars, both physical and emotional, that she carries. 

Her desire to provide a better life for Wren, while grappling with her own demons, showcases the duality of her character—torn between her instinctive, sometimes violent tendencies, and her deep-seated yearning for redemption and a peaceful existence.

Facing the Past

Hester's journey in "Infernal Devices" is marked by her confrontation with her past. The return of old enemies and the revelation of secrets force Hester to reckon with the consequences of her earlier actions.

This is particularly highlighted in her interactions with the Stalker Fang (a resurrected Anna Fang), where Hester is faced with the literal embodiment of her past violence and decisions. Her struggle to protect Wren from the dangers that her own actions have helped unleash underscores the novel's thematic exploration of legacy and the cyclical nature of violence and retribution.

The Struggle for Identity and Redemption

Throughout "Infernal Devices," Hester's struggle with her identity and her quest for redemption are central themes. Her relationship with Tom, strained by their past and by the secrets they keep, serves as a mirror reflecting her internal battles. Hester's actions, driven by a complex mix of love, fear, and desperation, further complicate her quest for redemption. 

The novel does not shy away from depicting the moral ambiguity of her choices, such as her willingness to engage in piracy (murder) and deceit to achieve her ends. These actions, while aimed at protecting her family, also highlight her ongoing battle with her darker impulses.

Choices and Consequences

The climax of "Infernal Devices" brings Hester's character arc to a critical juncture. Faced with the ultimate choice between continuing her cycle of violence or embracing a path towards peace and reconciliation, Hester's decisions have far-reaching implications. 

Her willingness to make sacrifices for her daughter's safety and her efforts to mend her fractured relationship with Tom illustrate her growth. The novel concludes with Hester taking steps towards atonement, albeit with the understanding that some scars might never fully heal.

A Darkling Plain: The Culmination of Hester Shaw's Journey

In "A Darkling Plain," the final installment of the "Mortal Engines Quartet," Philip Reeve brings the epic saga of Hester Shaw to a poignant and dramatic conclusion. Throughout the series, Hester has evolved from a vengeful, solitary figure into a complex character grappling with issues of love, redemption, and identity. 

The Quest for Redemption

Hester Shaw's narrative in "A Darkling Plain" is heavily marked by her search for redemption. Bearing the weight of her past actions, Hester seeks to reconcile her violent deeds with her desire for a peaceful future. This quest is illustrated through her efforts to protect her family and mend the rifts her actions have caused. 

One significant example is her attempt to safeguard Tom and their daughter, Wren, from the dangers that her past has wrought upon them. Her readiness to confront her former allies and enemies alike in a bid to secure peace underscores the depth of her transformation.

The Complexity of Relationships

The novel delves deeply into the intricacies of Hester's relationships, particularly with Tom Natsworthy. Their bond, tested by time, betrayal, and the scars of past battles, faces its ultimate trial. Reeve masterfully explores the nuances of love and forgiveness through their interactions, providing a raw and honest look at the challenges they face together.

Hester's relationship with her daughter Wren also comes to the fore, highlighting her struggle with maternal instincts and the fear of passing on her own flaws and demons. These relationships are central to Hester's journey, reflecting her internal struggle and her aspirations for redemption and love.

Actions and Legacy

In "A Darkling Plain," Hester's actions are driven by a combination of desperation and hope. One of the novel's most compelling examples of this is her confrontation with the Stalker Fang, a pivotal moment that encapsulates her willingness to sacrifice everything for the sake of a better world. 

This act, among others, serves to illustrate the extent of Hester's evolution from a revenge-driven outcast to a figure capable of selfless sacrifice. Her actions throughout the novel not only shape the course of events but also cement her legacy within the series' universe.

The Final Resolution

The conclusion of Hester Shaw's story in "A Darkling Plain" is both tragic and fitting, providing a resolution that reflects the series' themes of change, loss, and the possibility of redemption. Hester's ultimate fate, intertwined with the fates of those she loves, underscores the series' exploration of the costs of war and the value of peace. It is a testament to her character's journey from darkness into a more nuanced understanding of herself and her place in the world.


The character arc of Hester Shaw across the "Mortal Engines Quartet" represents a meticulously crafted narrative of transformation, resilience, and redemption. Beginning as a character consumed by vengeance in "Mortal Engines," Hester evolves through experiences of love, loss, and moral quandaries, deeply explored in subsequent novels. 

Through her journey, Philip Reeve not only captures the essence of a post-apocalyptic world but also delves into the complexities of the human spirit. Hester's evolution from a vengeful loner to a figure capable of profound love and sacrifice underscores the quartet's thematic richness and its exploration of redemption, identity, and the indomitable nature of the human will to overcome the darkness of the past. 

Her story arc, emblematic of the broader narrative's scope and depth, leaves a lasting impact on readers, highlighting the transformative power of human connection and resilience in the face of adversity.

Thunder City - new Mortal Engines novel

Sunday, February 25, 2024
Philip Reeves has announced a new Mortal Engines novel, Thunder City:

Here's the synopsis:

"Tamzin Pook is a fighter in the Amusement Arcade. And what she does best is killing Revenants.

All she knows is survival, having arrived in the Arcade as a small child. She pushes away her memories, her hopes, and her fears, and she emerges into the arena to battle the Revenants--dead brains nestled in armored engine bodies. She doesn't dare to hope or wish for anything more than to survive another day.

Meanwhile, the wheeled city of Motoropolis has been taken over by a rebel faction who killed its leaders and commandeered the city. Its only hope is a teacher named Miss Torpenhow who's determined to find the Mayor's good-for-nothing son and force him to take back what's rightfully his. But to get to him, she'll need to find someone who's skilled at fighting Revenants.

With a daring abduction, Miss Torpenhow and Tamzin Pook's destinies are entwined, and so begin their adventures together...

This stand-alone Mortal Engines novel follows an unlikely crew of fighters-turned friends: Tamzin Pook, Hilly Torpenhow, mayor-to-be Max Angmering, and washed-up mercenary Oddington Doom. Together, they must find a way to outwit the assassins that are determined to drag Tamzin back to the arcade, and try to take back Motoropolis."

thunder city mortal engines book cover

Thunder City is a PREQUEL of sorts per Reeve:

"The rule I set for myself when I was writing this one was that it shouldn’t feature any of the people or places from previous Mortal Engines books. So Thunder City takes place just over a century before the original book, when the town-eat-town world of Traction Cities is slightly less ruthless than it will become later, and none of the characters from the original quartet has even been born yet. (I suppose Mr Shrike must be bimbling about somewhere, but he’s still just yer basic implacable killing machine at this point so there’s not much point in paying him a visit). So hopefully this new take will be accessible to people who’ve never read Mortal Engines, and hopefully people who have read it will enjoy an adventure set in the same world."

One can pre-order on Amazon now for a September 2024 release.

What is the meaning of the "Mortal Engines" title?

Monday, January 15, 2024

What is the meaning of the 'Mortal Engines' novel title and its Shakespeare reference?

The title of the book by Philip Reeve and movie produced by Peter Jackson is a quotation borrowed from William Shakespeare's 'Othello'.

Yes, Philip Reeve (Thunder City) is referencing the Great Bard himself.

The full quote from Act III, scene iii is said by Othello himself:

"And O you mortal engines whose rude throats / Th'immortal Jove's dread clamors counterfeit..."

For Mortal Engines, there's a double play in meaning.

Reeve uses the phrase as a commentary on the book's concept of 'Municipal Darwinism'.

Municipal Darwinism is the technological ecosystem by which most of the world of Mortal Engines works.

The larger predator cities consume smaller cities for their resources. Physical resources are used for fuel or re-utilised. Humans living on the captured cities can be enslaved or eaten.

It's basically a play on Charles Darwin's survival of the fittest concept from his natural selection theory.

The main theory of Municipal Darwinism is a predator and prey cycle; if the bigger town is faster than the smaller, the smaller town will be eaten.

But if the smaller town is faster than the bigger town, the bigger town risks running out of fuel and thus losing it's prey or even facing attack itself in a reversal of fortune.

While in the context of the book's universe this form of Darwinism has existed for 1000s of years since the 'Sixty Minute War', it's a zero sum game which refers to the fact that the society that engages of Municipal Darwinism is not actually a sustainable means of living.

All the cities' engines are indeed mortal as eventually there will be nothing left to consume and they will fail and die.

Readers familiar with Reeve's work will know that he's a bit of a literary magpie and nicks the odd line from a song here and there or a book or line from a classic play to liven up his books. He does it really well - so well we suspect that a lot of the younger readers he has will miss many things he does!

Shakespeare's words are of course is referring to humans as being mortal engines and the book also covers this perspective - consider Shrike. He's hundreds of years old is arguably more machine than man, an 'emotionless' engine. 

Is he mortal or immortal?

Extra for Experts:

↠ What are 'Stalkers' in Mortal Engines?

Thursday, January 11, 2024

What are the Stalker Soldiers in Mortal Engines?


The Stalkers of Mortal Engines are a kind of 'universal soldier' / Robocop combatant, that can be programmed for warfare and assassination.

Stalkers and their variations play various parts in each of Philip Reeve's Quartet of Mortal Engines, Predator's Gold, Infernal Devices and A Darkling Plain.

What are the origins of the Stalkers?

Stalkers originally were designed as mechanisms for humans to transfer their consciousness from one body to another, thus defeating death. The human mind could literally be saved to the hard drive and then transferred into the body of another human.

It was long after the events of 60 Minute War that 'old technology' was adapted to make Stalkers into emotionless monsters to serve at the whim of their masters.

Often referred to as 'Resurrected Men' Stalkers were originally built by the Nomadic Empires that battled each other across the volcano maze of what was once Europe long before the Traction Cities Era began.

The Nomadic Empires built Stalkers by recovering dead bodies from the battlefields, placing them in laboratories and then bringing them back 'life' by using 'Old Tech' machines that were physically connected to the dead body's nervous system. 

This practice continued on to the Traction City Era.

shrike concept art

The bodies were also operated on so internal organs were no longer necessary. The designers also would graft on a metal carapace to the body. Weapons could be implanted into the body and the use of claws was a common feature. 

Shrike did not have claws in the film, unlike in the novel.

The best subjects were taller specimens and they looked a scary sight with their glowing green eyes that all Stalkers had.

Stalkers are generally considered emotionless automatons, only acting at the will of their Masters.

Once a dead human is resurrected as a Stalker, they have no feelings, displays no emotions and they will not have any memory of who they were before they died. Any past memories are jumbled messes and lost glimpses of their former life.

In Mortal Engines, the City of London manufactures its own Stalkers.

The London Guild of Engineers builds new Stalkers from dead prison convicts at their experimental prison in the Deep Gut. These particular Stalkers are not considered as refined as the infamous 'Shrike' due to the use of less sophisticated stalker-brains, the devices used in the brains and nerves of Stalkers.

The origins of these Resurrected Men, begin to be explained in the first prequel in the Mortal Engines series, Fever Crumb. Scrivener's Moon expands on the details as well.

shrike grike mortal engines
Shrike was played in the film by Stephen Lang.

What is the Shrike in Mortal Engines?

The 'Shrike' was the first Stalker to be mentioned in the original Mortal Engines book.

His character was under the control of the Mayor of London Traction City, Magnus Chrome. Chrome used the Shrike to find Hester Shaw and Tom Natsworthy and he was ordered to kill them.

At face value, this seemed a straightforward plot point however it was later revealed that The Shrike had once looked after Hester in a past life.

Due to his emotionally retarded state, his own goal in life was to turn Hester into a Stalker like himself, so they could live together forever.

In terms of memory retention, Shrike appears to be the exception to the rule as was able to recall his past life as 'Kit Solent' shortly before his death at the hands of Tom Natsworthy by the sword. Kit Solent's tale and how he became a Stalker of the Lazarus Brigade was covered in the prequel novel, Fever Crumb.

In the film Shrike is played by veteran actor Stephan Lang - you may remember him as the evil general in Avatar.

>> Stuck for yeast when making beer? You can ferment your beer with baker's yeast! <<

↠ What are 'Stalkers' in Mortal Engines

Are Stalkers invulnerable?

Stalkers are heavily protected by their armour but vulnerable to small arms fire and hand-held weaponry.

Due to their 'programming' they do not feel any pain as their nervous systems are rendered. This means they are pretty handy in hand to hand combat as even if their opponent is able to stab them or cause injury, they will not feel it and be able to continue to fight and thus increasing their chances of winning.

In Mortal Engines, Tom Natsworthy did manage to kill the Shrike Stalker with a sword by impaling it through his neck. The Shrike was however suffering from some performance issues as he'd actually been run over by a Traction City!

hester and shrike

But there's a reason Stalkers are known as Resurrected Men....

Anna Fang as a Stalker in the sequel novels

In Mortal Engines, Anna Fang was Tom and Hester's rescuer from the Shrike when he originally caught up with them on Airhaven.

Despite her heroics, Fang was ultimately killed by the dastardly Thaddeus Valentine in a sword fight.

In Predator's Gold it was revealed that a splinter group of the famed Anti Traction League called Green Storm had recovered Fang's body and applied the Stalker Resurrection techniques to it.

Green Storm had intended that the revived Anna Fang would lead them in battle against the remaining Traction Cities.

Eventually, the resurrected Fang stalker would take part in many battles and features in Infernal Devices and A Darkling Plain where her character wreaks some pretty spectacular havoc using the ODIN device.

The Shrike concept art from Mortal Engines
Shrike fan art

Extra for Experts (spoilers):

5 ways the Mortal Engine film borrowed from Star Wars

Tuesday, September 19, 2023

Star Wars was a key influence on the Mortal Engines movie

When doing promo work for Mortal Engines, director Christian Rivers spoke of how the movie was pitched when they shopped it around the studios.

What does it look like they asked?

Rivers said this:

"I drew a triangle on a piece of paper, and the three points of the triangle were Star Wars, Harry Potter, and Mad Max. It is in our future after an apocalypse. But we don't want it to be all rusty, and f***ing grim and bleak. We wanted to have a technology and a scale that sort of could be Star Wars-esque. But we also wanted it to have a sort of a charm and a sort of cultural character to it that could be like the Harry Potter films."

After seeing the film (here's our glowing review), we think that triangle might have been lopsided in favour of Star Wars because Mortal Engines is quite strong with the Force!

Here are a few key references and plot points that the Peter Jackson production borrowed from George Lucas's films.


  1. Valentine's big reveal to Hester that he was her father was during a duel where the stakes were life and death is straight from the playbook of The Empire Strikes Back where Darth Vader reveals he is Luke's dad.
  2. When Tom Natsworthy becomes an 'aviator' and flies into the heart of the engines of London and fires a blast at a key part of the engine, well he would make Lando Calrissian proud because he and Wedge Antilles pulled that move destroying the Death Star II in Return of the Jedi.
  3. The whole, racing against time to destroy London before it fires on Batmunkh Gompa's shield wall is basically the plot of the last third of Star Wars: A New Hope. i.e. Destroy the Death Star before it destroys the Rebel base. Admittedly, Star Wars was inspired by the Gregory Peck film, The Guns of Navarone for this idea... 
  4. The opening chase where London runs down a smaller, fleeing traction city, is a retread copy of the opening of Star Wars when the extremely quotable Darth Vader's Star Destroyer is chasing Princess Leia's Correllian Corvette, the Tantive IV.
  5. The author of the novel, Philip Reeve freely acknowledges he based Anna Fang on Han Solo. 

Don't get us wrong, just as George Lucas borrowed from a million movies to make his own sci-fi film, it's fine for Mortal Engines to do the same of Star Wars! All that was missing though was Jabba The Hutt!

↠ What was the Sixty Minute War in Mortal Engines?

Tuesday, July 25, 2023
sixty minute war mortal engines

What was the Sixty Minute War?

The Sixty Minute War was a global battle that took place thousands of years before the events of the Mortal Engines Quartet and the Fever Crumb Series.

The 60 minute name conveys that the war took only an hour to begin and end - this was due to the speed and efficiency of the weapons of mass destruction used.

This is because of the way nuclear war scenarios work.

Say Country A decides to wipe out Country B. B can detect the launch of A.

They have time to understand that even though their country is about to be wiped out, they can get their own bloody revenge on Country A.

So they will launch their their own missiles at Country A ensuring that it is destroyed too. This is called mutually assured self destruction.

While the former Soviet Union played brinkmanship games with the US (think the Cuban Missile Crisis) no country has crossed the line as they know there's a large chance that they will lose everything themselves (Hiroshima and Nagasaki aside as only the US had such weapons at the time).

So in the book and movie of Mortal Engines, there was of course a 'cold war' between various nations that directly led to the war's start. The mutual self destruction concept played out and when the first strike was launched, the other nations responded in kind.

And once the arms were deployed, some from the land, some from orbiting satellites in space and may be the odd submarine, the so called 'war' was over and done with in an hour.

This was the classic doom's day scenario leading to a desolate Earth where most of humanity was destroyed. In Reeve's novels North America became known as The Dead Continent and thought inhospitable for human life.

Two of the weapons were known as the MEDUSA, which features in the first novel and the second, ODIN, is first featured in the third novel of the Predator Cities Quartet, Infernal Devices.

The ODIN weapon was used by Stalker Anna Fang in A Darkling Plain to great effect when she went on a rather magnificent rampage and destroyed all in her path.

The original novel also noted at page 7 that 'tailored virus bombs' were also used. We can only imagine the horror that those weapons delivered on to Earth's population.

MEDUSA on London City

What is the Dead Continent?

The Dead Continent is the name given to what we would considered modern North America.

As the center of the  American Empire, it was a key target during the infamous Sixty Minute  

By the time of the late Traction Era, it was regarded by many humans as a barren, irradiated, desolate and unhospitable land, lost to time.

Professor Nimrod Pennyroyal claimed to have adventured and explored the Dead Continent and wrote a very popular book about his travels.

The truth was a few people where in the know - many of the parts from the MEDUSA weapon where sourced from the continent.

In Predator's Gold, the novel finished with Tom Natsworthy and Hester Shaw deciding to settle in Vineland, an area of the Dead Continent that was discovered to be habitable and sustainable in the long-term.

As to what the author Philip Reeve had to say about what he thought was going on:

"I think it's actually highly unlikely that the US is a 'dead continent' - however badly knocked about it was, it would have been re-seeded with plants and animals by the time of Mortal Engines. So I expect Valentine and other explorers have missed a lot of thriving low-intensity settlements and secret airbases.

I was thinking of secret airbases full of pirate airships etc, but who knows - maybe there are whole underground societies which went into deep bunkers when the bombs started falling and are still waiting for the all clear."

If you think this concept from Philip Reeve's book was interesting, check out his theory of municipal darwinism.

Philip Reeve's Q&A "The Reevening" Part One

Monday, May 1, 2023

Philip Reeve's Q&A about the origins of Mortal Engines

The Mortal Engines Discord is a group of keen Mortal Engines and Railhead book fans who gather together to share their love of the worlds that Reeve has created.

One bright spark had the idea to invite Reeve over for a Q&A interview which he graciously accepted. Here's some of the best bits that related directly to the Mortal Engines series.

Crow-caller and the crew did an excellent job of making sure they had awesome questions pre-planned and keeping the moderation flow in check.

Some of the replies may seem slightly disjointed as there may have been some discussion from other Discord members that shaped the response but were not part of the original question.

Which was your favourite book in the mortal engines quartet to write? Which one do you think is ‘best’? Is there any particular scene/part/character you enjoyed writing best?

I think my favourite to write was A Darkling Plain, because I sort of knew I could do it by then, and for once I had a pretty good idea what would happen at the end. But I think the best is Predator's Gold - I didn't think so while I was working on it, because it kept going wrong and multiple versions were binned, but I think the struggle kind of paid off. (I should add that that I haven't read any of the books since they went to print, so I'm going on my memories of them.)

I heard that Hester was intended to be a kind person with a gruff exterior in ME, but later became the person she is in the later books. What inspired this decision, and would you change anything about ME to reflect it?

I think when I was writing ME I was working on the assumption that Hester was basically a good person who just happened to look awful, and once Tom saw past that all would be well. Which is fine as far as the first book goes, I don't think I'd change that. But as the story expanded into the second book I thought more about her and realised she'd be damaged in ways which couldn't really be fixed.

And I quite enjoyed seeing how bad I could make her, while hopefully retaining our sympathy. She's my favourite character, I couldn't have written the three sequels without her.

Many books and movies end with typical happily ever after moments, however, each part of the Predator Cities quartet ends in loss. Mortal Engines ends by having an entire city going supernova, killing almost all the characters except Tom & Hester. Predator’s Gold ends by having Tom getting shot. Infernal Devices ends with Hester leaving Tom. A Darkling Plain ends with the death of Tom & Hester. Why didn’t you have typical happy endings for these books?

I didn't deliberately set out to have a down ending on all the books, and I hadn't realised I had till you mentioned it! (PG is quite 'up' I think - they arrive safely in the new world...) I generally try to balance any darkness and despair with some hope - these are kids books, after all, I didn't want to be too depressing. But I guess I didn't want endings where all problems were sorted and everyone lived happily ever after.

Well, clean cut endings can work! But the important thing is that the ending has to be right for the story, and the M.E. stories were too murky to have happy-ever-after endings. I do find that, as I get older, I prefer happier endings, though - I don't think I'd write those books in the same way now.

Something I’ve always appreciated about Mortal Engines, Fever Crumb (and Railhead) is the diversity present in the characters- LGBT relationships in Fever crumb and Railhead, as well as international/racially diverse casts. Time wise it seems you’ve had more diversity as you’ve gone on. Is there any particular ‘reason’ for this?

Re. the diversity question, that's not something I really think about consciously. I guess London in the first book is very white, at least on the upper tiers where Tom starts out, and part of the story is about him venturing out and meeting all sorts of other people & learning that they're not the barbarians he's been led to believe... And that process continues in the later books, as we travel to other parts of the world.

Re. Railhead, conscious in the sense that I was trying to imagine a 'good' future (no 60 minutes war here, just expansion across the galaxy, all watched over by machines of loving grace). So obviously racism & sexism & homophobia wouldn't be a thing any more, and I assume that demographically if you fast-forwarded the human race by a few thousand years you'd end up with mostly brown people, so I made that the default setting whenever I brought in a new character. I'm very glad it worked for you, Jack!

Fever's bisexuality simply came from me wanting to write about having a crush on someone - which was as close as I ever got to romance when I was a teenager- only Fever was too ratyional to nurse a hopeless crush on some young man, she'd just tell him. So I had her fall for Cluny, which was against her own 'rational' upbringing and the rules of Cluny's rather retro society. And that seemed to work.

Was there anything specific that inspired your idea for the traction cities/particular characters/the ME world in general? Like anything in your life or perhaps a character/world in other works that inspired you?

Yes, inspiration arrived from all sorts of places, but usually kind of indirectly. And usually once I'd rewritten it a few dozen times, it was changed beyond recognition anyway. So Valentine started out as the sort of boo, hiss villain Alan Rickman used to play in 80s movies, but gradually he developed a conscience and became a very different character.

Reeve's then posted this picture that inspired London:

Reeves then shared some more thoughts on Hester's origins and the inspirations for Anna Fang's character:

Thinking back 25 years... Hester started out as a character in a low budget movie I made - Deadly Ernest, mentioned way back up this thread - I had a friend who'd done one little movie for me and had a very beautiful face, and I thought what shall we do with her next - I know, we'll make her Lee Van Cleef.

So she became an enigmatic female gatling gun slinger in what I now realise was a sort of proto-steampunk story. And that character kind of bumbled on into the next thing I wrote, which was the 1st draft of Mortal Engines.

But I started thinking OK, she's living by wits in the badlands, she probably won't be all that beautiful - and the hero falling out of his city and into love with a BEAUTIFUL GURL isn't all that interesting - so maybe she should be ugly. And Hester kind of came from there. Anna Fang is basically Han Solo, but she's also Strider from LOTR, of course!

In your interview with The Sheehab (which I really enjoyed reading!) you mentioned that when you write, you know what world you want to explore and you just jump in from there, generating scenes and characters that you don't always end up using. Can you tell us about any of those unused scenes and characters?"

I guess in the course of all four Mortal Engines books anything that was any good got used. Usually when I cut a scene its because it slows things down or doesn't advance the story, or takes it in the wrong direction, so I try and fillet out any useful images or scraps of dialogue and use them elsewhere.

There was a whole abandoned novel after Mortal Engines, about a raft city (Brighton) escaping across the Atlantic from the Green Storm. I binned that, but the basic idea became Predator's Gold, and Brighton reappeared in ID, so it wasn't completely wasted. There are a bunch of Anna Fang back story bits which got bumped from book to book and never quite fitted in anywhere, but other than that I don't think there's anything readable lying around.

Edit: It appears Reeve has taken these 'story bit's and turned them into a short story collection called Night Flights.

I'm sure you've heard this a lot, but what is the status of fever crumb four? do you think with the interest from the movie we might finally see it in print?'

No, I think FC4 is past resurrecting now. In so far as I had a plan, I was planning to end it with London getting on the move, and when I sensed that Id have trouble getting it published I made that happen in bk 3 instead, so 4 would have been an odd book even if I had written it... And I decided not to: I started doing my books with Sarah McIntyre instead, and then Railhead, both of which I've really enjoyed, so I think I want to keep moving forward. Plus, I think there's something quite nice about the Fever quartet being unfinished...

Shrike Concept art by the very talented Peter Yea.

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