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Literature / Mortal Engines

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It was a dark, blustery afternoon in spring, and the city of London was chasing a small mining town across the dried-out bed of the old North Sea.

The Mortal Engines Quartet is an award-winning, critically acclaimed series of novels by the English author Philip Reeve. It was initially marketed (somewhat ridiculously) as The Hungry City Chronicles in America. (This possibly happened because of the Stanisław Lem collection that was released as Mortal Engines in the US.) Four books were written in chronological order: Mortal Engines (2001), Predator's Gold (2003), Infernal Devices (2005), and A Darkling Plain (2006). A prequel series has come out set long before the first book, made up of Fever Crumb (2009), A Web of Air (2010) and Scrivener's Moon (2011). The short fiction collection Night Flights (2018) takes place relatively soon before the first book and features the secondary character Anna Fang, while a companion book, The Illustrated World of Mortal Engines, was published in the same year. More will come... eventually.


Mortal Engines takes place in a post-post-post-post-post-apocalyptic future. Nations no longer exist, except in the lands of the Anti-Traction League. Traction Cities — entire cities mounted on caterpillar tracks for mobility — are fiercely independent city-states, using giant jaws to devour one another for resources in a horribly unsustainable city-eat-city environment known as Municipal Darwinism: large cities eat small cities, small cities eat towns, towns eat suburbs, and everyone eats non-moving or "static" settlements. Trade is mostly accomplished by airship, though sometimes cities of roughly equal size (unable to devour each other) will stop to trade. Much of the Applied Phlebotinum involves Old-Tech, ancient remains of lost civilisations ranging from statues of Mickey Mouse ("animal-headed gods of lost America") to Lost Superweapons.


Traction Cities' military and ideological counterpart, the Anti-Traction League, is a vast Eastern coalition of static settlements, who aim to remove the abomination of Traction Cities from the world, though some of their methods may be no worse or better than the very Traction Cities they oppose.

Something worth mentioning, given the amount of back-and-forth editing in the page history, is that the most prominent Stalker is named Shrike in most editions and Grike in the North American ones. For Theme Naming reasons made clear in Fever Crumb — that is, all the Stalkers in his "batch" were named after birds — 'Shrike' (a small predatory bird) makes considerably more sense than 'Grike' (a feature of limestone pavements).

Peter Jackson and WETA Digital worked on a film adaptation of the first book, Mortal Engines, which was released in December 2018.

This book series provides examples of:

  • Action Girl:
  • Action Mom: Hester in the later half of the series. She's good at the action part, but not so great with the mom part.
  • Adventurer Archaeologist: Played straight with Thaddeus Valentine, subverted by Nimrod Pennyroyal.
  • Aerial Canyon Chase: In Predator's Gold, Tom flies an airship at street level through a moving city to lose the pursuit. One of the airships chasing him does crash.
  • Aerith and Bob:
    • Let's see. There's Freya... Shrike... Gargle... Smew... Fishcake... brothers Lego and Duplo... Oenone Zero... Nabisco Shkin...Tom...
    • A lot of names in the series, given the distant-future nature, are well-known brands or companies to us, but whose meaning has been lost. Notably, names like Windolene and Napster. Also, Reeve admits to naming a handful of the characters in Mortal Engines after towns and locations around his home, hence names like Chudleigh and Miss Plym. Furthermore, the Lost Boys almost exclusively get named phenomena related to aquatic life, water, or fish, like Gargle, Remora and Fishcake. And yes, there are more 'normal' names like Hester, Tom, Thaddeus, Katherine and Anna.
  • After the End: The Apocalypse is here known as the Sixty Minute War, and was by all accounts an hour to remember: the North American continent gets glassed, Central America is completely wiped off the map, geological instability causes new chains of volcanoes to spring up all over the place, and humanity is thrown into centuries of anarchy and barbarism.
  • Airborne Aircraft Carrier:
    • Airhaven is an entire floating town, complete with docking for more conventional airships, so it counts.
    • More conventionally, several of the larger military airships probably count.
  • All Hail the Great God Mickey!: Literally — the first book has Tom running past statues of "...Mickey and Pluto, the animal-headed gods of lost America."
  • Anti-Villain: Valentine turns out to be a Type II.
  • Apocalypse How:
  • Apocalypse Not: Hits hard in the third and fourth books as more and more cities are depicted and the lands of the Anti-Tractionists are revealed to cover swaths of Asia and Africa, sort of turned back on itself as the previously unmentioned wider human civilisations are in the process of annihilating each other in a stalemate war.
  • Applied Phlebotinum: Old-Tech can be jewellery, can be useless but shiny rubbish, can be city-melting superweapons, and can make cities fly. Almost nobody can tell the difference.
  • And I Must Scream: Aspects of this in stalker technology. Individuals do not find rest in death, i.e. Anna Fang / Kit Solent, but instead are nightmarishly brought back to life through creepy old-tech (there are some gruesome descriptions of how this happens). What makes it eligible for this trope is [[spoiler: they often remember who they were, and quite possibly are unable to destroy themselves for various reasons — such as due to tinkering done to their brains. They must endure as half-preserved, monstrous killing-machines.
  • Aroused by Their Voice: Fever with Cluny's Trrrilling Rrrs.
  • Artistic License – Economics: Municipal Darwinism doesn't really make much sense: You move a literally city-sized mass of people, buildings, and machinery around on wheels, burning gods know how much fuel per second, dealing with what must be staggering maintenance costs and trying to absorb unimaginable initial investments... All so you can steal some pitiful resources from smaller, less successful cities trying to do the same thing (a labour-intensive process that involves tearing apart lots of valuable infrastructure in the target city).
    • Discussed Trope: In the first book, one character explicitly says that Municipal Darwinism is stupid — it arose at an earlier time, when constant disasters and cataclysms forced communities to be mobile, and continues on, despite making no sense, just because people are set in their ways. The Anti-Traction League certainly thinks that it makes for bad economics.
  • Artistic License – Engineering:
    • The books probably could not exist without this. The premise of entire cities that roll around on giant wheels and tracks, reaching speeds of a hundred kilometres per hour or more, using technology for the most part inferior to what exists in Real Life today, poses quite a few engineering challenges. (What structural material is light, strong, and easy enough to mass-produce to allow this? How are the engines powerful enough? How do they get — or even store — enough fuel to run these engines continuously for days or weeks at a time? How is the weight of an entire city distributed amongst the wheels?) Of course, the answer is that the cities run on Rule of Cool — and they're certainly cool enough to make it all worth it.
    • There are other, smaller examples. In one scene in Predator's Gold, for example, a character rides around on a tiny personal airship the size of a couch, kept aloft by a tiny gas-bag. It's small enough to be suitable for indoor flight. In Real Life, even the smallest lighter-than-air craft still need comparatively huge gas bags to work — compare this video of a tiny Real Life airship. (Airships actually get more efficient when it comes to lifting power as they get larger, which is why Real Life zeppelins were so massive).
  • Badass Long Coat:
  • Base on Wheels: A Web of Air features funicular houses, which only move up and down on rails.
  • Beauty Is Never Tarnished: Deliberately avoided by Hester Shaw, who is horribly scarred and disfigured. As in missing an eye, most of her nose, and a good chunk of her mouth.
    • Discussed trope: When Pennyroyal writes a book with a character based on Hester, he leaves out Hester's disfigurement, and instead gives the character a cute little scratch on her cheek. Hester, when hearing this, exclaims — "is that bimbo supposed to be me?"
    • Possibly played straight in the movie, as the teaser shows Hester with both eyes and no scars on the top half of her face. She is masked from the nose down though, so we've yet to see if she has any of the other facial disfigurements.
      • As shown in the second trailer, she does have a fairly substantial scar across her cheek and mouth, but still has her nose. Likely due at least partially to the difficulty (not to mention expense and time in the makeup chair) in portraying such extensive scarring.
  • Betty and Veronica: Although they don't meet until the very end of the book, Katherine Valentine and Hester Shaw can be seen as this. The second book plays the trope straight with Freya Rasmussen and Hester Shaw.
  • Beware the Nice Ones: Although Bevis Pod is genuinely nice, Katherine is still shocked to see how calmly he can kill.
  • BFG:
    • Hester gets a huge armour-piercing jezail in A Darkling Plain, which also features lightning guns and anti-city artillery.
    • MEDUSA (a giant laser weapon) and ODIN (a KillSat).
  • Bilingual Bonus: Lots of these in German, French and Chinese, in particular some of the city names.
  • Bittersweet Ending: The Traction War cost untold numbers of lives, Tom and Hester are dead and Shrike is left bereft...but New London heralds the rise of a type of moving city that will no longer damage the world, Wren and Theo go on to make new lives for themselves, and Shrike, after hibernating for hundreds of years, wakes up to find the world green again and settles into his new role — and family — as a remembering machine.
  • Blind Weaponmaster: The Stalker Fang is blind for the first half of A Darkling Plain, but can still fight people and even stalkers.
  • Blood Knight: Hester admits to Tom that she enjoys violence, though it's less about fighting and more about killing.
  • Bodyguard Betrayal: Shrike attacking the Stalker Fang.
  • Book Dumb: Hester, especially compared to Tom.
  • Book-Ends: The first line of the first book becomes Shrike retelling the story hundreds of years later at the end of the fourth book.
  • Brick Joke:
    • At the end of the first book, Tom insists (not convinced himself) that someone must have survived the destruction of London. About halfway through the fourth, it turns out he was right.
    • A small, but funny example is Wren's stylish haircut, first briefly mentioned at the start of A Darkling Plain, and then forgotten until a blink-and-you'll-miss-it moment halfway through the book...
  • Broken Bird: Hester, so much.
  • Broken Ace/Broken Pedestal: Thaddeus Valentine isn't as nice as he seems...
  • Chekhov's Gun:
    • Mortal Engines:
      • The seedy, which Tom finds at the very beginning of the book and later uses as a payment to be accepted aboard a town.
      • Early in the book, Katherine mentions that her father's copilot during his expedition to America was a woman, which enables her to figure out the link between her father, Pandora Rae, and Hester Shaw much later.
    • The Tin Book of Anchorage in Infernal Devices.
    • In A Darkling Plain, Wolf Kobold pays Tom and Wren so they fly him to London. At the very end of the book, Wren remembers the money and uses it to buy her own airship.
  • Came Back Strong: The typical purpose of Stalkers is to resurrect someone as a super strong warrior.
  • Came Back Wrong: Stalkers remember little to nothing of their previous life. This doesn't stop people from trying to bring back their loved ones through these methods.
  • Combat Pragmatist: Hester uses basically anything she can find as a weapon, including crossbows, BFGs, knives, swords and a typewriter(!).
  • Convection Schmonvection: Zig-zagged with ODIN's beam. Orla Twombley was badly burnt despite being miles away from it, while Naga was right next to it and wasn't harmed.
  • Colony Drop: Slow Bombs are remote-controlled asteroids.
  • Cool Airship: The Jenny Haniver. It's built of junk, but hey, so's the Millennium Falcon. A connection noted by Tom's "It's made of junk!" comment upon first seeing the Jenny.
  • Cool Boat: The Limpets used by the Lost Boys, amphibious spider-legged walkers that double as submarines.
  • Court Mage: Nintendo Tharp. He has powerful apps.
  • Crapsack World: Downplayed. Traction cities run the social gamut from relatively egalitarian to barbaric pirates but they are all under near-constant risk of being attacked and devoured by a larger city or running out of fuel and starving - especially now that prey is scarce and times hard. Static settlements have the worst of it, being at the bottom of the food chain. The Anti-Traction league is doing relatively well in Asia by hiding behind the shield wall and a powerful airship fleet, but it's steadily losing ground (and cities) in Africa. And then it gets taken over by the Green Storm who launch a war against the Traction Cities.
  • Crazy-Prepared: Cynthia Twite. Not only did she have a time bomb under the ship should her assassination fail (And it did), but she also already forged the suicide note for that guy she killed using her poison-tipped hairpin which she had for such an occasion.
  • Daddy's Girl: Wren is close with her father, Tom. The same can't be said for her mother.
  • Dead Guy on Display: A classical Type 2 in Fever Crumb, where the flayed skins of London's former Scriven masters are put on display following the Skinners' Riots.
  • Death Equals Redemption: Invoked by Hester near the end of Predator's Gold. She expects to die during the book's climax, and figures this will redeem her for selling Anchorage's course to Arkangel. She's actually disappointed when she survives.
  • Determinator. Any Stalker, but Shrike in the extreme. A lot of the human characters too, particularly the frail Oenone Zero, also have an unexpected, somewhat terrifying determination to them.
  • A Dog Named "Dog": Despite actually being a wolf.
  • Driven to Suicide: Hester stabs herself in the heart rather than live without Tom.
  • Dropped An Airship On Him
    • Bevis.
    • Shrike gets run over by a city, but he gets better. He gains a bit of respect for Tom for tricking him.
  • Eagleland: Type II in the backstory. One historian notes that "the old American Empire was quite mad towards the end," coming up with crazy Energy Weapons that drew power from places outside the physical universe. One of them, MEDUSA, is central to the plot of the first novel.
  • Early-Bird Cameo: After a fashion. An aviatrix named Cruwys Morchard is mentioned in passing early in the second book; she's a significant player in the fourth and she's actually Clytie Potts from the first book, who everyone assumed died in the destruction of London.
  • Eco-Terrorist: In the first book, the Anti-Tractionist League attempt to end the environmentally destructive policy of Municipal Darwinism through acts of sabotage and the occasional assassination of prominent Tractionist leaders. In the later books they are deposed by the considerably more militant Green Storm, who wage all-out war against the Tractionist cities and deploy Cyborgs and Suicide Attacks as part of their war effort. The Storm's leader, Stalker Fang, eventually hatches a plot to fire a Kill Sat to trigger a chain of dormant volcanoes, hoping that humanity will die off but life itself will survive and return the planet to its natural state.
  • Enormous Engine: How do you think a Traction City gets around? So much so that they have to eat other Traction Cities to fuel them.
  • Extinct in the Future: The first chapter of Mortal Engines mentions that blue whales have been extinct for thousands of years, likely because of the world's oceans drying up or relocating because of the apocalypse.
  • Feet of Clay: Both of Tom's heroes. Nimrod Pennyroyal is the slightly nicer. Relatively: he shoots Tom in the heart, eventually causing his death, Small Name, Big Ego version. Thaddeus Valentine is the nasty, nasty kind. However, Valentine is the more likeable character, almost a Tragic Villain, while Pennyroyal is as despicable as Gilderoy Lockhart characters tend to be.
  • Foregone Conclusion: The London Underground in Scrivener's Moon aren't going to stop the reconstruction of London as the first Traction City. From what we know of air technology in Mortal Engines, Arlo isn't going to complete his aeroplane but then he does. It just gets destroyed and the technology banned by religion, making this a bit of a "Shaggy Dog" Story. Some of his comments on 'bird roads' and such do indicate that he has an impact on flight though.
  • Foreshadowing: A beautiful example in A Web Of Air. In the narration Thirza Jago is described as very beautiful, with thick curly dark red hair. Then Fever 'felt a splinter of Godshawk stir deep down in her mind'. It is then revealed that Godshawk himself was bisexual. Fever's love interest in then next book? A girl with thick, dark red, curly hair, and Fever is revealed as bisexual.
  • For Science!: The Engineers in Fever Crumb. They're still some of the most ethical characters in the entire book. Despite, ironically, trying to avoid emotions and other "irrational" things.
  • Friendly Enemies: Naga and Kriegsmarshal Von Kobold. Naga sends his rival a gift of a bullet-proof vest enscribed with the words 'sorry we missed you' when he learns that the Kriegsmarshal survived an attack from a Green Storm sniper. The Kriegsmarshal, in return, considers Naga more likable than some of his allies in the Traktionstadtgesellshaft.
  • Future Imperfect:
    • Plastic idols of Mickey and Pluto, "animal-headed gods of lost America."
    • America, incidently, was first discovered in 1924 by Christopher Columbo, the notable detective and explorer.
    • In a play, "Niall Strong-Arm" is sent by "Mad King Elvis of America" to the Moon, where the Moon Goddess, (Princess?) Diana falls in love with him.
    • Reeve is just fond of this trope in general — "blog" is adopted as profanity in Fever Crumb. And, of course, in the same book, the "Hari Potter" cult throw away gag.
  • Gadgeteer Genius: Dr. Popjoy for creating Stalker Fang and Dr. Zero for re-resurrecting and improving Shrike to kill the Stalker Fang.
  • Gambit Roulette: used a couple of times; it seems just about everything is helping Anna Fang, resurrected as a cyborg Stalker get the control codes to the superweapon.
  • Good Scars, Evil Scars: Played with. Hester has some truly hideous scarring on her face and is... complicated. Her extreme moral ambiguity really stems from her scarring and the event that caused it.
  • Grey-and-Gray Morality: Both well-played on both sides, and deconstructed in that some people act out of selfish reasons. Surprisingly enough, there are a few Jerkass characters who are simply in it for themselves.
  • Growing Up Sucks: Hester, Tom, Wren, Theo, and every single last one of the Lost Boys. Arlo Thursday to a lesser extent.
  • Half The Woman She Used To Be: Poor, poor Wavey.
  • Heroes Want Redheads:
    • Tom has had crushes on Katherine Valentine and Freya Rasmussen, but the only one he has ever loved is Hester.
    • After falling for Arlo Thursday, who has black hair, in A Web of Air, Fever falls in love with Cluny Morvish, who has flowing dark-red locks, in Scrivener's Moon.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: Katherine Valentine in the first book. Also, Naga in the last one.
  • Historical Beauty Update: In-universe: Pennyroyal does this to Hester when writing about his adventures in Predator's Gold, prompting her to exclaim, "is that supposed to be me?" Her disfiguring scar becomes a small, cute scratch on her cheek, for starters.
  • Hollywood Atheist: Fever has her moments.
    Fever: All right. I'll kneel down and worship your goddess if you'll kneel down and worship my giant hen.
    Orca Mo: What giant hen?
    Fever: This one here.
    Orca Mo: There is no hen here...
    Fever: Of course not, I made her up. She's imaginary. So she's worthy of exactly as much respect as your goddess.
  • Hot Guy, Ugly Wife: Hester is horribly scarred and Tom is considered handsome.
  • Hufflepuff House: Nuevo Maya and Australia are mentioned to be players in the world politics, but they are never explored. Word of God states that he intends to avert this by giving them A Day in the Limelight in a future book, and The Illustrated World went into a bit more detail about them.
  • I Am Your Father: Thaddeus Valentine and Hester Shaw, though neither acknowledge it to the other.
  • I Did What I Had to Do: Magnus Crome, in particular (I wanted to make London strong!), but also Hester, Thaddeus Valentine, Oenone Zero, Shrike, Anna Fang, Wolfram von Kobold... Usually just makes things worse for everyone.
  • Idiot Ball: Theo Ngoni does some pointlessly stupid things in A Darkling Plain.
  • I Gave My Word: Once Crome and his people have learned all they can from Shrike, Crome could very well have had him dismantled, but he chooses to let Shrike go, and Shrike has faith that the Engineer will give him his "heart's desire" — which is to have Hester Resurrected into a Stalker.
  • I Have No Mother: Wren pretty much cuts off all ties to Hester at the end of the third book, and never sees her again.
  • Implacable Man: All Stalkers, but especially Shrike, who gets; hit by multiple times an emplacement-weapon grade Tesla cannon, buried for centuries, torn apart, shot (ineffectively), stabbed multiple times by many different people and other Stalkers (likewise, though Tom manages to put him into a sort of hibernation for fifteen years by ramming a sword into his damaged chest), Battle Frisbee-d (makes sense in context) blown up, run over by a city (literally), dropped out of an airship into a frozen lake, and and is still alive in the Distant Finale, where he tells the story.
  • Indy Ploy: Hester confronts Piotr Masgard after going back on a bargain she made with him. He's confused about her motivations.
    Masgard: What are you playing at, aviatrix? You sell me this city, then you try and help them take it back. I don't understand! What's your plan?
    Hester: There isn't one. I'm just making it up as I go along.
  • I Should Write a Book About This: The final scene of the last book ends with Shrike reciting the first chapter of the first book to a captive audience.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Hester in the first book. In the following ones, she's still this, but only with the people she cares for.
  • Karma Houdini: Downplayed with Pennyroyal: he never paid for shooting Tom and stealing the Jenny Haniver but at the end of the last book, his reputation is ruined and he spends a fair amount of time in prison. Though he does get released and married eventually, nobody ever trusted him enough to publish the one truthful book he wrote, not even his wealthy wife.
  • Killed Off for Real : Employed liberally; a great number of major and minor characters get the chop, usually quickly and horribly. In the first book alone, Shrike, Anna Fang, Thaddeus Valentine, Kate Valentine, Bevis Pod, Magnus Crome, and pretty much the entire city of London die. Partly subverted as in the course of the second, third and fourth books, some of these characters turn out to have survived or have been Stalker-ized, but then at the end of the fourth book (before the Distant Finale) Pomeroy, Naga, Stalker Fang and, last but not least, Tom and Hester, die.
  • Laser-Guided Karma: Wavey Godshawk is the one who turned Kit Solent into the Stalker Shrike. Years later, Shrike kills her by cutting her in half. Zigzagged somewhat in that she genuinely saw what she did as a high honor rather than horrifying.
  • Layered Metropolis: London has become this, thanks to Quirke, who transformed it into the world's first mobile city. The 7th tier houses the engine district, while St Paul's Cathedral sits on the uppermost tier. Later in the series, as we see more and more Traction Cities, we find that they're all layered — in fact, the number of layers a city has becomes a sort of short-hand for the amount of power and wealth it possesses. Small cities might have just two layers, with the poor citizens sharing the lower tier with the engines and other machinery while the wealthy live in the fresh air and sunshine above. Some of the largest and most powerful cities may have up to a dozen layers (the higher, the more respectable). Only small towns make do with only a single deck.
  • Let's Get Dangerous!: The Guild of Historians at the end of the first book.
  • Lightning Bruiser: Traction cities are very fast (London hits 100 kph in the first book), and when armed for war can pack insane amounts of firepower and armour.
  • Lightning Gun: Some appear in A Darkling Plain, where they are used as anti-Stalker weapons (mainly Stalker birds).
  • Literary Allusion Title:
    • Mortal Engines comes from Othello.
    • A Darkling Plain comes from Matthew Arnold's poem Dover Beach.
    • A Web of Air comes from Charlotte Brontë's poem Retrospection.
  • Lost Superweapon: MEDUSA the city-killing laser and ODIN the Kill Sat.
  • Lost Technology: Dovetails neatly with the above Kill Sat and Black Box. Also plays a big role in the setting otherwise: "Old Tech", barely understood technology left over from our own civilization (and several others that followed, and collapsed in turn) is a constant source of headaches for our heroes.
  • Kill Sat: ODIN (Orbital Defense Initiative), used to obliterate cities and make volcanoes.
  • MacGuffin: The Tin Book is seemingly one of these for some time.
  • Made of Iron: Shrike, who survives being run through with a sword, falling into a ravine, and being run over by a city, among many many other things. In fact, he's actually older than the Traction Era itself, and has lived through it all. Somewhat justified by his being a cyborg, and specifically designed to be hard to kill for good.
  • Those Magnificent Flying Machines: Airships of all shapes and sizes play a major role in the setting, and air travel is heavily romanticized. Air merchants ply the "Bird Roads" in their little tramp ships, seeing the world and having glamorous adventures; nations go to war with fighter-airships and Airborne Aircraft Carriers; rich playboys may ride around their mansions in tiny couch-sized blimps. When the secrets of heavier-than-air flight are finally re-discovered later on in the series, all sorts of improbable ornithopters, autogyros, and other rickety flying machines are added into the mix.
  • Mama Bear: Hester.
  • Manchurian Agent: Shrike in Infernal Devices, programmed to destroy Stalker Fang if Oenone Zero utters the Trigger Phrase "The moment of the rose and the moment of the yew tree are of equal duration."
  • Manic Pixie Dream Girl: Subverted. At the beginning of the first book, Tom dreams of being pulled from his dull life into a wild adventure possibly involving a pretty girl. He does, but the girl is far from pretty and the adventure will leave him more homesick than ever.
  • Masculine Girl, Feminine Boy: Hester and Tom, complete with romantic tension, and especially in the first half or so of Mortal Engines. Tom is a sensitive, emotional, often naive Non-Action Guy, while Hester is a badass Action Girl who doesn't talk much and suppresses her feelings. Tom is constantly shocked by the rough world beyond London, while Hester is the one who's seen it all before, has a tough skin, and gets irritated by Tom's difficulty coping until he starts to adjust. As a bonus, Tom is handsome and conventionally attractive, while Hester has a huge disfiguring scar.
    • This trope is still in effect further into the book series, though sometimes Hester breaks down and acts in a very emotional way, and Tom toughens up as a result of his adventures, and gets some action-heroics of his own here and there. There are still scenes where they very neatly reverse typical gender-stereotyped roles — like near the climax of Predator's Gold, where Hester intentionally leaves Tom out of harm's way in order to protect him while she goes off to do violent and badass things to the villains.
  • Meaningful Name:
    • Anna Fang may be from the German "anfang", meaning "beginning"
    • Some characters' and vehicles' names may be meaningful (such as the airships Jenny Hanniver and Shadow Aspect, or the steam powered-ram ship Supercolider), but others are just as often meaningless (there's a minor character called Lurpak. Yes, really. And his first name is Cat.)
    • Tom Natsworthy, probably because he starts out as a mere good-for-nothing apprentice.
    • In Greek mythology, the medusa was a half-woman half-monster creature who would turn anyone into stone if they looked directly at her. The MEDUSA from Mortal Engines does do this after a sort (it's mentioned that there are carbonised statues of people on the lower levels of Panzerstath-Bayrouth, the city London fries with MEDUSA, that were flash-cooked by its intense heat), but it mostly just kills everything in it's path.
    • In Norse mythology, Odin was the one-eyed All-Father, known for hurling lightning as his signature weapon. This about says it all.
  • Mega-Maw Maneuver: How the cities hunt each other.
  • Minored In Ass Kicking: The Engineers in Fever Crumb don't let a complete lack of combat skills stop them from showing just how effective they are in a crisis. See Crowning Moment of Awesome.
  • Mobile City: A central conceit in the stories. The series focuses on the mobile "traction cities" that sprung up following an apocalyptic nuclear war, which rove endlessly over the plains of Eurasia on giant caterpillar treads and consume each other for the resources they need to keep themselves running. Traditional, static cities still exist, and those who live in mobile cities think of people living in them as barbaric and backward. After all, it's only natural for cities to move across the landscape eating smaller cities and towns to survive.
    • The cities are typically built on stacked circular tiers, narrowing towards their tops, and social rank and wealth tend to determine where you live — the rich and powerful tend to be on the top, while poorer people get the lowest decks and the full brunt of the smoke, grime and noise from the cities' engines.
    • Mobile cities in other parts of the world use different methods of travel than the usual wheels or treads, such as cities that slide across the polar ice caps on giant bladed runners, others that float on the oceans and even one that's airborne.
    • The issues and implications of such things are also given focus — northern Eurasia is reduced to a field of churned mud and gnawed-on mountains by the constantly moving, resource-hungry cities, and the fact that this system is all predators and no prey also makes it unstable, as it has no actual input of energy or material, and ultimately doomed. Even at the start of the series, the traction cities are growing very low on resources and desperate for "food".
  • Mocking the Mourner: When Melliphant tries and fails to impress Clytie Potts and notices she seems more interested in Tom Natsworthy, he decides to wind Tom up by discussing the accident that killed Tom's parents with Clytie while Tom's in earshot.
  • Moving Buildings:
    • The Mortal Engines series is set in a post-apocalyptic future in which entire cities, mounted on tank treads, wander the landscape eating each other. They call it "Municipal Darwinism."
    • In his prequel series, which documents the rise of Municipal Darwinism, various smaller-scale variations on the theme can be seen. In A Web Of Air we see the funicular houses of Mayda, which rise and fall on diagonal tracks up and down the valley the city is set in. In the same book, the previously static city of London lumbers gradually to its, uh, wheels and tracks.
  • Mundanger: Hester Shaw is a Badass Action Girl who regularly comes out of combat unscathed. At one point she gets incapacitated by books falling on her head.
    It was a stupid sort of injury, but that didn't make it any less serious.
  • Narrator All Along: The last lines of the epilogue of A Darkling Plain are the same as the opening lines of Mortal Engines, spoken as Shrike settles down to tell the story to some people he meets.
  • Neglectful Precursors: The Ancients, a.k.a. us, modern 21st-century humans. According to the books, sometime in the 21st century most of humanity wipes itself out in the 60 Minute War, leaving behind a few miserable survivors, a devastated planet, and a rich cache of malfunctioning death-rays, lethal bio-engineered plagues, and all sorts of other goodies that the humans of the Traction Era keep digging up and killing themselves with millennia later. Collectively called Old-Tech, these remnants of the Ancient civilization keep turning up in every book of the series, usually leading to nothing very good at all.
  • Nice Guy: Tom embodies this trope. It's for this reason that 'everybody likes Tom', which is mentioned at least once in every book that features him.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero!: If Hester hadn't abandoned Fishcake, half of A Darkling Plain wouldn't have happened. In the Fever Crumb series, Fever saves Charley from drowning outside Nonesuch House. He shoots her "dead" immediately afterwards (she's saved by the mechanimalculae Godshawk injected in her blood), sets her up in the third book (to not much success) and later becomes hands-down London's most incompetent Lord Mayor.
  • Non-Action Guy: Tom Natsworthy.
  • No One Could Survive That!: Shrike, several times. Also Anna Fang. Subverted in that she actually dies, and is brought back as a Stalker.
  • Oblivious to Love: Is Cluny the only one who hasn't worked out that Fever's in love with her?
  • Opposites Attract: Non-Action Guy Tom Natsworthy and Dark Action Girl Hester Shaw.
  • Parental Substitute:
    • Anna Fang is hinted to be seen as this by Tom and Hester: in the first book, a conversation with Anna reminds Tom of his late mother, and in the second, Tom and Hester put a picture of Anna in an alcove aboard the Jenny meant for pictures of parents...though this is partially due to neither of them having any pictures of their own.
    • Shrike wants to be this for Hester and often refers to her as "his daughter".
    • Dr. Crumb to Fever. This is what Crumb tells Fever, at least. It turns out he's her real father.
  • Pervy Patdown: Wren boards Harrowbarrow with the intention of meeting Wolf Kobold, and one of his minions insists on searching her for weapons before the meeting takes place. Afterwards, she wonders to herself what sort of weapons he expected her to be concealing in her bra.
  • Planet Spaceship: Magnus Crome believes that this is the logical conclusion of Municipal Darwinism: Once London exhausts all of the Earth's resources, humanity will survive by turning Earth itself into a Traction Planet, and becoming a race of Planet Looters. His belief in this vision of the distant future is why he won't be swayed by arguments that Municipal Darwinism is unsustainable.
  • Pocket Protector: Pennyroyal survives being shot because the bullet is stopped by a book he had on him. Of course, the book in question is the Tin Book, a book with pages made out of metal.
  • Posthumous Character: Auric Godshawk is an important character in Fever Crumb, despite being dead. He's learnt about through flashbacks, other characters' comments and his own memories which were implanted in Fever.
  • Precursors: The Ancients, i.e. us.
  • Professional Killer: Hester has this role at the start of A Darkling Plain.
  • Regional Redecoration: During the Sixty Minute War, the Earth's geography was forever changed. South China was flooded, Antarctica de-frosted, seas moved around, pretty much everything north of New York City froze solid, and Central America ceased to exist.
  • Riding the Bomb: More like "piloting the bomb". The fanatical Green Storm employ Tumblers, piloted heavy ordnance dropped from airships.
  • Right for the Wrong Reasons: Some of Professor Pennyroyal's crazy theories turn out to have a grain of truth to them — There are no savages or bears in America, but there are green, habitable areas; there are no "parasite cities", but there are the Limpets and the Lost Boys — no thanks to any particular efforts on his part, however...
  • Running Gag: In the first book, characters tend to mispronounce Tom's family name, including Anna Fang when they first meet. His encounter with Stalker Fang in the second book references this.
  • Screw the Rules, I Have Money!: The Huntsmen of Arkangel will happily pay rewards to anyone who gives them co-ordinates for Traction Cities they can hunt, but Tom considers this practise a betrayal of Municipal Darwinist principles.
  • Self-Parody: Professor Pennyroyal's books make use of common adventuring tropes in an exaggerated and often humorous way. Particularly notable is his book, Predator's Gold, which he writes during the events of Predator's Gold (the real-life book) and which basically presents Pennyroyal's own skewed, exaggerated version of the same (he was just trying to improve the pacing, honest!) Amongst other things, he turns himself into a stereotypical action hero, and gives Hester a sort of Hollywood Make-over (prompting her to exclaim, "is that supposed to be me?").
  • Shipper on Deck: Tom likes to tease his daughter about her relationship with Theo Ngoni. Anna Fang likes to tease Hester about her relationship with Tom. Disturbingly, Stalker Fang does the same while trying to destroy the world in the final novel.
  • Show Within a Show: In Predator's Gold the historian Pennyroyal writes a book, also called Predator's Gold, which covers pretty much the same events as the Real Life book — only from Pennyroyal's own, ah, unique perspective. This has both dramatic and comical consequences. Amongst other things, it's used to parody common adventuring tropes, and much is made of the Historical Beauty Update / Hollywood Homely treatment he gives his version of Hester. Pennyroyal becomes a recurring character, and his books generally play a not insignificant part in the plot of the series.
  • Schizo Tech: Heavier than air flight is literally re-invented in the series. It's primitive and unreliable, whereas drive systems that can move entire cities at motorway speeds across uneven and often constantly shifting terrain are universal.
    • Hot air balloons are reinvented in Fever Crumb. Though they only get one use.
    • In Web Of Air The City Of London adopts a policy of killing off anyone researching flight and later an ongoing policy of creating religious prohibitions against it, because it represented a clear danger to the new traction city.
    • The Green Storm takes this Up to Eleven. Expect to see massive air-destroyers with tech modern humans won't develop today, dropping kamikaze Tumblers and firing more guns than a fleet of AC-130s, providing backup to cavalry armed with machine guns and Killer Zombie Robots while they're being strafed with armed Wright Flyers, which are in turn coming under attack from undead birds and fighter airships. Yes, seriously. Like an F-16 in airship form.
    • In the Distant Finale, Shrike awakens to see that human civilization has become a peaceful, agrarian society living in simple dwellings amid the ruins of the old traction cities...with gravity-defying hovercraft floating around.
  • Shout-Out: Almost too many references to name, recalling all kinds of fact and fiction.
    • The city of Brighton has an aircraft guidance system consisting of a large wheel with lights on it. It's called the "Pharos Wheel", as in Ferris Wheel and Tower of Pharos.
    • Two mechanics in the mercenary fighter squadron "Flying Ferrets" are named Algy and Ginger. These are two major characters in the British book series Biggles, which was about fighter pilots.
    • Again, the steam-ram ship Supercollider. "Collider" is a specific type of particle accelerator.
    • The god Poskitt is named for Reeve's real-life friend Kjartan Poskitt. Mortal Engines has many Shout Outs in its vast, varied and frequently invoked pantheon, including "The Thatcher, six-armed Goddess of unfettered Municipal Darwinism."
    • Many cities are Shout Outs:
      • London is based on the real London, complete with St Pauls and a vertical transport parodying the Underground.
      • Brighton is likewise full of references to Reeve's hometown.
      • And not very flattering references. Reeve has mentioned that his later-created city of Mayda is in part a reflection of the nicer side of Brighton.
      • Wolverinehampton, an ugly place with huge jaws, is a predator city named after Wolverhampton.
      • Tunbridge Wells has become an amphibious town known as Tunbridge Wheels.
      • Grimsby is thought lost, deep under the ocean.
      • Many German cities have their original names with titles like "Traktionstadt" (traction city), "Jagdstadt" (hunter city) and "Panzerstadt" (literally "armoured city", recalls Panzer, German for tank) added, such as Panzerstadt-Weimar. Bilingual Bonus.
    • Shoutouts involving vehicle names include:
      • The 13th Floor Elevator, Thaddeus Valentine's armoured airship, is named after a sixties psychedelic rock band.
      • The Flying Ferrets fighter Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Machiney is named after a popular song involving a bikini.
      • The airship Shadow Aspect is named for an archetype in Jungian psychology.
      • The airship (and centuries earlier, boat) Jenny Haniver is named after the nickname given to fake mermaids often seen in curisoity shops. Fitting, as both vessels are actually made of scraps from others.
      • The Green Storm airship Hungry Ghost is named for a traditional Chinese festival.
      • The Green Storm airship The Sadness of Things is named after a painting.
      • The limpet Ghost of a Flea is named after a painting by William Blake.
      • The limpet Naglfar was a ship in Norse mythology made of the toenails of the dead.
      • The "Mokele-Mbembe", named for an African legend about a (relatively) small jungle sauropod.
      • The "Clear Air Turbulence" may be named for the mercenaries' Hronish assualt ship in the first of Iain M. Banks' 'culture' space operas. It might also, possibly be a reference to the Ian Gillan Band's 1977 jazz-rock album.
    • Then there's the passing mention of the Hari Potter cultists in Fever Crumb, as mentioned in Future Imperfect...
    • The Green Storm parallels the Cultural Revolution; this is most apparent in some of the slogans and revolutionary songs that are named.
    • The actors at the travelling theatre in A Web of Air worship a goddess named Rada.
    • Some of the ancient technology- the 'seedy', a shiny round platter, as well as references in popular books to 'eye-pods' which stored music on thousands of tiny gramophone records. Also the buses in Fever Crumb require the passengers to buy the shell of an oyster in order to ride one.
  • Single Woman Seeks Good Man: Already there in the first book but especially apparent in the following ones, where Hester is head over heels for the nice Non-Action Guy Tom Natsworthy.
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism vs. Cynicism. Way, way over towards the "cynicism" end. The very, very few optimistic characters (Tom, Wren, possibly Oenone Zero) are shown again and again to be completely out of their depth, while the pessimists, nihilists, slave-dealers, compulsive liars, juvenile delinquents, mechanical horrors and violently depraved psychopaths are in their element. And somehow, it WORKS.
  • Small Name, Big Ego: Nimrod Pennyroyal.
  • Social Darwinist: As in Municipal Darwinist. Survival of the fittest city.
  • Split Personality: After being heavily damaged, the Stalker Fang begins switching between her usual violent self and her pre-resurrection self, Anna Fang.
  • Standard Sci-Fi Fleet: The air fleets of the Green Storm and the cities they fight fit the conventions of this trope quite well — except that they fight in the air, rather than in space, of course. Airships are separated into classes ranging from small fighters (not fighter planes, but small, armed lighter-than-air ships) to corvettes, destroyers, and even dreadnoughts depending on their size, armament, and general level of danger they pose to any characters that happen to get in their way.
  • The Spock: The engineers in Fever Crumb. Fever herself is slowly Becoming The Kirk
  • Stalker with a Crush: Yes, Shrike wanted Hester as a daughter, but it's close enough (and the Incredibly Lame Pun writes itself).
  • Steampunk: Often lumped into this category though it really doesn't fit the Steampunk definition very well (its technologies more closely resemble Diesel Punk). Furthermore, Reeve dislikes the genre for its backward-looking-ness.
  • Steven Ulysses Perhero: A girl named Oenone Zero grows up to be brilliant at building and programming Cyborgs. And yes, Oenone Zero is her actual birth name — though it's not uncommon for characters in this setting have names based on products or concepts from the 21st century (the civilization of the "Ancients," from their perspective).
    • Ultimately subverted: Oenone's medical skills turn out to be just as relevant to the plot as her electronics skills. Also, despite her computer-themed name, which one would expect to be associated with cold, rational logic, she turns out to be one of the kindest and nicest characters in the books.
  • Street Urchin: The Lost Boys are half Oliver Twist, a quarter Jack the Ripper and a quarter Stingray, living in a submerged city and looked after by "Uncle", a delusional Fagin-esque techno-wizard in pink bunny slippers with steel toecaps. They're really not very nice people at all.
  • Taking You with Me: General Naga. And HOW.
  • Talking Is a Free Action: Tom manages to say "A Nuevo-Mayan Battle Frisbee!" while seeing one in flight. "Gasps" it, too.
  • Talking the Monster to Death: Tom stops the Stalker Fang from using ODIN by talking.
  • Tastes Like Purple: Fever, like all Scriven, is a synesthetic, meaning she can see scents.
  • Temporary Love Interest: Kate Valentine, who gets accidentally and brutally killed by her own father and Freya Rasmussen for Tom. Also, Wolf Kobold for Wren.
  • That Man Is Dead: "I am not Anna Fang. We are wasting time. I wish to destroy cities." (Admittedly in this case the character did literally die.)
  • The Chick:
    • Tom and Wren Natsworthy, probably the only main characters who aren't happy with theft, violence and casual murder.
    • In the first book, Katherine Valentine and Bevis Pod, in contrast to most of the Londoners.
    • In the second and third, Freya Rasmussen, in contrast to Hester.
  • Time Skip: There's one between each book, but the most significant is the 15 year one between Predator's Gold and Infernal Devices. During this skip the teen protagonists grow into adults and end up with their own teenage daughter, the Green Storm takes over the Anti-Traction League, and the traction/anti-traction conflict escalates into an all out war.
  • Tin Man: The Engineers are revealed to be this in Fever Crumb. Most of the time they're The Spock but when it matters they've got their sensitive side even if they don't really know how to deal with it. Hell compared to the cutthroats and ruffians that take up most of London's screentime they're practically The Chick. Which is ironic, as Fever Crumb is the only female Engineer, EVER.
  • Title Drop: Done several times in Predator's Gold. The term refers to the money earned by selling the location of a city to a predator city so the predator can hunt it down.
  • Together in Death: Invoked by Hester at the beginning of the second book. Played straight at the end of the fourth.
  • Tomboy and Girly Girl: Philip Reeves likes to contrast Hester with a much more feminine character in each book: Katherine Valentine in the first, Freya Rasmussen in the second and the third, and even Hester's daughter Wren in the third and the fourth.
  • Tragic Villain: Valentine ultimately turns out to be this by the end of the first book.
  • Ugly Guy, Hot Wife: Fat Jago and Thirza. Thirza is attractive, and Fat Jago... Well, they don't call him that for nothing.
  • Urban Segregation: Goes hand-in-hand with the widespread use of the Layered Metropolis trope. In the first book, Tom being from Tier Two defined him as a respectable citizen of London (at least, in the eyes of people from smaller towns); the lower of London's seven Tiers were populated by progressively poorer workers. Every Traction City is segregated in this way, however many layers it may have (some only two, some a dozen). The topmost Tier will be occupied by mansions, landmarks, and the Mayor's residence; the next one below may have respectable businesses and offices; below that — working class residences. On the meaner cities, the lowest tiers may house slaves; on the nicer ones, some literal social climbing may be possible. Because the lowest tiers also house the giant engines that move Traction Cities; these are usually very unpleasant places to work and live, and of course only the top Tier gets full sunlight and fresh air. An alternate variant is seen in Predator's Gold in the case of the polar Traction City Arkangel. The less well-to-do of Arkangel live in the outer regions of the city where they are more exposed to the cold, while the city's elite live near the center where thay can benefit from the warmth given off by the city's engines.
  • Used Future: Played believably, once you accept the basic premise is cities eating each other.
  • Villain Protagonist: Hester Shaw, though it all depends on how you see the Anti-Traction League as opposed to London. By the end of the book she's definitely not a villain in any sense. In later books, she sort of slides back down toward the villain side of things.
  • War Mammoths: The Arkhangelsk use these in Scrivener's Moon.
  • Wicked Pretentious: Chrysler Peavy is a pirate leader who began having delusions of being a respectable mayor after seizing control of the suburb Tunbridge Wheels and now plans to turn it into the world's first respectable pirate suburb... a task which he utterly fails at since none of his crew share any of his ambitions, and he himself is still a ruthless pirate at heart.
  • World Half Empty: The basic premise is living on a giant mobile city, eating cities smaller and slower than you and running away from bigger ones. If your city gets taken by a bigger and meaner one, it will be taken by force, completely looted, stripped down for raw materials and its population enslaved. In the third and fourth books, the antagonism between Traction Cities and the Anti-Traction League turns into a total war between the Traktionstadtgesellshaft, a union of militarised German cities and their allies, and the Green Storm, a band of psychotic air-pirates who overthrow the previously peaceful League leaders and turn it into a totalitarian state obsessed with the annihilation of cities. Aboard any Traction City, even non-militarised pleasure cities, you're liable to be blown apart by man-piloted heavy bombs, fleets of giant airships and psychotic undead cyborgs armed with finger-blades; fighting for the Green Storm, you're likely to be either piloting one of the bombs or attempting to fight conventional battles against war-rigged mobile cities, and if (when) you die on the battle lines, may have the bad luck to get your corpse turned into one of the aforementioned psychotic undead cyborgs and have to do the whole stupid thing again.
  • Wretched Hive: Brighton after the Lost Boys take over is described as this.
  • Wrong Genre Savvy: In Infernal Devices, Boo-Boo Pennyroyal has watched too many romantic tragedies at the opera, and is convinced that her slaves and servants are at constant risk of falling into doomed love affairs and running away or killing themselves out of grief and heartbreak. She tries to discourage this, but is also secretly eager to play the role of the kindly, understanding mistress and matchmaker. She ends up being kind towards Wren and Theo as a result, even though they're actually in a Dieselpunk adventure story, romance is far from their top priority, and they end up being rather annoyed with Boo-Boo ("She Is Not My Girlfriend" being very much in effect).
  • Zeppelins From A Post-Apocalyptic Future: Heavier-than-air flight has all but died out and been replaced by airships. However: Ornithopters and gyrothopters have just been reinvented in A Darkling Plain, used effectively by the Flying Ferrets. In A Web of Air, heavier-than-air flight is achieved by Arlo Thursday and then promptly crushed to prevent it being used against the newly-created traction cities.


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