Tourtuous Review: The Mortal Engines Quartet

Apparently, DeviantArt thinks I 'need' Prem Membership. No, DA. I don't need it. You need me to buy it. I just want it... and you know the best way to make me not get something, even if I want it? Tell me I need it.

So... screw you DA. You just lost out on this month's internet wasted pennies allowance.

I HATE it when someone absolutely insists I'll like something. A part of my brain just clicks into contrary mode. Even if I wanted to like it, chances are I'd have to fight past the block that you, yes you, just put in my head. I don't want it there. I WANT to like and enjoy things people recommend to me.

If someone I know is enthusiastic about something chances are I'll enjoy it too (there are some exceptions; Mighty Boosch, Metalocalypse, Ouran, Legend of Zelda). Tompl told me Dr Horrible was awesome and I love it. Blue_Alice told me Boondocks was hilarious, and so it was. However, the very second someone tells me they think they know my tastes, I become quite indifferent to their geekdom.

I admit it; I dislike things just because someone seems to think I will like them. I try to fight it, honestly I do... it took me years to enjoy The Simpsons. Luckily, some things are just too god damn amazing for my faulty brain activity to fight the love.

The Mortal Engines Quartet is one of these. Blue_Alice and DrMagister (you can find all these crazy names on Twitter, btw) squeed about these children's books for months... and it took me even more months to sit down and read the first one, and that was only because I had nothing else to read (well, I did, but you know what I mean; nothing I felt like reading... a lot of heavy tomes). I was told, in no uncertain terms, that I'd love them.

Yeah... *sigh*

They are amazing though. It is very rare that I will bother hunting down the next book in a series. I'll usually just wait for fate to drop it in a charity/second hand book shop for me. With The Quartet (and another series I'll talk about once I've finished it) I've been actively seeking them out in Waterstones (well, second hand first, obviously).

It begins with Tom Natsworthy, a teenage boy in London, dusting down museum exhibits while mooning over a) a girl that is way out of his league and b) adventures in the sky. The lovely lady may or may not notice him, but adventure is definitely soon to come his way; London is chasing down another, smaller city for dinner.

Yes, dinner. The cities in this future world can move. They roll around on massive wheels and caterpillar tracks, or skate across the Northern wastes on huge blades. Towns eat small villages, turning inhabitants into slaves and using their resources to increase in size. Cities eat towns, bigger cities eat smaller cities. It's referred to as Municipal Darwinism and our young hero believes completely in the rightness of this idea... well to begin with, anyway.

Betrayal and attempted murder leave him stranded in the tracks of his city as it trundles away without him. His company is a hideously deformed, skinny, angry young woman named Hester Shaw. They find other towns and survive, time and again, the attempts on their lives (by pirates of land, sea and air, cyborgs, evil scientists, malicious archaeologists) and... well, I'll say this much; they do NOT live happily ever after.

Philip Reeve doesn't believe in happy endings. He puts his characters through hell over and over... even death gives them no respite. He's no fan of 'cool' either. The hero is a bumbling, ever scarred boy who never thinks before he acts and the heroine is a hideous, deeply disturbed girl whose morality is quite questionable. Almost every adult is evil or useless and the ones that are not are pretty much in it for themselves. Even the few characters that start off looking awesome turn out to be duplicitous murderers/mass murderers. How many authors could carry that off and still be placed in the 9-11/young teen section?

These are fun, wholesome books about people with faults, many faults (some are nothing but faults, held together by sheer will alone), set in a fascinatingly original world, mixed with a yummy dose of steam-punk (and coats... Reeve seems to love describing coats). As the series continues, the world grows. We learn more about what events led to the destruction of America (oh, did I not mention that?) and the placement of cities on wheels. Reeve introduces us (with marvellous descriptions of each) to armoured cities, cities on skates, floating (sea and air) cities, submerged cities and, of course, the rebellious statics; motionless cities whose inhabitants wage war against the rollers.

Much of the series is based around one group or another hunting down or talking about 'ancient tech' and the relics of lost civilisations. Some of these silly remnants of our own culture which the people of the future give great value to (seedees, tin foil, crushed drinks cans) and some are powerful weapons created by people in our future. While much of what happens in the books is dark and very sad (one young boy, in particular, will pull at your heart string every single time he's mentioned), Reeve manages to bring in some light comedy and whimsy with not only his ancient artefacts, but also some of the more colourful characters and their antics.

I'll say no more of the three books set after Mortal Engines, for fear of letting you know who lives and who dies... many people die, but I'll leave you to find out which ones. You can pick up the first in the series for 99p in Waterstones stores, or you can grab it from any number of other book sellers.

Oh, by the way; for some reason the series is called The Hungry City Chronicles in America. Not half as cool sounding as Mortal Engines... but whatever >_>

Suffering

Dark. Dark and cold. Aching limbs, stretched and torn, fixed in chains to a foetid stone wall.

Misery, pain, fire and ice. I won't tell them though. Tell them nothing. Tell them nothing. Tell them nothing. Ignore the agony; fall somewhere else, focus on something else... anything but the burning, lashing, screaming pain!

Its gone now.

"Leave him. Let him recover."

They can do more tomorrow, and the next day, and the next day.

Another man might pray. Another man might cry. Neither of those things have done me good so far. I just wait. Wait for the dawn, watching as men pass by, as a boy (perhaps almost a man), dressed in finery, stops at the iron bars of my cell.

Why does he look at me like that? Eyes wide and wondering. I've seen him before. He watches us when the knives are put to our flesh, the brands and the whips.

No. That's wrong. He does not watch, his eyes are always closed as he stands by a door. His eyes closed... he listens! He listens to our screams.

"Who is that?" he asks, still looking at me, at my battered, filthy body, naked and hanging by my wrists.

"One o' the rebels we caught."

"Why has he not been executed with the rest?" his head tilts; a curious dog.

"Think he knows stuff, tryin' a get it outta him."

"And how long have you had him here?"

"Well, er," the warden stumbles; this boy must be important. "He's a tough'un."

"He screams?" he asks, tongue lazing over the second word.

"Yeah, but that's all he does."

"You will get nothing from him. He may as well be put to death."

"The sherif..."

"Will answer to me," a forceful tone for one so young, so small; a whisp in knight's clothing. "But I do not want another dull execution. Have him washed, dressed in my livery and brought to my rooms."

"Your highness?"

A prince?! This waif, younger than I, is a prince of the realm with his own colours?!

"You have your orders, warden, see that you obey them."

The prince smiles at me and leaves. Why? What is he doing? Does he think he can make me talk? Betray the few friends I have left?

I have no chance to ponder; the warden calls his men. Rough, uncaring hands catch me as the shackles are released. I am carried away.

**************

A bath or yet more torture? Too hot... too rough... drowning, gasping...

Fire!

No... just to dry me, warm my dying body. Women dress me. I pay no mind; clothed or stripped, pain is always the same.

Clean, dry except for my unkempt hair hanging limp in my eyes. Marched out of the dungeon, away from the stench of agony - blood, sweat, and all the other noxious matter than men expel in fear.

Across a courtyard in the bright winter sun, my breath clouding in the crisp air. So cold, so pure. A glimpse of open sky!

Into the castle. My head is forced down as I pass ladies of the court. The soldiers' boots clatter on the granite floors.

Up stairs, around corners. Halls grow smaller. Pass through doors. We stop at a door, a coat of arms emblazoned on its dark, rich wood. The royal arms; the prince's rooms.

A gaggle of people are standing nearby, awaiting their masters' orders. Two pretty girls, an old maid hushes their giggles, a small balding man - a physician?

The door is knocked, a man announces us. Pushed forward again. A massive bedroom, huge panes of leaded glass in windows across one wall! Tapestries hang every. A fireplace, cold and empty. A four poster bed, smothered in velvet. Thick animal skin rugs all over the floors. I want to lie down...

The boy stands at the window, he turns and smiles again; "Tie his hands and leave us."

No questions this time. Arms yanked behind my back, lashed together. I watch him, as he watches me, gentle wonder on his face.

Why?

Done, the soldiers leave. We are alone, the prince and the pauper. He turns back to the window.

"My father is driving this kingdom to its knees. He is a fool, a fool who does not see that a powerful king requires a powerful kingdom - and that itself needs a strong populace. You understand though, in a way. You have tried to stop him. You will not succeed on your own."

I say nothing. I do not understand his barely audible words. Head buzzing, eyes swimming... just want to lie down.

His soft gaze returns.

"I'm not a wicked man," this fragile boy says. "I need you to understand; what I do, I do out of necessity, not wickedness."

Close to me now, looking up at my face then scanning down to my chest, my twisted arms.

"You recognised me, in the dungeon. From where?"

"You watch us," my throat, rough and dry from abuse cracks through the words.

"Ah," he nods. "Not from outside. Not from... some other time."

I do not understand.

"The group you fight with; they are as vile as the men they hate." Almost a growl, almost a cry. What is he accusing me of?

"You see the hearth?" he continues, eyes wandering to the empty, black hole. "It has not seen coals in four years. The sound of flickering flames..." he falters, jerks his head away from the fireplace. "The men my father employs in the dungeons, they have no skill in pain. To give pain one must have experienced it. One must know when a man, when a child can take no more, when he is ready to shatter, to pass into darkness."

He begins turning up his sleeves; it seems a hard task. Breathing slowly, concentrating on my face, eyebrows knit in agitation.

"Four years ago... I was taken by your group. I, a child of only thirteen summers and my entourage. They wanted knowledge; information that the adults would not give them... that the child did not posses."

He raises his hands, turning them in front of me. The horror of his words is magnified. Deep gouges, rough and pale scarred skin snakes around his thin wrists.

"I was tortured. A child, tortured by trained men - trained in the art of pain."

His voice is low, gentle. He recalls all this as though it had happened to someone else. Cannot believe his words - yet there, in front of me, is the evidence.

His flared, embroidered sleeves are rolled back down to cover his arms. I still wonder; why is he telling me?

"You're wrong," he continues, smiling once more. "I do not watch - I listen. When you hear the screams of others, does it hurt you?"

I cannot answer. To hear my comrades, my friends, even men I do not know, cry out at the lash, at the burning poker, is almost worse than the torture itself.

"Trained men rely on that. A man may not give up information under torture, but force him to endure the sight and sound of a friend in agony and he may surrender all he knows. A child though..." he shivers, the smile falling from his colourless lips. "Broken, frightened, curled up as tight as he can be around his own battered flesh... that child is selfish. He wants only for it to stop. And when another is screaming - when he can hear something other than his own ragged voice - then he is not on that table, he is not in those chains. The screams of others bring only comfort to that child."

A tear rests on his pallid cheek. He wipes it away, forcing the smile back to his face.

"Do you understand? Can you understand a child's fears? A fire, a blade in another man's hand, a brand, a whip... I can bare the sight of none of those things. And when the nightmares come, when the dark fear knots up my insides until I can barely move... I seek out the screams of other men."

He steps closer, drawing a dagger from his belt. I do not move, cannot move, only shiver as he raises the point to my shoulder.

"Please," he whispers, cold forehead pressed to my own. "Please, don't think me a wicked man. Please, understand. Please help me... and I will help you."

I understand. I know his need. In the dark hours before the dawn I have secretly prayed for the guards to chose another man, prayed for a friend's screams to continue. I know the payment this child desires for the offer of his aid.

Cold, jagged agony bursting into my shoulder, exploding down my arm. My legs disappear. His hand clutches my side. On our knees. Soft fur on the floor. Wicked blade cutting deep.

I scream.

Not for him; for the pain. The violent, wrenching pain is... liquid fire. Chest drenched in Hell's own blaze!

I scream.

Gasping, clenching teeth, shaking, eyes crammed shut. Metal dragged out of my flesh.

"Thank you," he whispers. "Thank you."

*************

Gah. I know there's at least two mistakes up there and I can't find them again. I shouldn't have read it until I had it somewhere I could edit it. Oh well. This is one of my favourite pieces; it's short, it's a one off and I think it's rather well written... although the blasted thing wants to run off on it's own. This was just an image in my head that demanded to be shown to others. To that, I needed to write a short scene running up to it. The last time that happened, it went off on it's own for about 50k words >_> I will NOT let this one do that... at least not yet.

This is up on my DA, but I'm going to move EVERYTHING I've put on other sites over to here. I'll edit them in the process ('cos man, do some of them need it)... and hopefully that'll spark off SOMETHING in my brain. So creatively... b0rked recently. Totally blaming my job... yup... totally.