Turd tanks and the ugly Hester

***WARNING: This post contains spoilers!***

If you’ve read it, you know what book I’m talking about already, and if you haven’t then I’ll tell you… in a second.

I’ve not done a post like this before, so please let me know what you think and whether you’d like more posts where I review other books. This whole blogging thing is still new to me, though the responses I’ve had from the writing community have been great so far!

My friend and I always have interesting discussions about books, science, philosophy, and general things which interest us, and he is a devil for semantics and unpicking subtext in literature, even when it’s not there. However, for the better part of four years he has been going on at me to read his favourite series, Mortal Engines by Phillip Reeve and, at long last, he has lent me his well-loved copy of the first book.

So, just for you Chris, here’s my take on the book. And yes, I know I still need to read the rest because “they’re just so… ahhh, they’re just so good!”

For the most part this book is a really fun idea — cities on wheels, Pluto the dog is a deity etc. — and it’s clear from fairly early on that this is a children’s book. At least, that’s what it feels like for a moment. Soon into the story you get bombarded with concepts like Municipal Darwinism (love it) and commentaries on social ideas start to pop up.

Still it remains fun, and when Tom falls down the chute, leaving him stuck with Hester, the whole story really starts to take off. Side note: Hester is ugly.

Across the out-country they go, getting captured by pirates, almost sold as slaves, taken up in balloons, all while running from Shrike, the evil reanimated human whom Hester, the ugly girl, appears to know. A town runs him over, and still he survives — brilliant! I will say now that I love the names and puns he’s sewn into the book, Tunbridge Wheels is my favourite.

Meanwhile Katherine, the pretty daughter of the enigmatic but totally evil-not-evil Valentine, goes on her own journey in the rampaging city of London. Dubious of her father’s work she begins digging for answers as to who the ugly girl (Hester) really was and why her dad cares so little for her. Using the powers of her dad’s status and her pet wolf, aptly named Dog, she speaks with the mayor, gets a name (Apprentice Pog), and finally gets to the guts where she can speak with this apprentice who might know more about the ugly girl.

And… this is where it gets odd. Because despite this being a children’s novel (which Chris assures me was meant to be an adult one) this chapter titled “Turd Tanks” is about as far from child-friendly as you can get. In case you haven’t read the book, I won’t give away too much, but it’s safe to say this chapter comes as a shock on first read, and I don’t really understand why it’s here. Sure, it shows the struggles of the lower class workers, but there are other less fecal ways to do it.

So, turd tanks aren’t what I thought they’d be. I was imaging military style tanks which either were made of turd or which used poopy projectiles as ammunition, and oh, how wrong I was. No, turd tanks is about the vile tanks which contain all the waste of London, mixed into a slurry fit for a thousand-dung beetle feast. Gross, but funny, right? Well, not exactly.

Prisoners are forced to work in these tanks, sifting through the mass of excrament which comes up above their waist and forced to work by… children. Or, as they are called here, apprentices. One girl zaps a prisoner with a stick, and the man subsequently falls under the brown surface (past the sweetcorn layer I assume is there), and nobody, save Katherine who is rightuflly horrified by this, tries to help him. Finally he is pulled from the waste with a slurry covering his face and is revealed to be dead. I can’t think of a worse way to go and if you can… please don’t tell me.

But let’s rewind for a second, only by a page, and look at a passage from this chapter, just as Katherine walks into the turd tanks with her mistrustful guide.

“Properly processed human ordure makes very useful fuel for our City’s engines. And we are experimenting with ways of turning it into a tasty and nutritious snack. We feed our prisoners on nothing else. Unfortunately they keep dying. But that is just a temporary set-back, I’m sure.”

Mortal Engines – Philip Reeve

… Verbatim.

I don’t think I need to give any more on that, it just gets worse the deeper into that quote you go. I’m assured this chapter has a purpose for the overall series structure, but in this book it is tonally out of place and really off-putting when set against the light-hearted tone of the book.

I’ll just stop my train of thought for a moment to tell you that Hester is ugly.

And back to my thoughts. The main storyline for each character mostly fizzles out to nothing, but each one builds up in a way which is crushing to lose. Pog and Dog get killed essentially to further Katherine’s story, but she is then killed to further Valentine’s where he suddenly decides he doesn’t want to use MEDUSA because Katherine. Tom ultimately does little to alter the story. He kills Shrike (somehow a boy can kill a man who cannot be killed by being run over by a town — nice), and he saves Hester’s life at the end. The ugly Hester.

That brings me onto Hester, perhaps the only character with a story that goes anywhere. Her motive for the story is to kill Valentine, the man who killed her parents, and she does literally everything she can to get there. She is happy to die to kill the man, but when she sees him holding the pretty Katherine, who looks kind of like a less ugly Hester and may be her sister, dead in his arms, she tries to save his life. Because… well she is supposed to be good now. Her life-long vendetta is over in literally two paragraphs.

I will say, if you haven’t picked up by now, that the overuse of calling hester ugly gets tiring and you can’t help but scream back “she’s just a kid!”

Ultimately this book is a bit of fun, and perhaps I’d have enjoyed it more as a child, but after reading it I’d be hesitant to continue reading the series. I’m also told the film is terrible, and maybe I’ll watch that for a bit of fun at some point, but for now I’m happy to read The Hobbit again!

Don’t let my opinion change whether you’ll read it, or alter your perception of your favourite series (sorry, Chris), and I’d definitely say it could be a good addition to a fantasy/sci-fi fan’s bookshelf, especially a younger audience. It is a fun book, so long as you overlook turd tanks and the explosive ending, and it’s an easy read, too.

Whatever your reason for reading this book, make sure you look out for the puns and the impressively British humour — that really makes it for me! Just remember that Hester is ugly, and don’t throw up when you see her face because she is really ugly.

So this was a bit different to my usual post, but I hope you enjoyed it still. Either way, let me know in the comments, through social media, or by using my email address, all of which can be found on my contact page. To stay up to date with my blog, click the follow button below, and for more information on my own work including my own fantasy series, The Heritage Saga, head on over to my projects page.

Turd Tanks and the Ugly Hester: a review of Mortal Engines by @philipreeve1

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Published by cbpowellwrites

I'm a writer of science-fiction, fantasy epics, and other speculative fiction works and have a little blog focused on writing and how to become a better writer. Hopefully it is helpful to others, and I'd love to hear more feedback and have more in-depth discussions on all thing creativity. Before turning to writing I worked for a number of years as a chef, following on from my time as a writing and performing guitarist in the South West of England. Perhaps I will upload some music from these days at some point...

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