The Mortal Engines Quartet is a series that I have some very complicated feelings about. On one hand, it’s one of my favorites. It features some of the consistently best world-building I’ve ever seen, has a strong thematic core, and spends the first book introducing some wonderfully well-realized characters. It also spends the third and fourth book undoing most of that character work in favor of gratuitous and pointless self-destruction. I first read the series when I was in Middle School, and I remember being furious at how the back half of the series treated Hester Shaw, who is by far the best character in in the books. At the time, I didn’t have the vocabulary or understanding to articulate my anger beyond “I don’t like this”, and when I reread the series last year I half-expected to discover that my youthful rage was the product a childish misunderstanding of storytelling. Reader, it was not. Or at least, I don’t think it was. I hope that I am not falling into the trap of the entitled fan, raving at the author for not following the path I had wanted. In this piece, I will try to justify my frustrations and disappointment with the series, and provide some broader context. The arc that Philip Reeve gives Hester Shaw in Infernal Devices and A Darkling Plain is Bad for a number of reasons, some related to internal consistency and character development, and some because of the metatextual narrative it tells.
The plot of the Mortal Engines Quartet is very complicated, far too complicated to explain in full here. It takes place thousands of years in the future, after industrialized civilization was destroyed in the Sixty Minute War. Much of the world is now dominated by Traction Cities, massive self-propelled metropolises that secure resources by hunting down and “devouring” smaller towns and cities, a process known as “Municipal Darwinism”. Other parts of the world reject this brutal philosophy, and have formed an Anti-Traction League to oppose it. Just focusing on Hester Shaw’s plot arc, I will attempt to give a brief rundown. (SPOILERS FOR EVERYTHING!!!)
Hester was the daughter of an archeologist who studied the technology of the ancients. As a small child, her parents were brutally murdered by the famous London explorer Thaddeus Valentine, who also cut open her face, leaving her brutally deformed. Growing to young adulthood, she swears vengeance on Valentine and sets out across the wasteland to find him. She reaches London and tries to murder him but is prevented from doing so by a young apprentice named Tom Natsworthy. They are cast out of the city, have a number of adventures, stop London’s attempt at World Domination, and fall in love. In the second book, the two become becalmed in the small city of Anchorage, where Tom becomes enamored of the beautiful Margravine. In a fit of jealousy, Shaw sells the location of the town to the powerful predator-city of Arkhangelsk, comes to regret her decision, and rescues the people from enslavement in a whirlwind of violence. The third book picks up sixteen years later. Tom and Hester have lived peacefully in Anchorage, raising their daughter Wren, who is bored and willful. She becomes involved with criminals, gets kidnapped, and Tom and Hester must set out to save her. During their travels, Tom is alienated from Hester by her ever-increasing fits of violence. At the book’s end, he learns that of her attempted betrayal of Anchorage, and the two become estranged. In the fourth book, Hester becomes a wandering assassin for hire, but eventually is forced by circumstance to reunite with Tom to save their daughter and the world. They reconcile, save the world from destruction, Tom dies of a heart attack, and Hester kills herself.
It is hard to fully understand from the very abbreviated plot summary above just how drastically Hester’s characterization changes over the course of the series. When introduced in Mortal Engines, Shaw is hard-bitten, full of rage at the world, and callous. She lives as a scavenger, crossing the wasteland, selling her pitiful small wares in tiny towns, all the while trying to track down the moving metropolis of London. Her life is defined by her deformity; Valentine’s sword cut away half her face, leaving her hideous and convinced that she is doomed to the life of an outcast. Her only goal is to kill Valentine, at which point she hopes to die. But this iron facade hides the soul of a shy, scared young woman, capable of connection with other people willing to accept her. The romance in the first book between Hester and Tom is genuinely lovely because Tom is the first human being to treat her like a real person, and she cannot believe he doesn’t secretly hate or fear her. Likewise, she forms a friendship with the Anti-Traction League agent Anna Fang, who is kind to her. “Tom looked at her, and saw more clearly than ever before the kind, shy Hester peeping from beneath the grim mask”. (Mortal Engines, pg. 205) Here, and in Predator’s Gold, Hester is depicted as someone who is damaged, bitter, hard to get along with, and and acutely self-conscious, but a good person at heart.
Now, I want to make it clear that in this essay I am not saying that nothing bad can happen to good characters or that good characters can doing nothing bad. When Hester sells Anchorage to Arkhangelsk, it is a moment entirely in keeping with her character. Tom is one of the few people who ever loved her, and when she fears that she’s losing him, she lashes out in rage and panic. But it’s at the end of this book where things get strange. When kidnapped by terrorists (it’s complicated, and I’m not going into it), Shaw learns that her biological father was actually Thaddeus Valentine. This (justifiably) shocks and horrifies her, but what Hester takes away from it is that she is inherently evil, that killing is in her blood, and that she must embrace it and becomes a dealer of death.
This is……frustrating. It is frustrating because of the way that Mortal Engines ended. At the climax of the first book, Hester has been captured and dragged before Valentine, who tries to kill her. But Valentine’s daughter Katharine, who has become aware of her father’s crimes, throws herself onto his sword. Valentine and Shaw work together to try and save Katharine’s life, but to no avail. When she dies, Hester tries to save Valentine from the ongoing destruction of London (it’s complicated), but he chooses to die instead. This is an important moment of character development for Hester. She chooses to renounce the vengeance that has motivated her, and she has first-hand knowledge that Valentine’s other daughter, her half-sister, sacrificed her life to save a stranger. And it is never mentioned again. This is utterly baffling to me. Hester’s mantra throughout the last two books is “I’m Valentine’s daughter, I’m inherently evil”, and the climactic moment of the first book is just completely ignored.
Infernal Devices is where the series (or at least Shaw’s narrative arc) becomes unsalvageable for me. Hester Shaw has, at the start of the book, been living a peaceful life in a small community a decade and a half, and she is portrayed as a far more damaged person than she was as a wandering feral child. At the conclusion of Predator’s Gold, the people of Anchorage have adopted her as a hero for saving them (not knowing she put them in danger), but by the next book we are told that they despise her and never truly accepted her into the community. She goes from someone who is shy and self-conscious to a total sociopath, unable to even understand the concept of human life having value. In the shootout in which she rescues Anchorage, Hester discovers that she is capable of killing without feeling any real remorse or regret. “When she thought of the deaths of Masgard and his Huntsmen she felt no guilt at all, just a sort of satisfaction, and a glad amazement that she had gotten away with it.” (Predator’s Gold, pg. 324) This is in keeping her general character trait of being someone who is capable of doing whatever it takes to survive. But in Infernal Devices this is transformed into what seems to be a glee in killing, a love of violence and murder that is given no real textual basis before this. “When she picked up her gun and started to reload it, she was smiling. Tom thought she looked more alive than he had ever seen her before.” (Infernal Devices, pg. 267) Even stranger, this is gone by the next book. Even as a wandering assassin, Hester is again portrayed as someone who is capable of great violence if necessary, but who has a conscience.
Philip Reeve wrote the Mortal Engines Quartet, and of course it’s his prerogative to give characters whatever arc he chooses. But I find the choices made here baffling. Hester’s plot in Infernal Devices is the story of her alienating her husband and daughter, destroying her life and returning to her roots as a wanderer in the wastes, and it’s clear that her increasingly blatant disregard for human life and rage at the world is introduced to set that up. But it never feel like the natural evolution of the character.
Everything I discussed in the first section is stuff that I think the series did badly. By which I mean it is character choices and plot developments that I do not think is well justified. Here, I want to talk about why I think those choices were wrong, why even if the internal logic of the story was more sound or better constructed, I am so annoyed by the story that Reeve chooses to tell.
During my reread of the series last year I texted a friend something right after finishing Infernal Devices. “Basically Mortal Engines introduces us to Hester Shaw, a rage-filled, desperate, self-loathing girl who believes herself incapable of loving or being loved but who discovers a human connection with Tom and begins to think she might be happy. The rest of the series is like ‘no nvm actually she was right she’s a monster incapable of empathy'” At it’s core, the problem is that Hester Shaw’s story-line is structured as a Fall from Grace despite her never having had any Grace to begin with. She begins with nothing but rage and fear, planning to die once she murders her nemesis. We spend the entirety of the second half of the series watching her destroy the life she built for herself, and because we have access to the internal thoughts of both her and the other characters, we know that this isn’t just due to misunderstandings or miscommunication—Hester really does hate everyone else and everyone else hates her. It renders virtually all of her character development in Mortal Engines completely irrelevant, and emerges as just an ugly, pointless story that doesn’t really go anywhere. Once Hester Shaw decides to be evil in Predator’s Gold, she essentially becomes a different character and stays that way until near the end of A Darkling Plain.
There are indications right from the start of the series that Hester and Tom won’t get a happy ending, and I’m basically all right with that. Not everything has to be happy, and the Mortal Engines Quartet is set in a grim, dark post-apocalyptic future. But I have a lot of problems with how Hester’s eventual death is framed. This is really what I mean when I talk about my metatextual complaints about the book. Essentially, the series frames Hester’s crimes as Unforgivable, something she can never really atone for, while granting a totally different lens to other, far more objectionable characters. And I want to be clear here; this isn’t me complaining about fairness, that characters I like are getting worse endings than characters I don’t like. (Or at least, it’s not entirely about that). It’s about the way in which those endings are framed by the narrative.
Hester Shaw, as stated above, sells the location of Anchorage to Arkhangelsk. This is her Great Crime, though she ends up regretting it and rescuing the city. Because of this, her life is destroyed, her family comes to hate her, and she dies alone in the wilderness. Contrast this with her daughter Wren. Now, Wren is a character I don’t like very much, but that’s not entirely relevant. What is relevant is that Wren is directly responsible, though blatant stupidity, for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people and the destruction of multiple cities. Because she’s bored, she steals the code to activate an orbital satellite bombardment system, which falls into the hands of an insane robot who wants to destroy the world, etc, etc. Wren marries the man she loves and lives happily ever after. There are textual reasons that can be used to support this; most people, including Wren herself, don’t know the significance of what she did, while Hester’s crimes become infamous. But in the narrative, Wren is explicitly framed as the Bright Hope of the Future. “The Stalker sneered. ‘The life of a single child means nothing, compared with the future of all life. ‘But she is the future!’ Tom cried ‘Look at her!'” (A Darkling Plain, pg. 510). Professor Pennyroyal is a con artist, a slave trader, and a thief, but by A Darkling Plain he is functioning as the series’s comic relief, and Tom (who he shot by the way) has completely forgiven him. For that matter, Tom never seems even mildly critical of his daughter for almost destroying the world. One could argue this just shows a character flaw in Tom, that he turns against Hester while forgiving these other (imho) worse people, but we are never given any narrative indication that Tom’s attitudes are wrong or incorrect or even questionable. He functions consistently as the moral compass the series, and we are supposed to agree with him.
Real Life, is of course, not fair. People who deserve death and disgrace escape it, people who should be given great honor are ruined, and things generally suck. But books aren’t real life. That doesn’t mean that nothing bad can happen or that they can’t be depressing, but it does mean that everything that occurs in one happens because of deliberate and conscious choices made by the author, choices that can be questioned. Hester Shaw is not just some person going through the vicissitudes of life, she’s a character who is written with a deliberate narrative arc. We are introduced to her as a character who is hideous to look at, deformed and monstrous. But is there something deeper beneath that scar? Does she have a heart, a soul? If you prick her, does she not bleed? No, not really, she’s a sociopathic killing machine. She begins the series hoping to die, and she ends it by killing herself.
This is, I suppose, a valid choice of narratives to tell. But it’s one that I find intensely frustrating and unsatisfying.
Using Cruelty Well
The title of this essay comes from Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince. “I believe this depends on whether cruelty be badly or well used. Those cruelties are well used, if it is permitted to speak well of evil, that are carried out in a single stroke, done out of necessity to protect oneself and then are not continued, but are instead converted into the greatest possible benefits for the subjects. Those cruelties are badly used that, although few at the outset, increase with the passing of time, instead of disappearing.” Now, he was talking about when it’s appropriate to have your political enemies tortured to death and so forth, but I think this is also useful advice of writers. Authors torturing their characters is, of course, a Trope. And there’s nothing wrong with putting characters through a lot of hardship. I’ve talked in several of my book reviews here about my appreciation for books that are brutal towards their characters. There’s nothing even wrong with a tragic ending. But it has to have a point. It has to be of the “greatest possible benefit for the subjects” (or readers, as it may be).
Recently, I reread J.R.R Tolkien’s The Silmarillion. One of the stories in it is the legend of Túrin Turambar, a tragic hero of the First Age of Middle-Earth. Cursed by the Dark Lord Morgoth, Túrin leads a life of misery. Achieving the great heights of victory and command many times, he is cast down again and again. By mischance he slays his best friend, dooms his kingdom to destruction, allows the woman he loves to die, and eventually accidentally marries his sister. At the end of the story, he kills himself. Pretty grim! But it works because it matters. The tale of Túrin is classical tragedy, in which Túrin’s flaws, his arrogance, his pride, are magnified and amplified due to a malignant fate, with each mistake he makes leading to terrible consequences for the ones he loves. This is understood in the book; when he throws himself on his sword his companions mourn him, knowing he was the victim of a Doom. He buried with honor and a mound of green turf raised above his body. It’s also important narratively; at this point in The Silmarillion the war of the elves against Morgoth is going badly, and the story serves as a microcosm of the ways in which the Dark Lord’s power is unstoppable. It also sets up the madness of Túrin’s father Húrin, which will have great significance later. Túrin’s narrative arc is of a great man, brought low by powers beyond his ken.
Another example of this is the anime Code Geass, which ends with the main character, Lelouch, arranging his own assassination. But his death brings peace and unity to the world, and serves as a redemption for his crimes. Narratively, he is a Christ-figure, if Jesus drove a giant mech and manipulated the world into cataclysmic war so as to consolidate power and destroy a world-spanning empire. He takes on the sins necessary to save the world and then dies, leaving the road clear for unbloodied successors.
I don’t want to suggest that deaths are only good if they are Very Important, so let’s look at something very different. David Weber’s Honor Harrington Series is a pretty good, sprawling military science fiction epic, during which many, many, many major characters die. And often they die with abrupt suddenness; a missile ripping through defenses to blot away a ship and it’s entire crew in an instant. But here the deaths are important because they bring home to the reader the horrors of war. Elsewhere, Weber has talked about this: “In military fiction, good people die as well as bad people. Military fiction in which only bad people — the ones the readers want to die — die and the heroes don’t suffer agonizing personal losses isn’t military fiction: it’s military pornography. Someone who write military fiction has a responsibility to show the human cost”. But these deaths are random. They are the result of the chances of battle, not the end stage of a four-book character arc.
I hope I am making myself clear. Cruelty to characters, even character death, is an important part of fiction. But it should have meaning, and it should have purpose. If I’m going to spend hundreds of pages wallowing in a character’s misery, I want it to mean something. Otherwise, there comes a certain point where you stop feeling excited about the story and start wondering about the author who would write it. In the Mortal Engines Quartet, that point comes for me about halfway through Infernal Devices. I’m no longer desperately hoping the characters will overcome their adversaries, I’m trying to figure out why the narrative is going the way it is, and if I want to keep reading. And this isn’t the only books where I’ve felt this problem. The Traitor Baru Cormorant, by Seth Dickinson, is one of the best books I’ve ever read. It’s about a young queer girl who must bring down the empire oppressing her homeland by infiltrating their ranks and rising to the top of their hierarchy. It’s also a heartbreakingly brutal book; as Cormorant commits ever-more heinous acts to gain the trust of her superiors. The sequel, The Monster Baru Cormorant is…….fine. It’s not terrible but it’s not as good as the first book. And part of the reason is that that essential, burning purpose of the first novel starts to unravel. As subplots and side-quests multiply, reading about Cormorant driving herself insane under the weight of her crimes just becomes……ugly. Tiring. There’s still two more books to come, and I have hopes for the series, but this Hester Shaw-ization of the character worries me.
If this essay has a thesis is, it is this: Use cruelty well. Other readers may disagree with me, but Hester Shaw’s arc never felt justified by the character or her background. It feels gratuitous and forced and excessive, and it poisons an otherwise fantastic series. The point of having a character do terrible things, or having terrible things done to them, is to advance the plot or illustrate a theme, or underscore something of importance, or to make the reader feel emotions. It must do something, lest it become gratuitous.
And gratuitous cruelty is as lazy as gratuitous violence.