scrivener’s moon: even better than pancakes

Ha ha! I sort of forgot that when one begs and is granted an advance copy of a book, one is then expected to write a review! So here goes… starting with what arrived in the post:

Having galloped through the four Mortal Engines books and their two prequels, Fever Crumb and A Web of Air, I could hardly wait to read the third prequel, Scrivener’s Moon. In fact, I couldn’t wait, so I pestered Philip Reeve’s publicist, Alex, until she kindly sent me an advance copy. (Oh, the joys of working with the same publisher!)

Our Shiba Inu studio dog, Momo, also had something to say about it:

YouTube link

I loved opening David Wyatt‘s painted covers to find Philip’s own inked and yellowed map of the northern Europe of a distant future. In Scrivener’s Moon, he gives us the most tangible clues to the great war which devastated the planet and rendered most technology incomprehensible to the survivors. Once again, we see people dangling old mobile phone cases as talismans, floors tiled with ‘eye-pods’ and computer keyboard buttons, and mangled references to London place names. And this time, again, we set off on a journey with Fever Crumb, a solemn, devastatingly practical Engineer who eschews her mother’s attempts to feminise her wardrobe, to the far north to find a certain black pyramid; inside this monolith, surrounded by superstition and Night-wights, the leaders of the ever-growing city of London hope to find valuable information and stockpiles of the ancient bio-technology that reanimates corpses into the efficient killing machines known as Stalkers. For London is just becoming a power, its Engineers ruthlessly changing it from a helter-skelter pile of rough houses and streets to a well-organised unit that, for the first time, can move about on huge tracks, find better land, and chase down other towns to plunder their resources. In Scrivener’s Moon, we get to ride London in its test phase as a moving city, and tumble about on it as it covers its first new ground.

Detail from the end papers map of an traction fortress of the Arkangelsk nomads, much more primitive than London’s fortress and inspired by pictures of wooden churches in Norway. See a larger, colour drawing here.

Fever has another reason for wanting to find the black pyramid. In her mind, she’s seen it and touched it before, and memories technologically implanted into her brain by her scientist grandfather urge her toward it; she has an inkling that the pyramid’s contents will help her understand her strange physiology. But Fever’s not the only one struggling with strange and overpowering memories from her ancestors. While wounded and fleeing attackers, Fever is rescued by a mammoth-riding warrior girl Cluny Morvish, who is plagued by visions of a terrible, all-consuming London.

Philip’s early doodle of Cluny Morvish (read about her on Philip’s blog here)

As she and Fever try to confront the strange things going on in their heads, Fever also fights the strange twists and turns of gender identity which emerge, partly from sharing her brain with a man, but also from being a complicated piece of work in her own right. I loved the unexpected ways this conflict would suddenly yank the story about, not least in the wild and disconcerting first few pages.

Another theme pits dangerous and ignorant superstition against a merciless adherence to technology and reason. Adherents of the latter, personified by Fever’s Engineer Father, Doctor Crumb, claim to seek the greater good as they toil away on building their London empire. But as we see London cruelly abandoning all but its ‘essential’ inhabitants, reason begins to look like a lofty word for self-interest. In the first book, Fever Crumb, Fever would have unquestioningly sided with the Engineers and their concept of rationality. But by the third book, she’s been through some hard knocks and taken part in wonderful adventures; we see her beginning to hover between embracing reason and what seem to be their opposites: emotion and intuition. Philip has given her a good foil in the person of Charley Shallow, a street urchin apprenticed in an earlier book to a scalp-hunter intent on exterminating Fever’s people, the bio-tech, souped-up Scriven race. (Racial bio-tech enhancement, twisted phrenology and genocide are another ongoing theme.) Fever warily struggles with what she sees as opposites, and greatly feels the pain of the struggle; true to his surname, Charley heartlessly works his way up in the world, neatly jumping between the opposites whenever the occasion suits him. The open, expressive and earthy Cluny Morvish plays Fever’s opposite in a much more positive way, and overwhelms Fever by so neatly filling the gap of those character traits she lacks. By the end, I felt Fever could have been played in a film by Tove Jansson, were she still alive, but I mustn’t give too much away.

David Wyatt’s studies for Stalkers; read more here.

Philip has packed Scrivener’s Moon with rich, breathtaking imagery: colossal battle scenes, London’s hulking tiers of metal beams and bolts, a vampiric kidnapping by nightwights intent on human sacrifice, a travelling freak show, the tomb-like interior of the black pyramid with its undead old-tech secrets. Some of the smaller details made me smile, such as the scene where members of the travelling human circus are sitting in the kitchen of a dry ship where they’re sheltering, making pancakes while they know they’re just about to be shelled by the enemy:

The dry ship shuddered. From somewhere on the decks above came a huge crash, followed by the lesser sounds of debris falling. Dust drizzled down between the planks of the roof, settling on the pancakes like cinnamon.
‘They found our range, I see,’ said Borglum.
‘Took ’em long enough, the amateurs,’ grumbled Master Fenster.

You’re in for a treat… possibly even better than pancakes! (If that can be imagined.) Philip’s a master of world building. I couldn’t stop reading and many hours later, surfaced back into my own world, blinking in the light like a nightwight, having finished the whole book in one sitting. If you haven’t read any of these books yet, I personally recommend starting with Fever Crumb (where I began when Philip first handed me the book at the Edinburgh Book Festival), although some readers would advise you to start with Mortal Engines, the first book in the quartet.

Scrivener’s Moon launches on Thursday, 7 April.

Do follow Philip’s blog for fascinating tidbits about world building and othersuch, and don’t miss his near-daily updates on his Dartmoor sketch blog, which also shows a wild landscape that’s very different to the one where I live. (Not that my neighbourhood doesn’t have its share of wild; it’s just less windswept.) You can read Philip’s review of my book, Vern and Lettuce, here.

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