This December, filmmaker Peter Jackson’s company will release an adaptation of Philip Reeve’s fantasy YA novel Mortal Engines, making the Bologna Children’s Book Fair the perfect place for Scholastic to promote new editions of the series’ four books, as well as two further titles based in the Mortal Engines universe.
Mortal Engines, first published in 2001, is set in a post-apocalyptic world in which cities such as London are mounted on wheels, and justify attacking one another by adhering to a theory called Municipal Darwinism. One book became a quartet, and all four are being re-released this July (pb, £7.99) with new covers by artist Ian McQue. They will be promoted by Scholastic via a “read it before you see it” campaign throughout the summer and autumn. The publisher is also releasing Night Flights, a collection of three short stories about pilot Anna Fang, in July (hb, £10.99), and The Illustrated World of Mortal Engines in November (hb, £20).
Reeve is attending Bologna to promote the new editions, and says there has been “a lot” of foreign sales since the film was announced. “I had a fair few when the book was first published. Some deals have been re-established, and in some cases the licence has lapsed and other people have taken them on.”
Night Flights, also illustrated by McQue, follows the character of Fang from childhood through to her life as a spy. It originally started out as a World Book Day story, says Reeve. “A few years ago I did a World Book Day story called Traction City, and Scholastic wanted to republish it. At several places in the book the story refers to Anna’s backstory, so it was just a question of dusting them off. Anna Fang is an iconic character in the books but when you actually look at Mortal Engines she is hardly in it! It was nice to expand her story.
“The other book coming out this year is the encyclopedia, which I did with my friend Jeremy Levett. He’s very knowledgeable. We kicked ideas around for two or three days and then he went off and wrote it. It will hopefully be a big gift book.”
Reeve is full of compliments for McQue, one of his favourite sci-fi artists, and hopes the new editions (which are “older-looking” to attract a more mature readership) will reach a broader range of readers. “The original covers are much loved and will stay in print. I think the new ones are great. They are less steampunk than they could be, which I’m pleased about. Steampunk is rather overused these days.”
The first Mortal Engines novel was published in 2001, although the author was playing around with the ideas in the 1980s and ’90s, when he wanted to create a big fantasy story à la Lord of the Rings. The look, feel and characters came together slowly but there was something lacking, and Reeve says: “I thought I needed something to hold it all together. In the early versions there wasn’t anything that made the work mine. The stories always a felt a bit like somebody else’s.”
It was only when he doodled a city on wheels while he was working as an illustrator of the Horrible Histories fiction series, written by Terry Deary and also published by Scholastic, that the Mortal Engines world came together, but its success wasn’t instant. The final story actually took 10 years to write, on and off, and went through several different versions. It was then turned down by publishers of adult fantasy (where Reeve thought the story would sit) and he only struck a publication deal when he shortened the manuscript and sent it to Scholastic to see if it would work for younger readers.
Mortal Engines was published in 2001 and had “nice reviews early on”, but Reeve still didn’t envisage becoming a writer. “But then Scholastic asked me what was next and I fairly quickly gave up illustration and became a full-time author,” he says.
Mortal Engines was followed by Predator’s Gold in 2003, Infernal Devices in 2005 and A Darkling Plain in 2006, and Peter Jackson first expressed his interest in the project “about 10 years ago”, although, like most authors, Reeve knew it was wise not to expect the full Hollywood treatment. “Everything went quiet, so I had more or less forgotten about it. Then I got an email saying he wanted to go ahead and suddenly everything went very quickly.”
The trailer for the film suggests Hester and not Tom [whose story takes priority in the first book] is the star of the show, something Reeve heartily approves of. “Hester was always my favourite,” he says. “The first book was seen through Tom’s eyes but she is the reason there were sequels. She is the heart and soul, more important than the moving cities, in fact.”
Reeve can “only speculate” as to why Jackson wanted to adapt Mortal Engines, and says “I assume they liked the world-building, the big spectacle”. He is reluctant to think about whether there were any themes the producer liked, explaining: “I don’t think about themes... Occasionally at the end of a book I think, ‘Oh, there’s a theme,’ but only when I look back. Mostly I just want readers to keep turning the page. Novels can be didactic, but those types of books are terribly boring.”
He is also quite happy to leave the film crew to their work, even though he did go to see some of the filming in New Zealand, and quite modestly doesn’t necessarily expect to gain more fans through the adaptation.
“Mortal Engines fans are lovely but there aren’t many of them,” he says. “It’s quite a niche thing. Maybe the film will change all that, but maybe not. We will see.”