Fever Crumb is a foundling raised by London’s Order of Engineers. As women are widely regarded as irrational, she is the only female ever to be apprenticed by the Order. She lives by the Order’s rules, shaving her head to erase the vestiges of people’s animal pasts and disregarding her feelings to embrace only what is rational. Fever’s first assignment as an apprentice is to assist Kit Solent, an archaeologist who has discovered a locked room in the tunnels beneath his home. Kit seems to think that Fever has the key to open it.
What Fever discovers outside the world of Godshawk Head --- an unfinished monument to a past ruler where the Order makes their home --- goes against much of what she learned as an apprentice engineer. The outside world is ruled by emotion, not rationality. Fever’s strange appearance --- her shaved head and mismatched eyes --- draw the attention of a mob suspicious that she may be Scriven, one of the speckled overlords thought to be eradicated in the Skinner Riots years before. Vestiges of flayed Scriven skins still flap on poles throughout the city, and one of the leaders of the riots, Bagman Creech, is still regarded as a folk hero. “This ain’t genocide! This is rock ‘n’ roll!” His rallying cry during the riots is invoked by those who would see London remain independent, even as nomadic invaders from the north threaten their city.
Fever is caught between these forces. Her rational upbringing in the Order of Engineers does not prepare her for the world she finds outside. She cannot fathom the irrational hatred of the mob, or Kit’s insistence that she possess knowledge beyond what she has been taught. Stranger are the memories of people and places she has never known that come unbidden to her mind, or the obsession --- held even by her fellow engineers --- with ancient technologies: machines whose principles are not understood and whose actions cannot be predicted.
FEVER CRUMB is a prequel to Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines Quartet, which took place in a city-eat-city world where tiered traction cities roll the earth and devour each other for resources. Set in the period just before the great cities begin to roll, Reeve sets into motion the conflict between a stationary London and the nomadic horde known as the Movement. These barbaric invaders have a great deal of technology at their disposal, having already learned the art of resurrecting the fallen into Stalkers, machine men made for killing. What they don’t have is a secret they believe London possesses. It is this secret that drives the novel, along with the mysteries of Fever’s parentage and the strange microscopic machines that inhabit her blood.
Readers already familiar with the Mortal Engines Quartet will find significance in many of the characters who appear in FEVER CRUMB. Reeve even provides the origin story for the Stalker Grike, an important character in the other books. But this is a rare prequel in that it easily stands alone from the rest of the series. Fever’s adventures continue in A WEB OF AIR, already available in the UK, with news that a third installment is in the works.
When I first encountered MORTAL ENGINES, I was both fascinated and disturbed by Reeve’s original idea and the violence it entailed. Two of the four primary characters die, and I wasn’t sure that I liked what this boded for an apocalyptic series. But I grew to love the quartet in part because Reeve refuses to choose sides in the events he chronicles. A lesser imagination could easily turn the conflicts into a battle between good and evil. Instead, he reveals the destruction inherent in valuing ideologies above human life.
In this regard, FEVER CRUMB is no exception. The conflicts here have not yet escalated into moving cities vs. stationary settlements, but the stage is already set. There is hatred, fear and oppression. There are opportunistic people who would use such emotions as tools to achieve their own power. There are fascinating technologies whose implications are not yet understood. There are ordinary individuals caught up in extraordinary circumstances. The Mortal Engines Quartet --- in conjunction with the prequel --- is a ripping read and a fantastic fable for our times.
Reviewed by Sarah A. Wood on March 1, 2011