Fever Crumb, written by Philip Reeve, 323 pp, RL MIDDLE GRADE

Fever Crumb was one of the seven books shortlisted for the Cybil's finalists in the Fanstasy & Science Fiction (Middle Grade) category. While I didn't give it the critical treatment here that I did for the other books that were nominated, I will tell you that it was the top contender for the award, along with Jacqueline West's The Shadows.  All the judges loved it but, ultimately, we felt that is was too mature for the intended readers in this category.  Had it been placed in the Fantasy & Science Ficiton (Young Adult) cateogory, I know it would have given the winner quite a challenge.

With Fever CrumbPhilip Reeve begins a new series that precedes the events of his Mortal Engines Quartet.  While Fever Crumb is a wonderful stand-alone book (albeit one that leaves you wanting to know more about this intriguing character and her world) readers might be interested to learn more about the world of the Mortal Engines Quartet and can do so by visiting the author's website.  First, though, I have to acknowledge this captivating book jacket (and, if you are lucky enough to have a hardcover copy of this book, the great artwork on the cover itself, which can be seen below, created by artist Sam Weber.  The dust jacket image is actually cropped, so I included the full painting below as well. Fever Crumb was released in the UK, Reeve's home, a couple of years ago.  The second book in the series, Web of Air, was released in April of 2010 and book three, Scrivener's Moon, will be released in April of this year - in England. Covers of these books can be seen at the end of the review as well.

Fever Crumb has some of the best chapter titles I have read in a long time. The book begins with the chapter, The Girl from Godshawk's Head in which we find the title character making paper boys, using giant sheets of paper to trace her outline. Once the outline is cut out, the fourteen sheets of paper will be glued together with an intricate, delicate metal musculature inside that will become a killing machine, seven killing machines to be exact. The city world that Fever lives in, the city of London specifically, is a post-apolcalyptic world that is simultaneously medieval and technological. However, all of the technology that exists in this world has been excavated from the remains of the previous world that was destroyed. Archaeology and the trade of the unearthed technology is a is a major source of revenue for the city. There is no electricity in this world, yet machines are made to function either by human power and treadmills or by a mysterious inner power that no one seems to be able to replicate, only set in motion. London, recently liberated, had been under the control of the Scriven, a nomadic tribe from the north that attacked London some two hundred years ago and, after winning the Battle of Barnet,

they dragged their mobile fortress onto the of Ludgate Hill, tore off its wheels, and converted it into the Barbican, the stronghold from which Scriven kings would rule over the city for the next two centuries. They were brilliant, cruel, and party mad, and they were not exactly human beings.  In the black time after Downsizing all sorts of mutations had come whirling down the helter-skelter of the human DNA spiral, and the Scriven claimed to be a new species entirely.  Homo superior they liked to call themselves, or sometimes Homo futuris, the idea being that they had come into the world to replace dull old Homo sapiens. They were strange in a lot of ways you couldn't easily put your finger on, and in one way that you could: Their pale skin was blotched and dappled with markings, like leopards' spots. Some Scriven's spots were freckle-colored, others were dark as spilled ink.  The Scrivens prized dark markings most. They believed that they had been written on by a god called the Scrivener, who had inscribed the future history of the world upon their skins.

I have to stop myself here or I will end up quoting the whole book and run into some legal trouble.  Reeve's writing is magnificent, richly descriptive and it is a challenge and a joy to unravel the mysteries of this new world, to uncover artifacts from the previous world - words, places, names, lyrics - mostly things that readers, especially American ones, will miss.  In a nod to David Bowie, there is a pub called Scary Monsters and Super Creeps and "This ain't genocide! This is rock 'n roll!" the lyrics from his song  "Diamond Dogs" were the rallying cry for the fighting Londoners that is resurrected as the Scriven rule seems to be coming to an end. Another pub is called the Mott and Hoople, the London neighborhood Battersea becomes B@ersea, there is a Celebrity Square and St Kylie's (as in the singer, Kylie Minogue) and a street named Endemol after the entertainment conglomerate. The citizens of London  swear by "Poskitt," a reference to Kartjan Poskitt (who is thanked in the author's note), author of the wildly popular (in the UK) Murderous Maths series of chapter books that blends humor and math, much like the FABULOUS Horrible Histories Series of books (most of which are no longer available new in the US) written by a handful of authors including Terry Deary, both of which were illustrated by Philip Reeve. But, the crowning glory of this book is Reeves' use of the word "blog" as an expletive, as in "What the blog?" and "blogging hell." How could I not love that?

Now, for Fever Crumb, the girl from Godshawk's Head with two different colored eyes and a small scar on the back of her head at the base of her neck.  Auric Godshawk is the recently deceased Scriven overlord who "had planned to commemorate his rule with an immense statue of himself but had gotten no further than this metal head, seven stories high, which stood near Ox-fart Circus on a patch of waste ground surrounded by the huge, abandoned smelting and rolling sheds where it had been constructed." After the overthrow of the Scriven and the rioting that ensued, a housing shortage was created by the burning down of buildings and the Order of Engineers, most of whom had worked for Scriven masters, were turfed out of their big Guildhouse on Ludgate Hill, taking up residence in the fire-proof head.  Fever Crumb, the youngest member of the Order of Engineers and the only female, is the ward of Dr Crumb who, some fourteen years ago, found her in a basket and brought her back to the Order of Engineers, a previously all male institution.  The Engineers practice the observance of reason and logic above all else, shaving their heads because they believe that hair is unnecessary and drinking hot water because it is unreasonable to import the dried leaves of a plant from such a distance to make a flavorful drink. Fever is content with her life in the Order.  It is all she has ever known. Until Kit Solent, a former member of the Order, requests Fever as an assistant on a dig he has begun working on.  And, while she "didn't want to go. She wanted to stay in the Head forever. She wanted Dr Crumb to hold her hand and lead her back inside," she tells herself that these are not rational thoughts and she must suppress her instincts and board the wind tram that will take her to Solent's home.

The rest of the novel unfolds over the course of a few days and at a very fast pace.  Her trip from the Head to Solen't house exposes Fever to a world she has never known, a world that turns on her.  Fever's eyes bring her to the attention of the decrepit Bagman Creech, hero of London who has taken on the task of ridding the city of Scriven until the day he dies.  Rumors spread and Ted Swiney, owner of the the Mott and Hoople, sends his employee, the young Charley Swallow to be Bagman's boy and help him in his hunt, seeing this as a way to gain status in a city that he hope to soon run.  All of Reeve's characters are so thoroughly crafted that even the minor ones have deep inner lives.  Charley, having never been treated well before, is so overwhelmed by the kind attention that Bagman shows him (nothing more than seeing that he is well fed and not verbally abused) that, at first, he sees no problem with hunting down a girl who may or may not be a Scrivener.  As the story progresses and Fever becomes real to him he beings to become a moral being, questioning his actions.  Even Bagman seems to have glimmers of a sense of conscientiousness toward the end of the novel.  Moral questions also swirl around Fever as she is manipulated by Kit Solent, an archeologist in possession of vital, secret information regarding Auric Godshawk, who was a multitalented genius, great thinker, keeper of round notebooks and pursuer of immortality, as well as Dr Crumb who has not been entirely honest with her.  The secrets that are unearthed are profound and thought provoking.  The landscape of the story that the characters travel over as they make these discoveries is a fantastic one that is cobbled together from the wreckage of the past, which we get glimpses of in the thirty page flashback that shows London in a time before the riots when the still Scriven ruled. The secrets that Fever uncovers and where they take her, as well as Kit Solent and Dr Crumb, are amazing and lead to my favorite line in the book, one that the whole book turns on but one which I think I can repeat here without giving too much away.  Near the end of the story, a character who shall go unnamed says to our heroine, "Poor Fever! All these years you've been hidden in Godshawk's Head, and now you find out that he has been hiding in yours. . ."  

Like Lois Lowry's Newbery winner The Giver and the other two books in the trilogy, as well as Janice Hardy's Healing Wars Trilogy, the dystopian setting of Fever Crumb opens up a world of ethical and moral questions that are great discussion starters with your kids. And, like these other trilogies, the setting also makes for some amazing action, violence and pain.  Fever Crumb contains some disturbing imagery. The mottled skin of the slain Scrivens is used to make flags by the resistance and the invaders from the north who approach London near the end of the novel utilize a kind of warrior called a Stalker, which is a dead body that has been fitted with metal armor and robotics that allow it to be brought back to life as a dedicated warrior, sort of like a creepy cross between Frankenstein's monster and a Storm Trooper.  One of the main characters in the story is made into a Stalker (one who becomes one of the main characters in the Mortal Engines Quartet) at the end of the novel and the description of it as Fever watches is somewhat gruesome. Thus, the MIDDLE GRADE reading level for this book.

One last aspect of Reeve's incredible story that I could not find a place to squeeze in is the Scrivens' love of scents and their distribution of smells through the use of a scent lantern.  There are wonderful descriptions of the latest scents by Prince Nez and they are used by Kit Solent to trigger memories in Fever.  Such details!

Below are the UK covers for the first three books in the series as well as the complete painting from book one, showing Godshawk's Head and a land barge.

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