Review over. You know all you need to know. Go read it.
Seriously, I left that bit sitting there for a long time thinking I was going to post just that. That’s all the convincing I took. A new China Miéville book is something that gets written on my calendar in January and if I bought my calendar any earlier than that, trust me, the date would be written on earlier. Miéville could write a phone book and I’d be all over that.
It’s been years since I’ve bothered to read the back of a Miéville book before cracking it open and Railsea was no exception. Reading it for the first time while typing it here! Back of the book time!
On board the moletrain Medes, Sham Yes ap Soorap watches in awe as he witnesses his first moldywarpe hunt: the giant mole bursting from the earth, the harpoonists targeting their prey, the battle resulting in one’s death and the other’s glory. But no matter how spectacular it is, Sham can’t shake the sense that there is more to life than traveling the endless rails of the railsea – even if his captain can think only of the hunt for the ivory-colored mole she’s been chasing since it took her arm all those years ago. When they come across a wrecked train, at first it’s a welcome distraction. But what Sham finds in the derelict – a kind of treasure map indicating a mythincal place untouched by iron rails – leads to considerably more than he’d bargained for. Soon he’s hunted on all sides, by pirates, trainsfolk, monsters & salvage-scrabblers. & it might not be just Sham’s life that’s about to change. It could be the whole of the railsea.
Here’s a novel for readers of all ages, a gripping & brilliantly imagined take on Herman Melville’s Moby Dick that confirms China Miéville’s status as “the most original & talented voice to appear in several years” (Science Fiction Chronicle).
So when I first heard about this book the only think Amazon or Del Ray really talked about was “YA sci fi Moby Dick! woo!” My first thought was “Eh… YA… I don’t even like it’s acronym.” It’s a weird, nebulous term that doesn’t really mean much beyond a marketing tool. But Un Lun Dun was considered YA too and I enjoyed that immensely. I think YA is really just anything that involves a protagonist around the age of fourteen (although at times I had Sham pegged as older than that). In the end I went Meh and bought the hell out of it anyways.
Where to begin… Railsea reaffirms that in my dream D&D game, China Miéville is DMing. Place becomes a character in his books more so than most authors. I’ve often talked about worldbuilding, it’s something I like a lot so I’m going to do it again. Where most of Miéville’s books focus on one city, in this book it takes on a scale equal to that of the Bas-Lag novels. The whole notion of an ocean of railroads an utterly unique starting point for creating a whole world. It’s the first “what if” that drives the whole cascade of “and thens.”
Weird quirk of the book that you’ll notice right away. The word “and” never shows up once in all 424 pages. Every single instance is replaced with &. It bothered me for the first chapter but trust me, it’s ok and makes sense.
What’s filling the content of this world with rails and without ands? Well the Moby Dick parallels are obvious without being derivative. Sham is a noob doctor’s assistant on a moletrain crew. Moles and other such underground beasties are a lot different in the world of Railsea. The dirt between the rails is solid but acts like water for the creatures that burrow through it. Captain Naphi has herself a “philosophy,” her giant ivory colored mole nemesis takes on a more metaphysical quality to it. The other key players to this tale are the Shroake siblings, Caldera and Dero, the children of salvagers and explorers.
They’ve all got these elusive goals at the end of the world. Most of the story is that of Sham, occasionally we get side trips to others and this narrator voice that jumps in every now and then. Storyteller sounds better than narrator. It doesn’t show up very often but when it does, it steers the story in the right direction and will go so far as to tell you why and muse about the philosophy of storytelling.
Conclusions, reactions, satisfactions? Sham makes an incredible journey of growth from greenhorn to a proper trainsman out to fulfill his own quest. There’s a gradual buildup in his character and then this one point where he actually realizes it himself. It’s a very satisfying moment which leads Sham to overcome one of the more tricky obstacles in his path. Captain Naphi’s character arc is more like a roller coaster once things get going.
We get a glimpse at city life, and a sliver of a salvager’s world. This is the sort of thing that beg for more attention (in fact, the storyteller comments on this) but Railsea moves along at such a clip you never get a desire to wander off on other tracks.
As in Un Lun Dun, Miéville does some illustrations in the book. They’re a series of gorgeous line art pieces that add a lot to it. The burrowing owl in particular is my favorite.
So where does this leave us? Right back where I started.
China Miéville. I don’t need to say more even though I did.