China Miéville – Railsea

Octopusses, trains, and garbage – that’s how you recognize a China Miéville novel. In this case, there is a distinct lack of octopusses but to make up for it, we get trains and garbage galore. The elevator pitch for this YA novel is “Moby Dick with trains instead of ships” but Railsea is so much more.

by China Miéville

Published by: Macmillan, 2012
ISBN: 0230765122
Paperback: 376 pages
My rating: 8,5/10

First sentence: This is the story of a bloodstained boy.

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-coloured 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 series of pictures hinting at something, somewhere, that should be impossible–leads to considerably more than he’d bargained for. Soon he’s hunted on all sides, by pirates, trainsfolk, monsters and salvage-scrabblers. And it might not be just Sham’s life that’s about to change. It could be the whole of the railsea.

Sham is a young doctor’s apprentice aboard the mole train Medes but he’s really not that sure that this is what he wants to do with his life. Instead of helping doctor Vurinam or even hunting giant moles, a salvor’s job looks much more appealing. But Captain Naphi is obsessed with hunting her philosophy, a gigantic ivory-colored moldywarpe that bit off her left arm.
What starts as a riff on Moby Dick turns into something entirely different very soon. Yes, Captain Naphi desperately wants to kill that white mole and yes, Sham tags along because he happens to work on her train. But this gimmick has been given way too much attention in marketing this book.

China Miéville has always been playful with language and he continues that tradition with new verve. Any given review mentions his use of the ampersand instead of the word “and”. This includes the copyright page and the acknowledgements. Some readers may find it disrupting but I took to it immediately and quite loved it by the end. But it isn’t just this most obvious trick he plays on us readers. Take Abacat Naphi – an anagram for Captain Ahab – or words like nu-salvage and arche-salvage. Miéville’s language contributes greatly to his worldbuilding and should not be underestimated just because the ampersand is a bit obvious. Of course this is purely a love-or-hate question of taste. I am glad I am one of the ampersand-lovers.

railsea mole

©China Miéville

Of course, worldbuilding is done in more than one fashion and, let me tell you, this world is insane. I had a hard time suspeding my disbelief, especially in the beginning. Imagining a Robert Louis Stevenson story set on a train may sound plausible to begin with, but think about the concept of the railsea. Endless rails, running next to each other, intermingling, making it possible for trains to switch and steer and not just go straight ahead but turn in every direction at the turn of a lever. It is mindboggling and China Miéville deserves all the credit for making it believable.

I was also quite taken by the idea that the upsky is polluted to bits and populated by the most vicious flying animals you can imagine. The same goes for the earth – naked earth that’s not covered by rails, that is – you take one step on the earth and some creepy, crawling creature or other will burrow its way up to devour you. Let’s just say it’s not pretty. The only safe place to live is on islands off the railsea. These come with harbors and cities and trade, the way you’d expect it of terra firma. The railsea, on the other hand, is crawling with huge animals, mole trains, salvors, and – are you really surprised? – pirates!

We follow Sham on an adventure that may at first seem like it isn’t even his but captain Naphi’s. But undecided as he may start,  he soon finds his own kind of philosophy and pursues it with every bit of passion he can muster. On this journey, he falls into the hands of pirates, meets salvors and railsea nomads, acquires a pet daybat (who is incredibly lovable), and helps two siblings find out the truth about their parents. A nice surprise in a novel that clearly follows the tradition of Melville and Stevenson was the presence of women. Not only do we get a female train captain, but we get the clever half of the Shroakes siblings, Caldera, several women harpoonists and a female salvor who isn’t nearly as cold on the inside as she lets on.
This is part adventure novel, part coming-of-age story, part science fiction and part meta fiction – and probably some other parts that I forgot. There is very much to love about Railsea.

©China Miéville

©China Miéville

One last thing I must mention is how the author breaks the fourth wall. Every so often, he will speak to us readers directly, taunt and tease us about that other plotline that has been dropped a while back and that we yearn to return to. In the very beginning, we zoom out of the image of a bloodstained Sham, turn back time, to begin the story where the narrator deems it appropriate. And like a polite and friendly story teller, he lets us in on some of his secrets. Close to the end, he explains that this could have been a very different tale. But in finest Miéville fashion, he is well aware that the story is not his alone and that we, the readers, have the power to create something new from it.

Had you been in charge you would, even had you started & ended in the same places, have described a different figure. A different “&.” But nothing’s done. If you tell any of this to others, you can drive, & if you wish, go elsewhere on the way. Until then, safe travels & thank you.

Railsea was a fantastic, fun, engaging read that I would put in the hands of any Miéville fan as well as people who are unsure about where to start. At 376 pages, it is one of his slimmer  novels and the ideas, while fantastic, aren’t quite as dark or wacky as in, say, Perdido Street Station. While marketed at “younger readers”, people of any age will find enjoyment in this story. Whether it is word play or worldbuilding, characters or adventurous plot that tickles you most, there is something in here for everybody. And – dare I mention it… – the ending is awesome!

MY RATING: 8,5  –  Quite excellent!

Second opinions:

Frances Hardinge – Fly By Night

I picked this book up for two reasons. One, the Book Smugglers have a major love affair with Frances Hardinge’s books. And, two, I trust children’s books much more at the moment than I do YA. I never thought I could shy away from an entire genre but the pile of crap that is being published lately is disturbing. I am sticking with adult books and, to get my dose of whimsy, books for younger kids. Thanks to Ana and Thea for the recommendation – this was a blast.

fly by nightFLY BY NIGHT
by Frances Hardinge

Published by: Macmillan, 2005
ISBN: 0330418262
ebook: 448 pages
Series: Fly by Night #1

My rating: 7,5/10

First sentence: “But names are important!”, the nursemaid protested.

A breath-taking adventure story, set in reimagined eighteenth-century England. As the realm struggles to maintain an uneasy peace after years of cival war and tyranny, a twelve-year-old orphan and her loyal companion, a grumpy goose, are about to become the unlikely heroes of a radical revolution. Mosca Mye has spent her childhood in a miserable hamlet, after her father was banished there for writing inflammatory books about freedom. Now he is dead and Mosca is on the run, heading for the city of Mandelion. There she finds herself living by her wits among cut-throat highwaymen, spies and smugglers. With peril at every turn, Mosca uncovers a dark plot to terrorize the people of Mandelion, and soon merry mayhem leads to murder . . .
With an unforgettable cast of characters and an inspiring message at its heart – sometimes the power of words can change the world


It’s going to be very difficult to talk about this novel without rehashing the entire plot. So I will only give you the basics. Mosca Mye runs away from home, with only her trusted goose from hell, Saracen, by her side. Her journey will take her to the rather unsuccessful conman Eponymous Clent, and later into the city of Mandelion. There, conspiracies are brewing under the surface, an illegal printing press has the Stationers Guild up in arms, and Mosca manages to get herself right into the center of the political intrigue.

copyright @ tealin

copyright @ tealin

Which leads me to the first two things that impressed me. First of all, Frances Hardinge manages to put a quite complicated political situation in a children’s book and make it accessible despite its intricacies. Sure, I can hear the outcry of certain parents (the same ones who cried out about Cat Valente’s Fairyland books) that this may be too difficult for a child to understand, but I’ve always been of the opinion that people can only grow when they are confronted with something new. And children spend most of their time discovering things they don’t understand. Yet. That said, it did take me a while to understand how the political factions are connected to each other. The Guilds – Stationers, Locksmiths, Watermen – each came to life after a while and I came to see a bigger picture.

The second thing that made me adore this story was the author’s phenomenal imagination. There is very little 18th century England in this novel, most of it is pure made-up brilliance. Be it the religion – one with numerous gods, shrines, and giving children a name befitting the Beloved under which they were born – the city of Mandelion, where coffee houses are found on boats and can float down the river at a moment’s notice, or the politics governing that city. Mosca is born under Goodman Palpitattle, He Who Keeps Flies out of Jams and Butterchurns (see why I love this?) and is thusly named Mosca – fly in Spanish. I found it stunning and refreshing and was reminded a little bit of the Flora Segunda books. Every page offers something new to the greedy reader and these things can range from downright hilarious, to scary, to surprising. You will look for boring  moments in vain.

copyright @ tealin

copyright @ tealin

The only reason I haven’t mentioned the characters yet is because the abovementioned two points stand out so much they had to come first. But Mosca Mye definitely deserves to be noticed, not only because she is a plucky heroine with her heart in the right place and her body often in the wrong place and the wrongest of tiems, but also because she is a girl I wholeheartedly want my own children to love and look up to. Mosca doesn’t always do what’s right, but she always does what she believes to be the right thing. She is not perfect. Living in the swampy town of Chough has made her eyebrows almost seethrough, her face is often described as ferrety and her looks don’t even figure into the plot at all. What a refreshing notion – and one I see much better done in Middle Grade fiction than YA, for some reason. While the side characters don’t show up a whole lot, they each have personality and a distinct voice that made it easy for me to know who was talking, even without the “xyz said”. Eponymous Clent especially has grown on me with his flowery speech and the big words he uses.

While this wilde adventure is over and Mosca is mostly unscathed (come on, that’s not a spoiler), there is a sequel to Fly by Night which I will be reading quite soon. After all, there is some unfinished business to take care of and I have a hunch that Mosca won’t be far from it when things culminate…

And after all, it was Mosca who said:

quotes grey I don’t want a happy ending, I want more story.

THE GOOD: Great characters having a wonderful adventure in a wildly imaginative world. Politics, intrigues, and ideas that will challenge kids to think for themselves. A heroine that is lovable and concerned with things other than boys and her looks. Yay.

THE BAD: Depending on the child’s age and maturity, the political intrigue may be a bit over their head. Honestly, I think even without understand all the details, kids will still enjoy this story for the fun adventure that it is.

BONUS: Saracen, the goose. Unstoppable.

THE VERDICT: 7,5/10  – Very good.

dividerThe Mosca Mye Series:

  1. Fly By Nightmosca cover
  2. Midnight Robbery/Fly Trap

Martha Wells – Emilie and the Hollow World

I planned to make the Books of the Raksura my first Martha Wells books because so many people have raved about them. But, as these things go, Strange Chemistry (Angry Robot’s YA imprint) offered e-ARCs of Wells’ young adult novel on NetGalley and I couldn’t resist.

emilie and the hollow worldEMILIE & THE HOLLOW WORLD
by Martha Wells

Published by: Strange Chemistry, April 2013
ISBN: 1908844507
ebook: 320 pages
Series: Emilie #1

My rating: 4,5/10

First sentence: Creeping along the docks in the dark, looking for the steamship Merry Bell, Emilie was starting to wonder if it might be better to just walk to Silk Harbor.

While running away from home for reasons that are eminently defensible, Emilie’s plans to stow away on the steamship Merry Bell and reach her cousin in the big city go awry, landing her on the wrong ship and at the beginning of a fantastic adventure.
Taken under the protection of Lady Marlende, Emilie learns that the crew hopes to use the aether currents and an experimental engine, and with the assistance of Lord Engal, journey to the interior of the planet in search of Marlende’s missing father.
With the ship damaged on arrival, they attempt to traverse the strange lands on their quest. But when evidence points to sabotage and they encounter the treacherous Lord Ivers, along with the strange race of the sea-lands, Emilie has to make some challenging decisions and take daring action if they are ever to reach the surface world again.

dividerIt is rare that I can’t make up my mind whether I liked or disliked a book. I suppose one emotion always outweighs the other and if you pinned me down I’d have to go with “rather disliked it”. Emilie and the Hollow World is a nod toward the wonderful Jules Verne adventures, discovering new worlds hidden within our own, meeting strange peoples and making new friends. The idea is wonderful and adding magic to it seems like a nice bonus. But there were many little things wrong with this book that add up to a rather unengaging reading experience.

It starts with a minor qualm – the protagonist’s age. Emilie is supposed to be 16 but from the get go, I though of her much more as a 12-year-old, maximum. She acts and speaks like a much younger person and if her age hadn’t been mentioned, I would have happily continued imagining a little girl. But the fact that we are told how old she is, bothered me. Emilie runs away from home, intending to buy passage on a ship. Instead, she realises she’s spent too much of her money on food, has to run away from people who suspect her of being a thief, and ends up as a stowaway on the Sovereign.

Of course, that much fancier ship has its own crew but just when they disocver Emilie, chaos ensues. I assumed the issues of her being a runaway and hiding on their ship would be talked about when the characters were out of immediate danger. But no, people just seem to take things the way they come without asking questions. The author seems to expect a bit too much suspension of desbelief here and while I am willing to believe pretty much anything for the sake of a good story, it needs to work within that story. This tale is set in a world that seems to believe in reason and science and rules. So it should strike somebody as odd that a young girl has run away from home, and even though Emilie explains her reasons, there were still two points that annoyed me. First of all, her reasons sound very good but unfortunately we are told them, never shown them. If the book had opened with Emilie suffering from her uncle and aunt’s treatment, her entire character would have been much stronger. Secondly, even if I accept that the ship’s crew feels empathy for Emilie and there’s not much to be done about her (now that she’s on the ship) it strikes me as very unlikely they would involve her so quickly and deeply into their venture and lay open all their plans. If anything, it would have been believable for her to become a kitchen maid on the ship to pay her passage and cleverly overhear these plans.

emilie and the hollow worldOnce they arrive in the Hollow World – via aetheric engine (read: magic) – a lot of stuff happens but nothing of real consequence. Of course, there are things afoot that will have consequences for the people of the hollow world, but since they aren’t the main characters of this story, there was not much for me to engage with. At that point, the focus of the story shifts from Emlie to the politics of the Hollow World – since we don’t get enough time with any of the parties involved, I had a lot of trouble working up enough interest to keep reading. This not very thick novel took me a good two months to finish. It just lacked drive, after the initial action-packed moments with Emilie running away from home.

The characters, including Emilie, were flat and underdeveloped. There would have been so much potential for this young girl to realise she can take things into her own hands, that she doesn’t have to depend on other people. But Emilie comes out of this story pretty much the way she entered. The only exception to this was Kenar, the most interesting character in the entire book. Unfortunately, we get see very little of him in the second half, which made it even more tedious to read. Another problem I had with the characters was that there was no real bonding between them, despite being through quite a lot of adventures together. If the protagonist doesn’t seem to truly care about her companions, why should I? Again, we were told that they were sad to say goodbye, but we’re not shown why.

The bottom line for me is: Reading this book felt more like a job, something I had to do, instead of a story I couldn’t wait to get back to. Whenever I put it aside after half a chapter, it took a lot of willpower to pick it up again. A novel, especially a novel aimed at children, should at least get the entertainment factor right.

THE GOOD: A good premise and a nice tip of the hat to Jules Verne.
THE BAD: Emilie came over much too young, despite non-stop action, there is very little development or emotionally engaging moments.
THE VERDICT: It’s a gamble. Maybe if I were 10 years old I would have liked this book more. This way, it was neither horrible nor good. The few elements I enjoyed didn’t get enough screen time and most of the time, I didn’t care enough to pick the book up and continue reading. And I certainly won’t be back for more of this series. Wells’ other books though… probably.

RATING: 4,5/10 – Bad but not terrible


Other reviews:

Régis Loisel – Peter Pan (Comics)

When I lived in France I spent a lot of time at our local médiathèque – library, video store and study hall all wrapped in one – and decided to expand my horizons a bit. The French have a wonderful tradition when it comes to comic books. Not only do they write a lot of comics that aren’t only about superheroes but deal with very adult and partly grim topics. They are also proud of that and every bookstore I’ve been to in France had a comic book section that was as big as the English sections here in Austria are. Long story short, this is the best thing I’ve read during my stay in the country of baguettes and delicious cheese.

PETER PAN (6 volumes)
by Régis Loisel

published: Vents d’Ouest, 1990-2004
ISBN: 2749302676
pages: 472
copy: 6 hardcovers
series: Peter Pan #1-6

my rating: 9,5/10

This version story of the boy who would not grow up is written for adults. Peter starts out as an almost-orphan in the streets of London and is taken away to Neverland by a fallen star that turns out to be the fairy Tinkerbell. There, he meets with pirates, mermaids, Indians, and a group of creatures living in the forest. He also meets their leader. The satyr Pan.

It becomes clear very early that this isn’t your cute Disney version of Peter Pan. In the very first scenes, Peter has to bring a bottle of alcohol to his abusive mother – without any money, he is forced to indulge the pedophiles in the bar and let his pants down to “earn” his mother’s bottle of wine. The story starts out grim and Peter’s journey to Neverland offers little relief. Because Neverland is populated by its own cast of mythical creatures and plagued by its own problems. Be it Peter’s trip to the island of Opikanoba, which holds uncounted terrors, or the constant war against Hook and his crew, there is always trouble brewing.

There are many things that fascinated me about this adaptation of the popular children’s story. First, it’s not your happy paradise full of pretty fairies and adventures that always end well. It’s dark, it’s full of evil, there is frequent nudity (fairies wear next to nothing and mermaids and centaurs are naturally topless), there is murder and grime and a lot of blood. This is not a children’s story! Peter’s innocence and forgetfulnes bring wonderful contrast to how ugly the world is – whether it’s Neverland or our world.

The characters come alive in Loisel’s drawings and they seemed a lot more believable to me. A bunch of boys wouldn’t just accept Peter as the leader, they’d question him or want to take over his job. Tinkerbell, a fairy we know to be jealous, goes to extremes to get rid of potential competition for Peter’s attention. And Hook is a troubled man who is not only there for comic relief.

I love Régis Loisel’s style. Both his writing and his art are breathtaking. His squiggly lines gave Neverland a character and I particularly enjoyed how versatile his characters’ looks and expressions are. Female characters are usually voluptuously round, sometimes even chubby, and we get to see boobs in all shapes and sizes. Like I said, it’s not a book for kids but any grown-up will be delighted at the range of body shapes and creatures that roam this magical island. Tiger Lily and her Indian tribe use their own language and there are hints at sexuality all over – which also help to show just how much Peter wants to stay a child forever.

I devoured the first five volumes in one go at the library but the final volume wasn’t available. And before I could find a copy at a bookshop, I left France for home. Since then, I’ve been pining to find out what happens to Peter, Clochette (Tinkerbell), Hook, and Merilin. Finally, I got my hands on an affordable copy of the last book Destins and I was equally swept away and taken to that magical land that, as dark as it is, was wonderful to dive into.

The ending is surprisingly dark, even compared to the first books, and the last volume had a few moments that made me catch my breath. Barrie himself wrote a very appropriate last sentence to Peter Pan.

[…] and thus it will be going on, so long as children are gay and innocent and heartless.

While these comic books can be read as a sort of prequel to the original story, they end on a similar note. The reader can be hopeful for Peter, the eternal child, yet there are some truly dark themes and Loisel made them more obvious than Barrie. Reading these left me uncomfortably touched. On the one hand, I’m enthralled and enchanted by the mythology Loisel has added to J.M. Barrie’s Neverland, on the other hand, he plunged me into the deepest, most vile places within the human heart and left me with an emptiness inside.

In conclusion, this is an emotionally wrecking work of art. There are moments of joy and moments of fun but the dominant note is a sinister one. And it will not let you go…

THE GOOD: Amazing new take on a well-known tale, grim, dark and gorey. Beautiful art that transports you to a different world.
THE BAD: Definitely not for children. At some points, people may be put off by how gruesome it gets.
THE VERDICT: Recommended to people who like Peter Pan, comic books, and stories that take unexpected turns.

RATING: 9,5/10  Close to perfection

Peter Pan:

  1. Londres
  2. Opikanoba
  3. Tempête
  4. Mains rouges
  5. Crochet
  6. Destins

Related Posts:

Chris Wooding – Retribution Falls

Ever since Firefly ended (yep, I’m still mourning), I’ve been wanting another story with a crew on a ship that makes me feel right at home. The very first page gives you that warm, fuzzy feeling and makes you excited for things to come. You are ready for adventure and fun and danger – and the author simply delivers. This may be no Firefly, but it sure is a lot of fun.

by Chris Wooding

published: Gollancz ,2009
ISBN: 0575085169
pages: 444
copy: paperback
series: Tales of the Ketty Jay #1

my rating: 7/10

first sentence: The smuggler held the bullet between thumb and forefinger, studying it in the weak light of the store room.

Sky piracy is a bit out of Darian Frey’s league. Fate has not been kind to the captain of the airship Ketty Jay—or his motley crew. They are all running from something. Crake is a daemonist in hiding, traveling with an armored golem and burdened by guilt. Jez is the new navigator, desperate to keep her secret from the rest of the crew. Malvery is a disgraced doctor, drinking himself to death. So when an opportunity arises to steal a chest of gems from a vulnerable airship, Frey can’t pass it up. It’s an easy take—and the payoff will finally make him a rich man. But when the attack goes horribly wrong, Frey suddenly finds himself the most wanted man in Vardia, trailed by bounty hunters, the elite Century Knights, and the dread queen of the skies, Trinica Dracken. Frey realizes that they’ve been set up to take a fall but doesn’t know the endgame. And the ultimate answer for captain and crew may lie in the legendary hidden pirate town of Retribution Falls. That’s if they can get there without getting blown out of the sky.

The adventure starts right away, on the very first page. I can’t say that there was a single boring moment in this book. I did feel a bit overwhelmed with the characters in the beginning. We are introduced to them all quickly within one chapter. Even with a good memory for names, it’s hard to keep track of who’s who and what distinguishes them. But worry not. Chris Wooding may throw them all onto us poor readers in the beginning, but he gives each of them depth later on in the story. While I found especially Darian Frey’s character development predictable and a bit cheesy, I can’t say I truly disliked any of the crew. They are a nice bunch and their quippy banter won’t fail to amuse.

Once that inital confusion subsided, the plot was pretty much straight-forward. Frey and his crew are trying to find out who framed them and, more importantly, why. Adventure lurks around every corner, fistfights and gunshots are frequent, and Frey’s talent for spinning lies and convincing women of his honor (which really doesn’t exist) made him both likable and realistic. He may have a heart of gold but it’s quite deeply hidden. At least when it comes to women he’s slept with…

As far as world building goes, I wasn’t too convinced. I do suspect that we only scratched the surface of a much bigger universe and we’ll probably get to learn more about it in the follow-up novels. In Retribution Falls, however, the steampunk element was both wonderfully done – daemonists, golems, gadgets made with daemons – and hard to imagine – the speed at which the airships fly, using aerium. But that may just be my own fault for not having read enough steampunk literature. I think there’s a lot of promise in this world, though, and I especially liked the explanation on how to play Rake as a sort of epilogue.

You can’t really help but fall in love with the characters. Sure, they could be more three-dimensional but I liked them all the same. This story is just a fast adventure with everything a good pirate story needs. Airships, explosions, guns, monsters, intrigue, evil guys, a secret hide-out, a great crew, and a ship that – despite not being able to talk – is a character all on her own.

THE GOOD: Fun, fast-paced adventure story with cool characters and not a boring moment in sight.
THE BAD: Characters could be deeper, world-building has potential for more.
THE VERDICT: A fun romp on the Ketty Jay that shouldn’t be missed by anyone who likes steampunk, Firefly, or adventure (pirate) stories.

RATING: 7/10  Very good

Tales of the Ketty Jay:

  1. Retribution Falls
  2. The Black Lung Captain
  3. The Iron Jackal