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.
Published by: Macmillan, 2012
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.
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.
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!