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.

railseaRAILSEA
by China Miéville

Published by: Macmillan, 2012
ISBN: 0230765122
Paperback: 376 pages
Standalone
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.

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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!

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Second opinions:

Neil Gaiman – The Ocean at the End of the Lane

This was underwhelming. Not only has this book been hailed as Gaiman’s first adult novel since Anansi Boys, it has also received ridiculous amounts of press during the last months. Even people like Neil Gaiman aren’t immune to being overhyped. I consider myself a fan of his work, but despite his fame and renown, I am still aware that even a great author can sometimes produce a mediocre novel.

ocean at the end of the laneTHE OCEAN AT THE END OF THE LANE
by Neil Gaiman

Published by: William Morrow, 2013
ISBN: 0062255657
Hardcover: 181 pages

My rating: 6/10

First sentence: It was only a duckpond, out at the back of the farm.

Sussex, England. A middle-aged man returns to his childhood home to attend a funeral. Although the house he lived in is long gone, he is drawn to the farm at the end of the road, where, when he was seven, he encountered a most remarkable girl, Lettie Hempstock, and her mother and grandmother. He hasn’t thought of Lettie in decades, and yet as he sits by the pond (a pond that she’d claimed was an ocean) behind the ramshackle old farmhouse, the unremembered past comes flooding back. And it is a past too strange, too frightening, too dangerous to have happened to anyone, let alone a small boy.
Forty years earlier, a man committed suicide in a stolen car at this farm at the end of the road. Like a fuse on a firework, his death lit a touchpaper and resonated in unimaginable ways. The darkness was unleashed, something scary and thoroughly incomprehensible to a little boy. And Lettie—magical, comforting, wise beyond her years—promised to protect him, no matter what.

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When our nameless protagonist and narrator first returns to the pond behind his childhood friend’s house, we are first forced to learn about his incredibly boring, mediocre life. I was worried that the entire book would continue along those lines but, thank Neil, the narrator slowly startes to remember certain evens that occured when he was seven years old and had just met the girl named Lettie Hempstock. It was around the time his cat got run over by a man who was later found dead near Lettie’s house… Once we read the childhood memories and the strange things that happened to the protagonist as a boy, the story starts to kick off. The monsters were suitable scary and wonderfully strange. In Ursula, Neil has created a truly terrifying thing that manipulates its way into the family and leaves the protagonist almost completely helpless, at her mercy. It was these moments that were the strongest and most adult ones in the book and the author does a fantastic job of capturing that feeling only a child can know, that feeling of knowing you are right and equally knowing that nobody will believe you. When he seems to be trapped in Ursula’s powers, he can only watch her take over his family more and more.

Not every book that features a child protagonist is automatically a children’s book. But this is sold as an adult novel and it just isn’t. I would consider neither the tone, themes, language, nor even the scary bits particularly adult in nature. It is not as creepy as Coraline, not nearly as deep and moving as The Graveyard Book, and the one thing that I kept coming back to was that it read more like a stretched-out short story. In the acknoweldgements, Neil Gaiman admits that it started out as just that – if I had any say in it, it would have remained a short story. Because the plot is very, very thin, the story straight-forward and simple. Bad comes into the world and has to be kicked out again somehow. And then there’s (what I’m guessing is supposed to be) a twist at the end that reminded me very much of Coraline.

ocean at the end of the lane 1And that’s another thing. I am so sad that, at least in this book, Neil Gaiman has nothing new to show us. Every little thing that I considered good and interesting about this story, has been there before in one of Neil’s other books – and usually done better. The hunger birds, the mysterious people who seem to use magic but don’t bother explaining themselves. The protagonist who is incredibly gullible and just does what he is told. Even the name Hempstock (maybe even the family) has appeared in The Graveyard Book. It would have been nice to get at least one shiny, new Neil Gaiman thing – that’s what I had been looking forward to.

To be fair, there is a budding exploration of certain themes, such as the importance of money to humans, that would have been intriguing to follow. But these themes are merely scratched at and then dropped completely. The other theme would probably be the protagonist’s coming-of-age but I would also dispute that he does. He is a strange character, one that gets fleshed out and becomes three-dimensional in the quieter chapters, when he thinks about books and his kitten – only to lose all personality as soon as other characters show up. From convincing little boy to cardboard stand-in.

There were a few things I liked about the book, most of all the abovementioned Ursula-the-housekeeper, who could have sprung straight from a nightmare. But also little paragraphs, here or there, where Neil managed to uncover a truth about the world and touch me with his writing, like this comparison between adults and children.

Adults follow paths. Children explore. Adults are content to walk the same way, hundreds of times, or thousands; perhaps it never occurs to adults to step off the paths, to creep beneath rhododendrons, to find the spaces between fences.

And, of course, I have to be honest and admit that – had this been my first Gaiman novel – I would have been quite impressed with the weird nature of his monsters. They are never just giant spiders or ghosts under the bed. They are strange and old and have agendas of their own. Whenever the monsters took center stage, I was all in, I sucked up the words and was terrified at how lightly the protagonist took some of the mysterious things happening to him. That worm-thingy, and Ursula, did their job well and creeped me out in an enjoyable this-is-only-a-story-worms-can’t-really-do-that-can-they way.

In the end, I am left disappointed, but I can’t deny that I enjoyed certain chapters of this little book very much. I have a suspicion that those were the chapters that made up the original short story…

THE GOOD: Great monsters, creepy scenes, the occasional beautiful line.
THE BAD: A rehash of old ideas, a plot that felt forcibly spread out, a strange sometimes-real, sometimes-bland protagonist.
THE VERDICT: If you’re a fan of Neil’s work, you will read this anyway. If you’ve never read anything by him, you may like it a lot more than I did (not knowing that all the ideas have been used in his prior novels already). And if you’re looking for a quick read, pick this up, sure, why not? If it hadn’t been so short, I probably wouldn’t have finished it.

RATING: 6/10 – Okay

Review: China Miéville – Perdido Street Station

HOW did I wait this long to discover China Miéville? Can anybody tell me why of all the recommendations I’ve been given, none ever enticed me enough to pick up this book? Well, I found my way in the end, and I have a lot more Miéville to discover.  This was an odyssey of a book and I admit, I dragged it out a lot, simply because I wasn’t quite ready to leave that world yet.

China Miéville - Perdido Street Station

PERDIDO STREET STATION
by China Miéville

Published by: Pan Macmillan, 2011 (2000)
ISBN: 9780330534239
Paperback: 880
Series: New Crobuzon #1

My rating: 9/10

First sentence: Veldt to scrub to fields to farms to these first tumbling houses that rise from the earth.

The metropolis of New Crobuzon sprawls at the centre of its own bewildering world. Humans and mutants and arcane races throng the gloom beneath its chimneys, where the rivers are sluggish with unnatural effluent, and factories and foundries pound into the night. For more than a thousand years, the parliament and its brutal militia have ruled over a vast array of workers and artists, spies, magicians, junkies and whores.

Now a stranger has come, with a pocketful of gold and an impossible demand, and inadvertently something unthinkable is released. As the city becomes gripped by an alien terror, the fate of millions depends on a clutch of outcasts on the run from lawmakers and crimelords alike. The urban nightscape becomes a hunting ground. Battles rage in the shadows of bizarre buildings. And a reckoning is due at the city’s heart, under the vast chaotic vaults of Perdido Street Station.

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I find myself in an exceedingly difficult situation. Trying to review this book without giving too much away but still being able to mention all the awesome things and ideas, seems unfeasible. Perdido Street Station is a trip into the teeming, filthy city of New Crobuzon. A place full of drugs and crime and slums and starving artists and even starving scientists. Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin is one such and the project of his life – building a Crisis engine – is going nowhere. When a stranger turns up with a seemingly impossible request, Isaac finds a new project to persue. But then, as things do in fiction, everything goes wrong and shit just won’t stop hitting the fan.

perdido 2

When China Miéville eases his readers into this word. the plot moves slowly, and he takes his time showing us around the city of New Crobuzon. But don’t worry. This is not just a tour around the city where we’re told that on our right hand side, we can see this species and on the left we see that species. But honestly, I wouldn’t have minded if that’s all it was. There are so many things to discover in New Crobuzon and while I think I got a general feel for the city, I haven’t seen nearly enough. We get some great insight into the khepri – people with human bodies but a bug as a head – as well as the garuda – winged humanoids with a bird’s head. But there is so much more. I could gush and gush about the many ideas but that would take away the fun of discovering them for yourself. And you should.

One idea in particular that caught my interest was the Remade, criminals who have metal or animal body parts attached to them to represent their crimes. How awesome is that! I also loved that every idea gets its proper time to be explored. As weird as it sounds, having just finished a book of 900 pages, I could have read about the Remade or the khepri, the vodyanoi, the currupt politicians, the drug lords and the criminal masterminds, for another 1000 pages.

The longer I read, the more I got the feeling that the author just put a whole lot of ideas into a pot, stirred, and out came an incredible city, densely populated by wonders upon wonders. As if that weren’t enough, Miéville also tells a gripping and terrifying story. The path of this 900-page-book is littered with plot-twists, ideas upon ideas, and not least, great writing. He had me fooled more than once and until it was over, I wasn’t sure how exactly this story would end.

China Miéville has his narrative down to perfection. And to add the cherry on top, I loved the writing style. It is flowery and (I think that goes without saying) vivid in detail but never, ever, boring. He switches perspectives frequently, showing us different sides of the same story, letting us enter the minds of several characters.

I understand why every single of his books is nominated for numerous awards and why people are so impressed with him. A word of caution is necessary, however, because I believe the style can very much be hit and miss. Before you buy this, read the first chapter to make sure you like it. If you do, you’re in for an epic adventure. China Miéville proves that fantasy does not have to be tropes and traditions only, that his imagination is endless and his skill phenomenal.

THE GOOD: If I start here, I’ll never stop. Characters, plot, style, monsters, world building…
THE BAD: It’s hard to find fault with this. If I have to pick something, I’d say the last third could have been shortened. Maybe.
THE VERDICT: An excellent book full of original ideas, great writing, and a well thought-out, fascinating city.

RATING: 9/10 Nearly perfect

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The Bas Lag Cycle:

  1. Perdido Street Station
  2. The Scar
  3. The Iron Council

Patrick Ness – A Monster Calls

This came as a surprise. I bought the book because I am a sucker for illustrations, especially black and white ones. Jim Kay’s particular dark style intrigued me and since Patrick Ness has been hyped for his Chaos Walking trilogy, I thought I’d give this a try. I never expected to become this emotional about the story but even though it doesn’t relate to my own life at all, it touched me on a level few other books have.

A MONSTER CALLS
by Patrick Ness
inspired by an idea from Siobhan Dowd

Illustrated by: Jim Kay
Published: Walker Books, 2011
ISBN:1406311529
Pages: 2015
Copy:  Hardcover

My rating: 8,5/10

First sentence: The monster showed up just after midnight. As they do.

At seven minutes past midnight, thirteen-year-old Conor wakes to find a monster outside his bedroom window. But it isn’t the monster Conor’s been expecting– he’s been expecting the one from his nightmare, the nightmare he’s had nearly every night since his mother started her treatments. The monster in his backyard is different. It’s ancient. And wild. And it wants something from Conor. Something terrible and dangerous. It wants the truth. From the final idea of award-winning author Siobhan Dowd – whose premature death from cancer prevented her from writing it herself – Patrick Ness has spun a haunting and darkly funny novel of mischief, loss, and monsters both real and imagined.

The yew tree just outside Conor’s window has always been particularly interesting to Conor’s mom. Now that Conor has been plagued by nightmares – well, the nightmare – for months, this yew tree turns into a monster whose mission becomes clearer as the story spins along. Conor, a very mature thirteen-year-old, is immediately likable. I felt with him the moment I got to meet him. On the very first page. Whether it was waking up from the nightmare, cleaning the kitchen and packing his own lunch, or being invisible at school, he was an emotionally engrossing protagonist whom I simply wanted to be a little happier.

There are few sidecharacters and they don’t take up too much space in the story, but each and every one of them felt fleshed out and real. I even liked Lily and the group of bullies we only get to see a little of. Within just a few pages, Patrick Ness throws his readers into this entirely believable world of a young boy dealing with everyday life and his mother’s illness.

As a fantasy reader, I was most interested in the monster, of course. And as monsters go, it is pretty amazing. Even without the amazing illustrations, it comes to life and transmits this feeling of age and wisdom and something belonging to the oldest Earth. I grew to like the monster quite a bit, as I liked most characters. The monster tells Conor three tales with a specific goal – after the first one I should have seen the twists coming. Whether it was my own stupidity (or I was too enthralled in the story to remember) or Patrick Ness’ talent as a writer, the first two stories took me by surprise and were entertaining and shocking at the same time.

By story number three I felt I understood the drill. But after three, of course, comes four. And I won’t say much about this one. It offered the perfect ending to an already tragic story. This was the part that surprised me most. I do cry a lot when books are sad but for the most part, I was quite reserved while reading this story. Until the last third which made me well up unexpectedly. I didn’t know I felt so much emotion for these characters until I felt my eyes brimming with tears. The ending was perfect and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

There are still writers of young adult fiction who believe in the craft and the power of words. You won’t find too-pretty-for-their-own-good girls in here, stumbling into a magic world they didn’t know existed where they are princesses and fall for the brooding, dark guy. You will find the depths of humanity brought to life and a handful of characters that can touch you at your core and tell you a story worth telling.

THE GOOD: A touching story, peopled with great characters and a monster most unlike those of our childhood’s fairy tales. And a tearjerker.
THE BAD: If I had a say in it, I would have made the story longer. I wanted more of Conor’s school life, especially his broken friendship with Lily.
THE VERDICT: A truly excellent young adult book with a message at its core and a thrilling plot as a wrapper. This is what books are for and this is how you write for a young audience. You treat them with respect, as you do your characters. Well done, Patrick Ness!

RATING: 8,5/10  Truly excellent.