Saturday, 15 December 2012

Railsea - Book Review

Railsea, by China Miéville: 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. (Synopsis from Goodreads)

Ding ding ding! We have a new favourite book of 2012!

Wow. This is a fun book. Combining the feeling of old adventure novels such as Treasure Island, with fantasy and science fiction elements, great characters, giant moles, an intriguing mystery, and a playful, omniscient narrator (and trains – lots of trains), it’s exciting and a joy to read. It’s a book that’s really hard to fit into categories – a bit of steampunk here, some post-apocalyptic scenery there, technology, mysticism, angels, angels that are trains!, adventure on the high seas rails... and this is what makes it so brilliant.

The atmosphere reminded me of very old SF/F where boundaries between different kinds of science fiction and fantasy were more blurry and more often crossed. But Railsea’s world also feels completely unique, despite all the obvious influences that it references. The biggest of these is Moby Dick; China substitutes a giant whale with a giant mole (a great white moldywarpe), but the idea is the much the same. However, the story never rests on simply being a retelling of Moby Dick in a science fiction setting. Instead, it plays with the concept but forges ahead with its own plot, sending characters in different directions, adding sub-plots that become main plots, seemingly abandoning the hunt for the mole and then bringing all the strands together for an unexpected ending. Anyone put off by the idea that this is just Moby Dick with a mole instead of a whale shouldn’t be – Railsea is something very different, and definitely worth reading.

Railsea is a book of ideas, and it’s packed full of them, but these never seem confused and they don’t clog up or get in the way of the story. The book is energetic and very well paced, switching between various characters at the right points, and teasing the reader with small glimpses of a bigger mystery before moving on. There are even short, ponderous chapters that get quite philosophical, which sounds like a disaster in an adventure story, but these actually work incredibly well. It’s such a weird book that things like this feel right in it, even if they might not work anywhere else. The style might be difficult at times, but never too challenging for a young adult reader, and the story moves ahead at a rapid and insistent pace (like a train! *groan*) that always keeps the pages turning.

It’s also hard not to like a book when the characters and places have such fantastic names. Sham ap Soorap. Streggeye. Perfect! The main character, Sham, is very likeable and easy to relate to. He’s confused about his place in the world, but feels a yearning to discover and explore, which makes him an ideal character for a young adult novel. Sham’s character, in particular, is one of the things that made this book feel closer in atmosphere to Treasure Island than to Moby Dick, for me. In fact, the combination of Sham, a female captain and a weird setting actually kept making me think of Disney’s Treasure Planet, and I had real trouble not picturing Captain Naphi as a cat. But that’s probably just me.

The only characters I had a slight problem with were the Shroakes. Slightly mystical, adventurous, know-it-all brothers and sisters tend to be rather irritating whenever they pop up in things (most recently for me, before Railsea, in the A Song of Ice and Fire series). It made sense to me that Sham would instantly adore and idealise these two, who were almost like personifications of exploration and discovery, but the narrator’s assumption that the reader also loves and admires them did make me sigh on more than one occasion.

Still, that’s really a minor point in an excellent book. The world is incredible, the story exciting, the characters wonderful, and the end a sufficient mix of satisfying and bizarre. I really can’t recommend this enough!

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