by China Miéville
Reviewed by Christopher DeFilippis
For a writer as apparently bursting with ideas as China Miéville, it’s not surprising that he would task his talents in different literary forms. Weird fiction, urban fantasy, socio-political SF—even comic books have provided fertile ground for Miéville’s unique voice. And as his most recent novel Railsea illustrates, the Young Adult market is no exception.
Miéville won the 2008 Locus Award for his first YA novel, Un Lun Dun, and Railsea is a worthy successor, a rollicking adventure book for boys that liberally plies the classic tropes of swashbuckling romances like Treasure Island and Kidnapped, with a dash of The Odyssey thrown in for good measure. But at its core, Railsea is a retelling of Moby Dick. Only instead of taking place on a whaling ship, it takes place on a train traversing the railsea—a jumbled landscape of rails extending in every direction as far as the eye can see.
Riding this tangle of tracks is Sham ap Soorap, a young doctor’s assistant aboard the Medes, a mole train in pursuit of Mocker-Jack, a giant ivory-colored moldywarpe that has become the “philosophy” or obsession of Captain Abacat Naphi, who lost her arm to the immense burrowing mole.
Though a passable medical apprentice, Sham dreams of becoming a salvager, riding the railsea in search of bits of alt-salvage, discards from off-world visitors who had once frequented Earth as a waystation. And when the Medes comes across a deserted wreck, Sham’s investigation turns up a bit of salvage the likes of which no one has ever seen before, tossing him into an increasingly dangerous adventure that spans the railsea and beyond.
What stands out most about Railsea is Miéville’s unfettered and playful use of language and style. He’s clearly having a ball as the omniscient narrator here, taking a break from the heady and heavy-handed themes he’s been exploring in his more recent books like The City & The City and Embassytown and simply reveling in his creativity and craft.
Still, it wouldn’t be a Miéville book without a political message—in this case a cautionary satire about capitalism run amok. But while that message provides the warp and weft of this far-future tale, he never bashes you over the head it. It is simply a foregone conclusion, manifested (quite literally) by the railsea itself.
To nitpick, the railsea is a somewhat clunky conceit, as the ground it sits on is riddled with giant burrowing creatures—in addition to moldywarpes there are antlions, burrowing owls and tortoises, giant earwigs and blood rabbits. How several metric tons of continent-spanning iron rails fail to collapse into this undermined strata Miéville never addresses.
But in the end it doesn’t matter, because Railsea not only works, it shines, mainly due to the caliber of Miéville’s writing, which hasn’t been so arresting since Perdido Street Station, as demonstrated by this sampling of the book’s opening passages:
“This is the story of a bloodstained boy. There he stands, swaying as utterly as any windblown sapling. He is quite, quite red… his clothes, whatever colour they once were, are now a thickening scarlet; his hair is stiff & drenched. Only his eyes stand out. The white of each almost glows against the gore, lightbulbs in a dark room. He stares with great fervor at nothing. The situation is not a macabre as it sounds. The boy isn’t the only bloody person there: he’s surrounded by others as red & sodden as he. & they are cheerfully singing.”
At once visceral and allegorical, Railsea is an engaging, funny and thoroughly charming coming-of-age tale, and teens and adults alike will be rooting for that bloodstained boy, swept along the high rails as Sham finds friendship, danger, a hint of romance and—ultimately—himself.