by China MievilleThe world of Railsea is extraordinary. It's a landscape of endless looping rails as far as the eye can see. In between the rails, enormous carnivorous burrowing animals, mutated beyond normal proportions, can erupt out of the ground and swallow anyone who is careless enough to leave the rails. Overhead, the upper atmosphere is brown with poison and filled with strange flying beasts.
The story follows Sham ap Soorap, a youth working as a doctor's assistant on a moletrain called the Medes. The train hunts moldywarpes, which are massive moles the size of whales. Their captain, Naphi, has an artificial arm and an obsession with one moldywarpe in particular, a giant ivory specimen she dubs Mocker Jack, which she considers her "philosophy". It's her life's work to hunt and capture this beast.
Sham, meanwhile, doesn't have a philosophy, or much of a direction at all. He's a poor doctor, being quite squeamish, and he's not keen on being a moler, although he's quite interested in finding salvage. The railsea is scattered with the wrecks of old, new, and occasionally extra-terrestrial technologies, and although this is largely a steam-driven world there's also the suggestion that it's a fallen civilisation that was once more sophisticated. It's when the Medes stops to investigate a crashed train that Sham finds hidden pictures that hint at something important beyond the railsea, at the edge of the world. Sham wants to find out more, and he sets out to find two young people who he thinks can explain the mystery. But the more he digs, the more people he finds who don't want these secrets revealed.
It's a cracking story, full of high-speed adventure, pirates, dangerous beasts, and strange secrets. Captain Naphi put me in mind of Ahab from Moby Dick, and I suspect that's not the only literary reference. So whilst this is a book with a teenage main character, it's aimed at more educated readers of young adult books. The captain says things like "expedite this journey relevance-ward", for instance. Their world is weird, so it takes a while to understand what is going on and how everything in Railsea looks and works. This combination of complex world building and unsimplified vocabulary make this novel less immediately accessible, but that's part of the reason it's more interesting.
There are hilarious parts, such as when Sham tries to rescue a couple of fighting birds. He's a likeable character, even if he's not quite sure what he's going to do with his life, because he doesn't allow this lack of direction to make him passive or cowardly. His companions on the Medes may be rough, but they're also rounded enough to have other facets to their characters that emerge during the story.
One thing I did find unusual is the self-conscious style of telling the story. There are short chapters in between the action that talk about how the story is being told, and why the ampersand is always used, and so on. It's a bit meta, yet these interludes are as interesting as the building excitement in the rest of the narrative.
I really enjoyed the ending, which I thought was very clever as well as politically charged.
25th November 2013
Review © Ros Jackson