People have wanted to narrate since we first banged rocks together & wondered about fire. There’ll be tellings as long as there are any of us here, until the stars disappear one by one like turned out lights. Some such stories are themselves about the telling of others. An odd pastime. Seemingly redundant, or easy to get lost in, like a picture that contains a smaller picture of itself, which in turn contains – & so on.
In the world of the railsea, danger lurks under the earth where giant moles, earwigs and flesh-eating worms make their home and their hunting ground. The humans make their way safely in trains, running across the rails that cover most the land. The world ends where the railsea ends, that is what everyone knows.
Sham is a doctor’s assistant on a mole train. His captain is intent on catching Mocker Jack, an ivory (or more accurately, yellow) moldywarpe (read, giant, vicious mole), her lifelong nemesis who took her arm. Sham’s not so interested in the moles but he is an orphan and he has little choices. When he finds some photos in a wrecked train, he is determined to return them to the victim’s family. Yet there is something odd in the photos, a lone, alien looking rail…could there be something beyond the railsea?
But he felt possessed by the souls of generations of youngsters chased through neighbourhoods by adults for reasons unclear or unfair. He channelled their techniques of righteous evasion.
Railsea does have the feeling of being a children’s book for adults. It’s full of adventure, pirates and, um, trains yet the characters lack a little depth. The vocabulary will be challenging for a lot of younger readers although I can imagine it would be a joy to have it read out loud. I especially liked the parts where it felt the narrator was addressing the reader without it being done through second person. It really felt like being told a story and having the narrator pause to comment on something.
“He says he’s a pirate,” whispered Sham to Daybe. Images came to Sham – how could they not? – of pirate trains. Devilish, smoke-spewing, weapon-studded, thronging with dashing, deadly men & women swinging cutlasses, snarling under cross-spanner pendants, bearing down on other trains.
However, I very nearly gave up on it. Miéville’s world building is excellent and I loved the idea of an ocean on land, but it goes on so long before anything really happens. It took until nearly halfway for me to get into the book although I really enjoyed the second half where the characters start to come alive. Oddly, my favourite character didn’t even have a speaking part; Daybe the day bat who Sham befriends at the start of his adventure. I loved that little bat!
You may have noticed the use of ampersands in my quotes. This is not an accident or formatting fault. Being used to uncorrected proofs, they didn’t really register in my mind until the narrator pointed out that once & was spelled with 3 letters. From then on it grated on me a bit. I liked the idea that an ampersand is reminiscent of the curves of the railsea but it isn’t the most natural thing to read.
If you’re a big fan of fantastical worlds and like the idea of the nautical world of Moby Dick reworked on land, with moles instead of whales, and trains instead of ships, really do give Railsea a try. If you’re looking for character driven storytelling you may well be disappointed.
Railsea is published today in the UK by Macmillan and is already available in the US via Del Rey. Thanks go to Del Rey for providing me with a copy to review via NetGalley.
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