Jump to content

DRAGONMOUNT

A WHEEL OF TIME COMMUNITY
Sign in to follow this  
Werthead

[Book review]: Railsea by China Mieville

Recommended Posts

The railsea: a network of metal rails and wooden slats which extends in all directions, covering the hostile, animal-filled earth which is too dangerous to walk on. Great islands and continents of rock rise between the rails, on which cities, towns and people exist. Sailing the railsea are thousands of trains, ranging from the primitive wooden, animal-pulled trains of tribal plainsfolk to the sleek, metallic dreadnoughts of powerful navies. Inbetween lie the independent trains, such as the Medes, a moler which strikes deep into southern climes in search of an ivory-coloured moldywarpe, the nemesis of the captain and the subject of her obsession. But when the Medes instead finds a wrecked train holding a tantalising secret, the destiny of the railsea, and of a young man named Sham Yes ap Soorap, will be forever changed.

 

Railsea is Moby Dick rewritten to feature a crazy woman steering a train across an ocean of rails in search of a giant burrowing mole. Except when it's not, which is most of the time. It's also A Wizard of Earthsea but with trains rather than boats, except not really. It's a homage to trains and to boats and pirate movies. It's a book about language where people's lives are given meaning by pursuing giant monsters, which they call their philosophies and embody ideas and archetypes within them. It's a Young Adult novel but with so much baroque language and complex use of metaphors that no-one should consider the term a pejorative. One thing is clear: it's a China Mieville novel.

 

Railsea is Mieville's ninth book and, judged purely superficially, is a romp. It's an adventure about a young man (Sham Yes ap Soorap) who goes to (rail)sea, gets caught up in his captain's obsession and uncovers a secret that will lead him to the ends of the earth and beyond, in search of the meaning of it all. Along the way he fights, is captured by and eventually escapes from pirates, takes part in the hunting of a gigantic mole (going by Mieville's illustrations, we're talking a mole bigger than a blue whale), tames a hostile bat and gawps at vast, cosmopolitan cities. It's a vigorous page-turner, compulsively readable and endlessly inventive.

 

Stepping back, the book is more complex. In a possible metatextual nod at the cliches of such fiction, many captains of trains have missing arms and legs, snatched away by one kind of beast or another. Captains even carry lists of what animals their fellows are hunting, so they may pass on news of any sightings. Each animal represents an ideal and a philosophy, so the ships of the railsea aren't just molers and merchants, but devices searching for meaning and answers. For Nephi, captain of the Medes, her nemesis represents something very simple indeed: everything. And to find that truth, she would take her ship and her crew anywhere the trail leads. For his part, Sham is likewise obsessed, with an impossible image glimpsed briefly, an image that could shake the world, and it is how these two obsessions cross paths and align that gives the book its narrative spine.

 

The world of Railsea is vivid and initially bewildering, with Mieville's inventive but remorselessly logical mind working overdrive to give us his most fully-fleshed out creation since Bas-Lag itself. It's a world with two skies and myriad levels of land, a place that is a secondary fantasy world like Bas-Lag but also an alien planet such as those seen in Embassytown. It also might be something else. No direct answers are given, but the questions are more interesting for that (and the ending is powerful, opening more possibilities as it closes down others). It's a world of monsters, however, and Mieville gives us some of his best, from the great southern moldywarpes to the naked molerats to the friendly (if treated right) daybats. Occasional illustrations show these creatures in all their (sometimes revolting) glory.

 

Mieville populates the book with his normal gallery of well-defined characters, from the archetypal young hero Sham to the coldly authoritative Captain Nephi to the vision-seeking siblings Shroake. What unites the characters is their need for answers and their desire to search rather than to accept what is and what has been for centuries.

 

Railsea (*****) is a well-written, compulsive page-turner and sees Mieville's imagination on top form. It's a book that works on multiple levels and is thoroughly rewarding. His finest work since The City and The City and maybe his finest since The Scar. The novel will be published on 15 May in the USA and on 24 May in the UK.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Thanks for the great review as always Wert! With this being a YA novel are their differences in content say from the Bas-Lag novels that stand out as being more juvenile in tone? To be honest I struggled with Embassy Town and Kraken but would love to dive back into a solid one.

Edited by Suttree

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

It's a tad more straightforward, but I wouldn't call it juvenile in tone at all. It's not like Un Lun Dun where he quite noticeably dialled back the complexity of things for younger readers. Here it's more a case of there being no sex or swearing, and the prose isn't quite as dense as in say Embassytown or as convoluted as Kraken. The prose is probably somewhere around the level of the Bas-Lag books.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

and the prose isn't quite as dense as in say Embassytown or as convoluted as Kraken.

 

It's odd as those are some of the things I usually enjoy to a certain extent. I just couldn't really get started with either of those however. Will have to give them another shot at some point.

Edited by Suttree

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Join the conversation

You can post now and register later. If you have an account, sign in now to post with your account.
Note: Your post will require moderator approval before it will be visible.

Guest
Reply to this topic...

×   Pasted as rich text.   Paste as plain text instead

  Only 75 emoji are allowed.

×   Your link has been automatically embedded.   Display as a link instead

×   Your previous content has been restored.   Clear editor

×   You cannot paste images directly. Upload or insert images from URL.

Sign in to follow this  

×
×
  • Create New...