Railsea by China Miéville
Railsea may fall under the category of YA fiction, but that doesn’t stop it from being a bloody clever, meta-fictional post-modern piece of work. That’s all well and good, but much more importantly, it’s also a damn good adventure story. One might even go so far as to call it a ‘ripping yarn.’
Miéville is an author who often builds his books around a vivid and imaginative setting, and Railsea is one of his best yet. In a vaguely post-apocalyptic world which was, perhaps, once known as Earth, a vast network of rails and trains criss-cross the land. Churning beneath the surface are a collection of deadly mutated creatures, such as giant moles and insects, that will devour any who land in the dirt. Our protagonist, Sham ap Soorap, is a young doctor’s assistant on the Medes, a mole-train which travels the railsea in search of its prey, the giant moles known as moldywarpes. Captain Naphi of the Medes has a personal quest, her ‘philosophy’, to take down the albino moldywarpe Mocker-Jack, who had taken her arm many years before. During a routine hunt, the Medes come upon a wrecked train, and inside Sham discovers a series of photographs which threaten to shake the foundations of the entire railsea.
Railsea is, at its core, just a really great adventure. It shares DNA with a fair bit of Miéville’s own previous work, particularly the similarly train themed Iron Council, but I was also reminded of my personal favourite, The Scar. Of course, the biggest influence is obviously Moby Dick, although it’s significantly more interesting than just a retelling of Melville’s classic with a train instead of a boat and a mole instead of a whale. It’s a hugely fun book, with some clever twists and a much better ending than has often been the case in Miéville’s work.
I’ll admit to not having been hooked from the get-go, with Miéville’s typically challenging writing style setting up an immediate barrier to entry. When you get used to it, it actually works quite well, with a faintly 19th century Robert Louis Stevenson style to the writing. Still, this does feel like the book where the accusations of pretension which have (in my opinion) been unfairly levelled against Miéville’s may perhaps be justified. Miéville uses ampersands throughout the whole book, which is fine, but do we need an extended reflection on their use? This is a story about stories, and Miéville playfully teases the reader throughout the book, dangling then pulling back intriguing story threads. At the end of the day though, this is marketed as a ‘book for all ages’, and unlike Un Lun Dun, I just cannot see how these digressions are going to do anything but alienate many young readers. Still, whatever you think about his unique style it can’t really be denied that Miéville has an almost unrivalled ability to craft a vista in the reader’s mind. The railsea is Miéville’s best and most vibrant setting since Bas-Lag, and it’s quite painful to leave it when the book is done.
Sham is an engaging and likeable protagonist, not necessarily hugely complicated, but he nonetheless goes through a distinct character arc, which is accomplished subtly enough that you don’t really realise how much he has grown until the end. There’s an engaging supporting cast, with the driven Captain Naphi standing as an intriguingly morally grey figure.
Railsea is probably one of my favourite Miéville books. It’s not quite up there with The Scar and The City & The City, but it’s still damn good. It’s a complex, political, intelligent work which, most importantly, tells a hugely fun story. I’m just not sure if your 8 year old will enjoy it.