Railsea, by China Mieville

Review published on June 23, 2012.Reviewed by Simon Appleby

China Mieville can always be relied upon to deliver genuinely innovative new slices of science fiction, and Railsea is no exception. Although it’s not packaged any differently to his other recent works, it will be clear to those who open the book, from the ever-so-slightly larger type and the use of illustrated section plates, that this is oriented towards a young adult readership, although the quality, readability and fundamental conception of the book will be enjoyed by Mieville’s fans of all ages.

My first thought when I started this book is that Mieville has ‘done’ trains before, with the magnificent and bittersweet Iron Council, the third of his New Crobuzon novels. But Railsea is different – in essence it starts out as Moby Dick with trains – and moles! This requires some explanation – the action takes place on a world where our watery seas are replaced by a sea of rails, which run atop an apparently solid substrate that is nevertheless fraught with perils, including moles of all shapes and sizes. Trains – steam-powered, wind-powered, clockwork and man-powered – ply the rails between the various island nations of this topsy-turvy world, and the vocabularies of sailing and the sea are wonderfully appropriated by Mieville for the trains and the men and women who operate them.

Our hero is Sham ap Soorap, apprenticed to a doctor on a mole train – early on we are treated to the hunting of a Great Southern Moldeywarpe by Sham’s crew, though the one they catch is not the great white mole that obsesses their single-minded Captain. When they stop to investigate an overturned train, Sham sees evidence that there is in fact an end to the Railsea, and such an unthinkable prospect leads him to seek out the young relatives of the owners of the crashed train. In turn this leads to run-ins with pirates and the military, salvers and the involvement of his own Captain and crew, despite their determined pursuit of Mocker-Jack, the great white mole.

Railsea has all the ingredients for its intended audience: steampunk technology, thrilling action, a sympathetic protagonist on the verge of adulthood. But it’s so much more, and crucially, it doesn’t patronise or talk down to a younger readership. The writing and pacing may be accessible, but the use of language, always so impressive in Mieveille’s writing, is sometimes challenging and the backstory of the world of the rails is thought-provoking and left pleasingly ambiguous. In short, this is a wonderful book and I sincerely hope that it will be the gateway for many new readers to discover the work of one of Britain’s best speculative fiction writers; I have no doubt it will be enjoyed by his legion of existing fans.

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