It’s rather easy to say that Railsea is an homage to Moby Dick, but with a Kafka-esque twist, but the latest China Mièville is so much more than that. As a book aimed at the YA market, Railsea is a true adventure story brimming with both interesting characters and a massive heart as sprawling as the titular rail network.
Railsea follows the young man, Sham Yes Ap Soorap who is journeying out on his first expedition on a moletrain. Mièville has based his world on our own but with a twist that brings out a rich depth that can only come from the brain of the three time winner of the Arthur C Clarke award. In our world ships travel the oceans to hunt for whales, but in the world of Railsea Moles and other burrowing animals are the quarry and the trains travel a vast interweaving network of rails (the Rail-SEA) in order to catch them.
The Railsea is a wonderfully deep and original idea that is at once alien and familiar to the reader. We watch as crews man trains from enormous proportions to small sail powered carriages and they zip around through signals and switching tracks with ease. Sham is the assistant doctor on board the Medes a moletrain that is on the hunt for an elusive Moldywarpe – which can only be described as a mole of monstrous proportions. Sham isn’t overly happy with his position and longs for a world of exploration as a salvage hunter.
One day Sham happens upon a particular piece of salvage – a memory card for a camera – and once he has seen the pictures on the card his world unravels before his eyes. It doesn’t take long and Sham is being hunted by the Navy, Pirates and Salvers from all over the Railsea as he aims to protect two siblings and their mission to reach the end of the world – and the Railsea.
In typical Mièville fashion the language and ensemble is deliciously complex as we meet all manner of different people. Sham himself as the centrepiece is a traditional hero type who longs for adventure. He befriends animals and longs to be more than his life dictates. Sham is surrounded by equally intriguing and beguiling characters such as Captain Naphi who heads up the Medes and is on the hunt for a rare bone coloured Moldywarpe. Then we have Dero and Caldera the siblings who live within a salvage junkyard and long to fulfil a dream of their parents.
Mièville relies heavily on the archetypes of such traditional adventure tales but as with all of his work, he reinvents them. Sham isn’t a naïve pup who stares dreamily; he is a man of action. The Pirates aren’t just bandits of the Railsea and often show a little heart. The same can be said of the crew of the Medes who are often gruff and brash but have humility within them that makes them entirely endearing for the reader.
Mièville appeals to the reader’s own sense of adventure and soon the world around Sham flourishes into a world of the deepest imagination. I found the idea of these trains – such a traditional and romantic form of travel – utterly captivating. The idea of the rails being laid over the years in such intricacy that they can lead you anywhere is awe inspiring and lends the world a sense of epic scale. But Mièville isn’t just content with creating the rails and the variety of ground dwelling creatures. He also depicts a sky flowing with poisons and bizarre creatures as well as hinting at a deeper spirituality in the form of angels that roam the rails fixing the broken lines and watching over the Railsea itself.
It’s all rather involving for a book that spans only 376 pages but Mièville writes with such passion and preciseness that no sentence is wasted. He particularly focuses on use of the Ampersand symbol and how it represents the Railsea itself as it curves and twists before coming back on itself. In this simple piece of symbolism the author has captured the essence of his novel in the ‘&’. This leads me onto saying that for all its ideas of being a YA novel it is only so by not approaching the adult themes of his other works. Railsea could easily be enjoyed by anyone ranging from 15 to 80 and every age in between.
Aside from a slightly in depth opening that could be a little off-putting to Mièville newcomers I can’t find fault with any aspect of the book. The inner workings of Mièville’s mind are a remarkable thing and his ability to instil horror in a reader with mere Rabbits, Moles and Ants is a sign of his literary genius. His skill for depicting these oversized common animals as vicious monsters of the Railsea is sublime. Accompanied by rather sinister illustrations I know that I will never look at an Earthworm with the same eyes.
I feel as if I could write for hours about what a brilliant novel this truly is. (Honestly, I haven’t even touched on the submarine style trains, Daybe the day bat that Sham nurtures, the island cultures that Mièville has created, the literary aspect of the writing that is so traditional with China yet doesn’t hold back the reader or even the involving metaphors lingering within the story). I shan’t, however.
Whenever I finish a book and feel sad that it ended, I know that I’ve experienced something special. From the opening moments meeting Sham on the moletrain to the intelligent and philosophical ending, I never wanted to put the book down. This is only my second experience of a China Mièville novel (for shame!) but it certainly won’t be the last. I can wholly recommend Railsea to anybody with even the slightest sense of adventure.
Published by Macmillan. This book was kindly sent from the publisher.