Look at the acknowledgments at the end of the book & you’ll see just how wide a base of influences this work of art has drawn from. The influence from Herman Melville is the most prominent of the lengthy list of writers Miéville has acknowledged, being another author who wrote a book about a great white beast, a hunter’s obsession, & a life at sea.
But this is no ordinary sea. Railsea is, quite literally, a sea of rails. A great, sprawling expanse of train tracks that criss-cross, weave, & spread out in a tangle of wood & iron. On these rails (you guessed it) are trains of all varieties. Salvage hunters searching for the shiny detritus of a world long gone, an armada of sail-powered wooden trains, & mole-trains which bristle with hunters & their harpoons.
The head of one such train is the artificially-armed Captain Abacat Naphi (an anagram of Captain Ahab), who is obsessed with a giant white mole known as ‘Mocker-Jack’. Naphi navigates the sprawl of rails, which cover the surface of the planet, in search of her prey. Below them, the earth churns with numerous dangerous predators – huge carnivorous moles, giant earwigs, & antlions whose mandibles can sever a man’s legs from the rest of his body.
It is aboard this mole train that we find our hero, the wonderfully named Sham ap Soorap, who is apprenticing with the onboard doctor. Sham isn’t too interested in medicine, however, & longs for a life of a salvor – one of the strangely armoured treasure hunters of the Railsea. It is his first encounter with salvage, a chancing upon a train-wreck, that propels Sham into an adventure quite unlike any other. Train pirates, abductions, battles, creatures of immeasurable size & ferocity, & even a little nod to Greek Mythology can all be found in this novel.
Fantasy & SF authors often have trouble creating a cast of characters who are interesting, especially when building an entirely new world. But Sham is engaging & relatable, & all of the supporting characters are memorable & well developed.
& that’s what you can come to expect from Railsea, & almost any other Miéville novel. Sold as a YA book, this has something to offer for all ages. Every sentence is packed with wit, in-jokes, or references. Keep your eyes out for significant anagrams & plot parallels for this book is packed with them. Whereas many writers shy away at the power of influence, China Miéville has acknowledged & used this collective imagination to create an entire world with its own mythology in a little under 400 pages.
The prose is fantastic. Miéville, like always, has fun with his use of language & structuring of his paragraphs. The pacing is great, though it slows right down towards the end of the book, coming to a slow conclusion rather than a crashing one. One criticism: the paragraphs are almost too dense for a younger reader, which isn’t great for a YA novel. But, if a younger reader can overcome this challenge, they are going to find a wonderful world full of adventure waiting for them.
I loved this book, & would highly recommend it to any fantasy & SF readers out there looking for something a little different.
P.S. If you were wondering about the ampersands, well, that’s integral to the book as well.
Have you read any China Mieville? If so, leave me a comment below, & tell me all about it.
Thanks for reading.