Wednesday, June 20, 2012

[review] China Miéville - Railsea

Title: Railsea
Author: China Miéville
Publisher: Del Rey
Source: Personal collection
Format read: Hardcover
Buy from: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Bookdepository

Summary (via Goodreads):
On board the moletrain Medes, Sham Yes ap Soorap watches in awe as he witnesses his first moldywarpe hunt: the giant mole bursting from the earth, the harpoonists targeting their prey, the battle resulting in one’s death and the other’s glory. But no matter how spectacular it is, Sham can't shake the sense that there is more to life than traveling the endless rails of the railsea–even if his captain can think only of the hunt for the ivory-coloured mole she’s been chasing since it took her arm all those years ago. When they come across a wrecked train, at first it's a welcome distraction. But what Sham finds in the derelict—a series of pictures hinting at something, somewhere, that should be impossible—leads to considerably more than he'd bargained for. Soon he's hunted on all sides, by pirates, trainsfolk, monsters and salvage-scrabblers. And it might not be just Sham's life that's about to change. It could be the whole of the railsea.

From China Miéville comes a novel for readers of all ages, a gripping and brilliantly imagined take on Herman Melville's Moby-Dick that confirms his status as "the most original and talented voice to appear in several years." (Science Fiction Chronicle)
Random paragraph: "Here a small train, three carriages only, manoeuvring the rails of the harbour at the end of great thrumming cables, tugged by two great birds. Well: a buzzard-train, emissary from the Teekhee archipelago. Wooden trains decorated with masks; trains coated in die-cast tin shapes; trains flanked with bone ornaments; double- & triple-decker trains; plastic-pelted trains stained in acrylic colours. The Medes passed the clatter & clank of diesel vehicles like their own. Past the shrill fussy shenanigans of steam trains that spat & whistled & burped dirty clouds, like irritating godly babies. & others." (pgs. 135-136, hardcover edition)

I'm not sure how I can possibly give this justice, but I suppose I'll try Haha, it's really hot. Let's see what happens.

China Miéville's a name I've been hearing, and I finally decided to try him out this year, with Embassytown and Perdido Street Station. What I learned: he has a fantastic writing style, and he's full of amazing ideas. Embassytown features a protagonist who becomes a living metaphor for a non-human race, and the descriptions of their "Language" are really something to behold; PSS is like corrupted, filthy steampunk, with terrifying giant insects, the concept of "crisis energy", and a bitter artist who happens to have a beetle for a head. His stuff has been coined "New Weird" and... yeah, the name fits.

When I heard that this was coming out, I looked forward to it eagerly and bought it shortly after its release. Apparently, this was written as a tribute to Moby-Dick, but instead of the sea there is the Railsea; instead of fish and whales, enlarged earthen creatures such as naked mole rats and earwigs roam. The world is covered  in a series of winding, interconnecting railroad tracks. Sham ap Soorap is an average teenager, working on the moletrain Medes, acting as a doctor-in-training to the crew. However, his real dream is to be a salvor, one who takes bits of salvage from wrecks. One day, they pass a deserted train, and they stop to check it out. In the wreckage, he finds a startling photo: a place where the rails end.

There's a few quirks in the novel that might scare off a few readers. For example, the word "and" isn't used; instead, ampersands are used liberally in their place. There is a reason for this. To tie in with that, the narrator oftentimes become separate from the book's events and will often break the fourth wall. There's a certain whimsy to it that almost reminds me of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. Sometimes it's maddening, but it's always amusing.

The characters are great. After a time, the book focuses on Caldera & Dero Shroake, salvor-adjacent siblings who are closely connected to the photo Sham found. Sham himself is endearing -- he's at that awkward stage where he's not quite sure what he wants to do with his life, but he knows that there must be more. And then there is Naphi, the captain of the Medes who has one goal in life: to hunt down Mocker-Jack, the most feared mole in the Railsea and her "philosophy."

This took me a good month to read, but it was well worth it. There were some fantastic twists at the end -- Miéville loves language and playing with tropes. Some of his work is quite heavy and serious, but there was a certain playfulness to this that I really enjoyed. The beginning of each section in the novel features an illustration of one of the railsea beasts, drawn by the author himself.

"This is the story of a bloodstained boy" is a brilliant opening. The one problem I had with Miéville's other works was the way they ended; I thought that they lost speed or fell apart by the end. But I was thoroughly satisfied with this one, all the way to the last page.

Overall: A fabulous, creative read. I've seen people doubting whether YA readers will latch onto this, but I think the more adventurous ones will.

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