China Miéville has won many adult fans for his intelligent & outrageously weird novels like Perdido Street Station, The City & the City, & Embassytown which is currently up for both the Hugo and Nebula Awards. He also wrote an urban fantasy for middle readers called Un Lun Dun. His new book, Railsea is not so much a retelling as an affectionate parody of that bane of many a high school student's existence, Moby Dick. It is quite literary but playful, with vast molehills of imaginative worldbuilding & lots & lots of ampersands.
Railsea takes place in a distant and unrecognizable future. Humanity clings to survival beneath a poisonous upper atmosphere on rocky outcrops separated by the railsea, an ocean without waves & whales. Endless railroad tracks of mysterious origin loop & crisscross over the soil constantly achurn with enormous burrowing predators. Mr. Miéville has helpfully included his own illustrations of some of these cthonian terrors. How do you feel about naked mole-rats? Now imagine a colony of them, each one the size of a German Shepard & with the table manners of pirhana.
All sorts of trains ply the railsea; driven by steam, diesel, sail, clockwork, or good old-fashioned galley slaves. Some of these salvage buried technology from civilizations long past or incomprehensible artefacts left by alien litterbugs. Other trains hunt the giant moles and other beasts for meat and hides. Captain Abacat Naphi is famous throughout the railsea for her pursuit of the ivory-furred Great Southern Moldywarpe that left her with a cyborg arm and furious purpose. She will sacrifice anything and anyone to find and destroy Mocker-Jack, the Mole of Many Meanings.
Aboard Captain Naphi's moler, the Medes, is Sham Yes ap Shroop, assistant to the wise & gruff train's doctor, Dr. Fremlo (my favorite character). Sham is not satisfied with the excitement and adventure of moling life & moons over how wonderful a career in salvaging must be. After experiencing his first moldywarpe hunt the crew comes upon a wrecked train. On it Sham finds a camera memory card that sets him on a quest as single-minded as his captain's. Sham is physically & socially awkward, simultaneously eager & terrified of the great wide world opening up before him. His new friends, the Shroake siblings bicker constantly in a manner reminiscent of any family roadtrip, yet this brother and sister salvor team are ferociously loyal to each other. The three of them and Captain Naphi are set off to the ends of the railsea seeking to make sense of their impossible world. Nope, nothing allegorical for teens there.
There are tons of brilliant ideas and deep thoughts to be mined here but I never felt beaten over the head and shoulders with A Message. It felt like spending the day with an utterly mad, brilliant, & dear friend playing with his train set. The language & structure are more challenging & weirder than most YA books. Perhaps teens who cut their teeth on Thomas the Tank Engine, then Lemony Snicket & Scott Westerfeld's <em>Leviathan<em> & are ready for something more bizarre & complex have been waiting for a wild ride just like this.
--Reviewed by Chris from our Airport Store (Compass) in Terminal 2 of SFO. You can find him across the hall from the Kiehls! An EVEN longer version of this review was posted on Chris's blog here.