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.
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
--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.