Sunday, May 27, 2012

Book Review: Railsea by China Mieville

I've been a fan of China Mieville's work ever since I read The City & The City so I was eager to read his latest work: Railsea, a young adult novel inspired by Herman Melville's Moby Dick.

Overall Impression
The first thing that comes to mind is the fact that this is claimed to be a young adult (YA) novel. There are several reasons for this claim: the character is young, some of the chapters are short, & most importantly, the publisher said so. However, while reading it, I wasn't too sure of this classification. Yes, it has some elements of YA novels, such as Ship Breaker or The Hunger Games, but it's language is a bit too intricate & the pacing too erratic. It's still not as complex as his other novels, like Embassytown & Perdido Street Station, but it isn't as straightforward as his prior YA book, Un Lun Dun.

One of the first & most obvious things one notices is the ubiquitous use of '&'. It at first threw me off & I almost dropped the book since it felt so crude, but after a while it blends into the background & eventually you reach a chapter that explains why '&' is the preferred conjunction in this universe. I adopt this style throughout the review.

During the start of the book, & at times near the middle, I felt the story slipping off its tracks & wondered at Mieville's choices. However, I persevered & was rewarded. The ending has so many revelations about the nature of the world & the railsea, angels & heaven. Everything fits together & is extremely satisfying. Mieville has created a fascinating world & tells an engaging story fit for all ages.

The plot, like all Mieville's works, takes a while to develop. Only after about ~100 pages do you see the shape of the novel. That's not to say that events prior to that are meaningless, they certainly have a place, but we just can't connect all the dots or even see where the dots are until a quarter of the way into the book. Once we do, though, things really get interesting.

There are some similarities between Railsea & Herman Melville's Moby Dick, which the author acknowledges inspired this work. The captain of both has had injuries from a white great animal (in this case Mocker-Jack) & chases it across the sea/railsea. The crew, particularly Ishamael/Sham, is key to revealing the world around them. However there's a lot more action in this book & the story takes some very unexpected twists. Despite the initial similarities, these two books couldn't be more different.

The only mildly irritating (yet interesting as well) aspect of the plot is the narrator's penchant for breaking the story & talking about something else. The first few times it can be annoying, but you get used to the unique style. It feels like someone else is telling the story & in their excitement they keep jumping ahead before reining themselves in.

The story revolves & centers around a young boy growing up in the world of the railsea. His name is a mouthful: Shamus Yes ap Soorap, or as most people call him: Sham. He's a young teenager suffering from one of the most common ailments most people do at that age: he has little idea of what he wants to do for a living. This is one of the reasons to highlight the YA status of this novel, as indeed all of us have passed/are passing/will pass through such a stage early in our lives & careers. At the start, he is a doctor's apprentice aboard a moletrain, but has aspirations to search for rare salvage instead. The story places him alongside other characters including molers, salvors, pirates, explorers, & ferronaval militia.

The list of characters isn't particularly long, but among them stand out Captain Naphi & Mocker-Jack with their parallels to Captain Ahab & Moby Dick. Naphi leads her crew on the moletrain Medes which hunts, as you can imagine, moles (also known as moldywarpe, underminer, talpa, & muldvarp). Her 'philosophy' is the hunt for the legendary white moldywarpe, Mocker-Jack, which took her arm on a prior encounter. She is driven to finish her task & drags the crew along; tensions mount as the story progresses.

A great southern moldywarpe (Talpa ferox rex).
One of the several illustrations (by China Mieville himself) within the book.
Yes, those are trees beside that mole...

The narrator is actually quite invested in the story & governs its telling, as I mentioned previously. He/she (let's assume 'he') is practically a character in the story & will, at times, distract you from it. For example, he may start describing something, then stop, say it's too early for that, & then veer off into a philosophical issue. This is quite interesting, & I quote one such instance below, but it jars with what I expected. I thought I would get a light, action-packed book for a young adult, instead I got a book that occasionally dips into interesting discourses.
Technically, our name, to those who speak science, is Homo sapiens— wise person. But we have been described in many other ways. Homo narrans, juridicus, ludens, diaspora: we are storytelling, legal, game-playing, scattered people, too. True but incomplete. That old phrase has the secret. We are all, have always been, will always be, Homo vorago aperientis: person before whom opens a vast & awesome hole.

Setting / World Building
If you've read my other reviews you'll realize that having a fascinating world or universe to place the characters & story in is one of the first things I look for in a book. Railsea does not let you down in this respect:
There are two layers to the sky, & four layers to the world. No secrets there. Sham knew that, this book knows that, & you know that, too. 

One of the first things you notice when you compare books Mieville has written is that 'the city' always has a key role in the story, whether it be London, UnLundun, New Crobuzon, Armada, Beszel/Ul Qoma, or Embassytown. This book appears to be the exception until you realize the railsea itself is what holds the place of the city.

So what exactly IS the railsea?
The railsea, sitting on the flatearth; that is the second level. Tracks & ties, in the random meanders of geography & ages, in all directions. Extending forever.
That quote describes it best, though to really understand it you have to read the book & explore it in all its facets. The railsea connects all the world together in an endless maze of tracks. "What of the ocean?", you ask. "What ocean?", I reply.

There's a wide variety of tains that ride the railsea:
[...] solar trains from Gul Fofkal; lunar ones from who-knew-where?; pedal trains from Mendana; a rococo clockwork train that made Zhed smile & salute as its crews sang the songs of winding & twisted their great key; treadmill trains from Clarion, their crews jogging to keep them moving; little trains tugged by trackside ungulate herds able to fight off the burrowing predators of shallow railsea; one-person traincycles; hulking invisibly powered wartrains; electric trains with the snaps & sparks of their passing.

There's also interesting creatures from underground, like the giant moles (see the moldywarpe image above), & alien lifeforms from the upsky as well (those of the downsky, like birds & bats, are somewhat more familiar to us). I'd like to describe the world further, but that's one of the great mysteries to the book that one of the characters (& the reader) seeks to answer. Just know that this is quite a unique take on a science fiction universe.

Final Thoughts
My initial impression was a bit negative, with the continued use of '&' along with the more elaborate language than I expected in a YA novel. However, the story was interesting & the world is engaging & mysterious. After a while, I was digging through it trying to understand the nature of the world & how it came to be. I have to say that the ending made me very happy. It's one of the clearest & most uplifting endings I've seen in a Mieville book. Is it my favorite Mieville book? No, but I can say that I enjoyed it.

If you want to preview the book, an excerpt is available here.

UPDATE: September 2, 2012
I've created a short, 1-minute video where I introduce the book and it's main concept (the railsea). You can watch it here:

1 comment:

  1. A dystopian homage to Moby Dock and human adaptability and myth making. Highly recommended, and I will eagerly search out her other no led.