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Railsea by China Mieville

June 9, 2012

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 are extraordinary. But no matter how spectacular it is, travelling the endless rails of the railsea, Sham can’t shake the sense that there is more to life. Even if his philosophy-seeking captain can think only of the hunt for the ivory-coloured mole she’s been chasing – ever since it took her arm all those years ago. When they come across a wrecked train, at first it’s a welcome distraction. But the impossible salvage Sham finds in the derelict 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. 

I can’t even begin to tell you how long I have been waiting to read this book! I never know quite what to expect from Mieville’s books when I start reading them, but when you are in the hands of such a terrific and talented writer, I know never to worry. Railsea was certainly no exception.

Mieville has taken another swing at the young adult market in Railsea, following Un Lun Dun back in 2007, and has also taken inspiration from Herman Melville’s classic novel Moby Dick.  However, in this world, half-covered in treacherous criss-crossing rail-tracks, it’s not whales that are hunted but giant moles. Aboard the Medes moletrain is young Sham Yes ap Soorap, who is in training to be a doctor of sorts. However, Sham soon gets caught up in the hunt for Captain Naphi’s philosophy – the ivory coloured mole known as Mocker Jack. But this hunt leads far beyond anything he could ever have dreamed of. Far beyond the depths of the railsea.

Railsea is everything an adventure story should be, and more. With enough twists and turns, and danger lurking at every corner, you really will be kept on the edge of your seat waiting to see where the tracks of the railsea will take you. Each character seeks something seemingly unattainable; whether it be Sham trying to find his place in the world, or Captain Naphi seeking the ivory-coloured mole who took her own arm in battle, or the two precious twins Caldera and Dero who live on a salvage heap, virtually orphans after their parents failed to return to them.  Each character is so wonderfully written and so vividly brought to life, that I felt every possibly ounce of emotion for these people who felt nothing shy of friends to me. 

Having said that, Railsea is definitely not your average young adult novel. I think I’d be quite hesitant to recommend it to someone without a real passion for reading, and who isn’t up for a challenge, because for the younger readers this will certainly be a challenge. The story itself is undoubtedly young adult, and suitable for all ages, but the language may take some getting used to, in true Mieville style. His clever use of the ampersand symbol ‘&’ instead of the word ‘and’ throughout the entire novel may take some getting used to for some, but for me I found it incredibly easy and did not deter from my enjoyment of the novel in any way. In fact, I look back with shame that I didn’t even figure out his reasons for using it until he explains it himself over half-way through the book!

I could go on forever about the little intricacies of this novel; from the humungous bunny rabbits to giant slithering earth worms, from pirates to salvage hunters. But you will have to trust me when I say there really is something for everyone within Railsea. I can’t remember the last time I had this much fun reading a book and it will definitely make my top ten favourite novels of the year. I don’t know if I can quite bear the thought of having to wait yet another year to see what craziness China Mieville will come up with next! But what I will be wishing for is that the world of the railsea won’t get left behind, and that maybe one day, we can all return to it for another unforgettable adventure.

Railsea is out now, published by Pan Macmillan.


4 Comments leave one →
  1. June 9, 2012 23:32

    excellent review! I adored Railsea. Among the million other things that I appreciated was Mieville saying he was going to do a YA novel – and then doing it. There are no swear words, there is no sex, the small amount of violence there is is all off camera. BUT – this is still a very challenging story, one I think that is it’s own reward. When I was a teenager I would have given anything to be able to read something like this – something age appropriate, but still full of hard to pronounce words, and sticky philosophies, and danger and orphans, and strange machines and all those wonderful things that never seem to make it into kid stuff.

    • June 10, 2012 08:54

      So very true! I think it puts a lot of YA to shame actually! This is definitely something teens should be reading as like you said, despite the challenge, it’s ultimately extremely rewarding! I don’t know about the US, but over here they’ve just released an adult version…I hope when the PB comes out it will be released in a teen version too, otherwise I don’t know how it will ever reach that audience 😦


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