Railsea

China Miéville seems like exactly the kind of writer I would like. His strange and complex worlds, often just a little weirdly different from our own, are right up my alley. (Block that metaphor!) But my first try at his prose (The City & the City) failed. I assumed it was my fault, and have been looking forward to another go: Railsea, his most recent novel, seemed the perfect choice.

Railsea takes place in a far future world in which island communities live and trade and have their being above a twisted neverending tangle of railway lines laid all over a horrifyingly dangerous, toxic earth, filled with monstrous predators. Many different kinds of trains travel the railsea: the ferronavy, of course, sanctioned by the government; salvors, who are looking for bits of salvage from the old days; Bajjers, whose wooden trains run by sail.

But the hero of our story, the teenaged Sham ap Soorap, is aboard the most romantic of them all: a moler, a mole-train, which hunts the giant carnivorous moles for their fur and meat and fat. The captains of these trains are famous for having a “philosophy,” one animal they become obsessed with finding. And Sham’s captain, Abacat Naphi (now what’s that an anagram of?) is hunting a giant, ivory-colored mole named Mocker-Jack.

This isn’t just a gentle ripoff of Melville, though, or even of Kidnapped or Treasure Island, though these influences and far more are to be found in its pages. Sham finds a picture of something that absolutely cannot exist, and sets out to find it. He makes friends and loses them, and sometimes finds them again. There are chases and rescues and angels and pirates and giant carnivorous centipedes. And all of it is in clever, rapid-fire prose, at top speed, fastballing one cool part of this world after another, quickly enough so that we might not even have time to notice that Miéville is also tossing us a nasty little indictment of capitalism.

It took me quite some time to get into this book, though it’s not written with a high bar of entry (it’s been classified by some as a young adult novel) and again, it seems like just my sort of thing. Once I got going with it, I enjoyed it a lot. I don’t know quite why it took me so long to fall for it. I plan to read more Miéville, but does anyone have a specific recommendation?

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18 Responses to Railsea

  1. I felt the same way about Mieville’s books. They sound exactly like something I would like and I tried…I think also with The City & The City and couldn’t get into it. Guess I may give this one a whirl.

    • Jenny says:

      I couldn’t finish The City & the City… it was so grim that it actually seemed boring. But I know others who loved it, so of course mileage varies! I think I may try one of his New Crobuzon stories next.

  2. yolana says:

    You might enjoy ‘The Scar’ which is a seafaring venture, It’s a very loose sequel to ‘Perdido Street Station’, but so loose as to making reading them in sequence unnecessary. I find that the action being at sea (plus, you know, pirates) makes it a very compelling read.

  3. cbjames says:

    There are three authors I really wish I could enjoy: Neal Gaimon, Connie Willis and China Mieville. I’ve tried all three several times. It’s clear to me that they are all wonderful people and their fans love them and they love their fans back, but I’ve just never been able to get past chapter three with any of them.

    Except for The Graveyard Book. I did make it al the way through The Graveyard Book.

    • Jenny says:

      Oh, James, you’re just confirming that I really want to try to like Mieville! I adore both Neil Gaiman and Connie Willis. I kind of think it must be me, but maybe two out of three isn’t bad. :)

  4. Jenny says:

    It’s so heartening that you did not love The City and the City and yet still feel able to become fond of China MIeville. I want to love him too, and I only haven’t tried others of his books because I feared finding definitive evidence that he wasn’t going to be the author for me. If you do find other good Mieville books, I will be excited to hear about them.

    • Jenny says:

      I’m going to persist with at least one more, maybe Un Lun Dun or Scar, as yolana recommends above. If it doesn’t grab me, I may give up.

  5. shovonc says:

    Boot’s on the other foot. Thanks for putting me onto him. At the risk of sounding obvious — you could try Philip K. Dick.

    • Jenny says:

      That’s a good recommendation. He’s definitely on my list because Michael Dirda recommends him, and I have a lot of luck with the books Dirda recommends.

  6. Jeanne says:

    I love his young adult book UnLunDun. You might try that one.

  7. gaskella says:

    He’s another one of those writers I’ve been meaning to read for ages … I have The City & the City and Un-Lun-Dun on my shelves…

    • Jenny says:

      I didn’t have much luck with The City & the City, but lots of other readers I respect loved it. I’d like to see what you make of it.

  8. Melissa says:

    I’m so glad you posted this. I felt the same way about The City & the City. I really struggled with it and didn’t end up liking it, but I thought I would love this author, so I’m curious about trying something else of his.

  9. Amy says:

    I’ll second the recommendation for UnLunDun. It’s a fun read.

    The City & The City was my first Miéville and I struggled at first but loved it in the end. Kraken, UnLunDun, and Railsea followed. I still have several of his books to read so I can’t offer more suggestions.

  10. melaxinyi says:

    I’ve loved all the books of his that I’ve read.. which.. I guess haven’t been numerous, I”ve read Kraken, the city & the city and Railsea.. :P I liked all of them :D hehe :D

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