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?