the Little Red Reviewer

Railsea by China Mieville

Posted on: June 3, 2012

Railsea, by China Mieville

published May 2012

where I got it: purchased new

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this is the story of a bloodstained boy.

A delightfully strange retelling of Moby Dick, Railsea has a number of literary nods on order – the asides that don’t have anything to do with our main characters but instead speak of the moler industry at large, the narrator breaking the fourth wall and teasing the reader, even a nice reference to Scylla and Carybdis.

Although Railsea is technically YA (no swearing, no sex, and no overt violence), Mieville never talks down to the reader. I suspect some fourteen year olds will put this book down after 50 pages, frustrated with coming across words they don’t know, whilst other fourteen year olds will simply find a dictionary or ask their parents what a certain word means. Sometimes the joy of reading is about the journey of the words, not the book you are reading.

We first meet our main character Sham ap Soorap when his moler train captures a giant moldywarpe and is chopping it up. The worst medical student ever, Sham is more generic helper on the train that useful physician’s assistant.  Young and unsure of where his life will take him, Sham seems to be going through the motions, hoping something will stand out as a sign of where his destiny lies.  The train travels its usual haunts, the captain constantly seeking information on the giant bone colored moldywarpe that took her arm.

It’s through the travels of the train early on that we get most of our worldbuilding, of this post apocalyptic world covered in desert instead of water, where hundreds of thousands of traintracks cover the desert, criss crossing over dangerous areas filled with carnivous worms and rants and other eyeless creatures. Life gets no easier on “land”, where if you travel too far up the mountains the polluted air will kill you if the hungry flying monsters don’t get you first. This isn’t a fun place to live – it’s full of danger, monsters, scary pirates, orphans, and alien technology – a.k.a. heaven for any reader of any age who craves adventure.

When the train comes across a wrecked engine, Sham finds a set of family photos in the ruins. Mom, Dad, a boy and a girl, and then, something impossible. Something that can’t possibly exist. Once the train makes landfall, Sham seeks out these two strange siblings. But he’s not the only one looking for them. The Shroake siblings, Caldera and Dero, are simply and perfectly adorable. they banter and fight with each other exactly like kids would. It was those scenes between the Shroake children that were some of my favorites in the story.

Because this is a Mieville, the actual plot is just the tip of the iceberg. Under the waterline is the pandora’s box of the language itself: a quick view into the clockwerk mechanism of how language and prose and communication and wordplay and subtlety actually work. I love Mieville’s prose for what he gives me, and what he doesn’t give me. Example – we’re never given speeds of the train. It would be simple for Sham to ask how fast they are going, and even better, knowing the speeds and time between places would give us an idea of the true distances between places. But we’re not given the speeds, we’re given the sounds, the clatternames, that the train makes at different speeds. Mostly onomatopoeias, this is just one more way in which Mieville surrounds us with his environments instead of just describing them.

And then there is the “&”.  You’ll never see the word “and” in this book. Mieville uses an ampersand, a symbol I’m used to only seeing on wedding invitations. At first, the “&” was quite the distraction for me, my eyes quite literally doing an upswing  every time I came across one. There is a philosophically and narratively plausible reason for the ampersand, and I wonder how that will work,  contextually, in the audio version?  A very risky move, and once I got used to it, I thought it was a brilliant pun, but I expect some readers will see it as a cheap trick.

Mieville spoiled me so thoroughly on The Scar and Embassytown, that when I say Railsea isn’t my favorite Mieville what I’m really saying is that it’s still better than 98% of every speculative fiction book out there. I’d have like more suspense a little earlier in the book, and more exposition at the end. I can only hope Mieville chooses to return to this world in a future endeavor.  He’s given me just a taste, and now I crave more.

Part adventure, part literary and thought experiment, Railsea can be enjoyed on so many different levels.  I see this novel as something that changes for the reader over time. Read it at fifteen years of age and get a fun and sometimes scary adventure. Read it at twenty five and it’s a fascinating literary experiment. Read it at  thirty five and get a dichotomy of freedom versus deep-seated habit, monsters of the world vs monsters of the mind, and the imagination and sense of wonder we didn’t realize we’d been pressured to leave behind.

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9 Responses to "Railsea by China Mieville"

I was one of the fourteen-year-olds who got disappointed if there *weren’t* words I didn’t know in a book. Haha. Have you read UN LUN DUN? Oddly, that was my first Mieville–hooked me, but very different from the rest of his work. I used to say that Mieville writing YA and writing adult were two entirely different people, but it sounds as though RAILSEA might disprove me.

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Un Lun Dun was adorably whimsical, and I loved it! and yes, very different from everything else he’s written, which usually isn’t very whimsical. Until Railsea came along, I would have agreed with you 100% that his adult writing and his YA were completely different.

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I just finished Mieville’s “Kraken” this past week and I cannot wait to dive into some of his other work. “Railsea” is first on my list to try next.

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Thank you for this review! I am contemplating moving ahead of my reading-queue just to get to this one sooner (this is a great indicator of my expectations of this book!). If you’d be interested (as a fellow Mieville-fan), I lately drew the New Crobuzon nightmare image as I imagined it, from Perdido Street Station.

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Sounds interesting, Must add that to my Amazon wishlist

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I got my copy few days ago, I’d love to read it but I started Kraken some weeks before and it takes me so loooong to finish it! I hope Railsea will be a bit easier on my poor brain, let’s see.

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I’ve read everything he’s written so far. Well, not his dissertation on international law and Marxism, but everything fiction. I’ll definitely give this a look. (BTW, I am of the opinion that he is one of the great masters of the reveal)

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“…what I’m really saying is that it’s still better than 98% of every speculative fiction book out there”

Yes, I agree, but not that I’m expert but I did find it so much better than other dystopian novels that I read last year.

Loved the Shroakes too and I also loved that Mieville didn’t talk down to the read as well. It helped to read the ebook version so I could easily look up certain words I didn’t know, many were made up because they were not found in my reader dictionary and I just loved that I couldn’t tell which ones were real and which were not.

Great review, you expressed a lot of what I felt about this book.

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Maybe that’s what irks me about a lot of YA? that I feel the author is talking down to the reader? I do love that Mieville treats readers of all ages like they are capable people. Nothing wrong with a teen coming across a word they don’t know, just like there’s nothing wrong with a grown up who is reading this coming across a word they don’t know.

This one had a lot of made up words, or at least a lot of mash-up words, word plays with ferro and train puns. Weird words are great, just like Dero Shroake likes weird stuff!

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