The Short Version: Sham ap Sooyap is apprenticed to a doctor on a moletrain – one of the rail-going vessels that hunts the giant moldywarps that burrow beneath the surface of the railsea. But after Sham discovers a photo of a single track with nothing else around it, a race for something far larger than a single giant beast begins: a race to the end of the world.
The Review: As this one started, I wondered if I was going to read a Miéville book that I truly didn’t like. It didn’t make sense to me, honestly: I love adventure novels, I love trains, and I love Miéville – but the early going of this novel just felt downright deadly to me. (If I’d ever read Moby-Dick, this might be the moment to make a joke, but seeing as I haven’t, I feel as though I can’t really pull it off.) Perhaps it’s something to do with him and trains, seeing as I didn’t enjoy Iron Council that much either.
Don’t get me wrong, the things that I love about Miéville’s work are all on display from the first page: dazzling linguistics, fantastical concepts, as many intellectual layers as you care to explore, and so on. But there was… I guess the best way to describe it is a sense of less rigor. Many of Miéville’s other novels have a sense of rigorous knowledge layered into them; your brain is activated because he’s giving you so much stimuli that you are essentially creating the world in your head, not just picturing it. But the railsea always felt like a good idea that never quite landed in terms of execution. It doesn’t stand up to the intellectual prodding that I’ve come to anticipate doing with a Miéville novel.
And the plot seems to want to do several things without committing entirely to any of them. At the outset, we’re reading a direct riff on Moby-Dick, down to the whiteness of the moldywarpe they’re hunting. But the closest thing we might be able to analogize this novel to is not any particular book but a genre instead (after all, the author has said he wants to write something in every genre): Adventure. Penguin UK, several years ago, released a series designed by Coralie Bickford-Smith called “Boys’ Adventure” (see them here, two-thirds of the way down the page) and aside from the horrible gender-normative name, they were a series of classic Adventure tales, meaning they were rip-roaring yarns full of high-stakes and derring-do and fantastical turns of events. And that’s absolutely what this novel is… except that it seems to shift focus about halfway through.
It doesn’t stop being an adventure – but rather, the adventure’s point pivots and changes. Even the writing style evinces this mercurialness, with a wry and sometimes teasing omniscient narrator. We’ll be following one story and then we’ll jump to another or another… and we’ll occasionally (or, at times, quite a bit more frequently) be teased with “oh, it’s not time to go back to that story yet” hints that feel as much like an author not knowing what he wants to do as they do a playful introduction to tricksy narrators for readers of this ostensibly YA-directed novel. And I’ll admit, I was far more interested in the second plot that arises (after the hunt for Mocker-Jack, the white moldywarpe): a hunt to find the end of the world and what lies beyond. And once the gears of machination turn towards that plot almost exclusively, the book begins to sing down the rails like a well-oiled locomotive. It’s just that getting there requires a solid hundred pages of indecision and not-quite-world-building.
But what a world it is. Despite the many, many quibbles I have with this book, I can’t deny that Miéville has crafted something truly extraordinary – as he always does. A point late in the novel, when the narrator mentions all the other stories that he could’ve told… you get the sense that these stories probably exist somewhere. The explanation for why all “and” appearances are instead “&” is strange, delightful, and a moment of form helping tell the story on a subconscious and constant level as opposed to just being a vessel for it. There are lovely sketches of some of the various creatures they encounter out in the railsea. And the last 50 pages are downright excellent even as they make you go “wait, for real?!” Because it’s one thing to journey to the edge of the world and quite another to go over it.
As I think about this book, I realize that perhaps the best analogy – or the closest sibling book(s) would be the later Unfortunate Events novels by Lemony Snicket. In that way that these books aren’t so much meant for children as they are accessible to all in an inviting way, coupled with a macabre-picaresque-surreal twist on traditional storytelling, they all achieve the same thing: a vivid and totally unique voice. In that, Miéville continues to excel and excite as a writer… but I just found myself wanting more out of this one. More focus, more detail… just more. Perhaps a 600-page Railsea would be just as difficult as this one was, but perhaps it would be a richer story mirroring Perdido Street Station. Who knows?
Oh and one final thing: the concluding ‘twist’ (if you will) of the novel made me laugh out loud, not because it was funny but because if you know Miéville’s politics, you realize that he gets in a terrific subtle subversion of capitalism that the supposed YA audience might not “get” but will potentially grow up with. It’s utterly ridiculous from a storytelling point of view – in fact, it’s downright shaggy dog – but I didn’t care because it was so ridiculous and so spot-on that I just loved it. You’ll see what I mean, if and when you try this one.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5. Definitely a lesser Miéville, for me. While the inventiveness is there, the execution just lacks. I missed the intensity I’ve come to expect from his work, even in his other YA attempt. This is not to say that images from this book won’t linger and there are stylistic choices that rank among the author’s very best – but I went into this book seeking something like that one great Chris Van Allsburg illustration provokes in my imagination, which is to say a sense of what’s to come down the railroad tracks. And while I was shown plenty of wonders, I don’t think they really came together as something wondrous.