Railsea by China Mieville


Many authors have turned their pen to young adult fiction in recent years as the genre has grown in popularity.  I’ve personally felt that a great deal of creativity has come out of the resurgence of teen fiction.  China Mieville has contributed to the genre before, and now he enters it again with Railsea, a retelling of the classic novel Moby-Dick.

(Description nicked from B&N.com.)

“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. But no matter how spectacular it is, Sham can’t shake the sense that there is more to life than traveling the endless rails of the railsea–even if his captain can think only of the hunt for the ivory-coloured mole she’s been chasing since it took her arm all those years ago. When they come across a wrecked train, at first it’s a welcome distraction. But what Sham finds in the derelict—a series of pictures hinting at something, somewhere, that should be impossible—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 finished this novel a couple of days ago, and I’ve been trying to categorize my feelings for it ever since then.  On the one hand, this book has all of the wild creativity that Mieville is known for.  His vision of a blasted and corrupted Earth, covered with rails to prevent contact with the poisoned ground that teems with monstrous creatures, is viscerally stunning.  The trains that ride the rails, hunting beasts such as moles or ferrets, or transporting goods, are as much a presence as the people they carry.  Much of the book follows the original Moby-Dick point for point, although the author infuses the tale with his own voice.  The plot, once it gets going, is one that held my attention and made me want to see where it was going to end up.

On the other hand, the author makes some stylistic choices that I found hard to like.  He replaces the word “and” with “&”, claiming that the ampersand represents the twisting of the rails that everyone depends upon.  Some of the sentence structure feels awkward—instead of saying “When he woke up”, the author writes “When woke he did”, for example.  These things are just enough to jolt me out of the story temporarily, and it wasn’t always easy to get back into it.

When I dug a little deeper into my thoughts about this book, I realized that my main feeling was that Mieville was trying a little too hard to not only retell Melville’s classic, but also to make this book fit the young adult genre.  Certain points were harped upon so often that I felt a bit beaten around the head with them: the fact that the animals were actually symbolic of something; the journey being just as important as the outcome; and the whole “ecosystem” of the rails as a whole.  While Melville’s original is a dense and wordy tome that presents its messages with a lot more subtlety, Railsea is a little too blatant in its presentation.

Even so, I have to give props to the author for the payoff of the plot.  Once I muscled past the first third of the book, my interest rose considerably.  Admittedly, I still had to get through some passages that I felt were too wordy, but as the book went on, the story seemed to get more direct and was presented much more tightly.  I may have simply gotten used to the writing style of this particular book by then, but either way, my enjoyment of the book increased the further I got into it.

I’m not sure how well this book will work for teens—while the plot certainly has enough action and adventure to satisfy readers, the writing style might put off more casual readers.  I don’t think this is the best that Mieville can offer, but it’s not a bad effort.  Railsea has a lot of good things to enjoy, but it also has some things that maybe were a bit too heavy-handed to mesh well with the rest.

Also by this author: Embassytown, Un Lun Dun

This review appeared on Owlcat Mountain on July 27, 2012.

Series: n/a
ISBN: 9780345524522
Publisher: Del Rey
Page Count: 424
Publication Date: May 15, 2012
Acquired: Provided by the publisher as an e-ARC through NetGalley
Author Website
Read an excerpt