May 15, 2012

Review: Railsea by China Miéville

book cover of Railsea by China MiévilleTitle: Railsea [Amazon|GoodReads]
Author: China Miéville [Website]
Standing: Stand alone novel.
Genre: Young Adult, SciFi, Retelling (ish)
Published: May 15th, 2012 by Random House Publishing Group
Format: Kindle edition; 448 pages
Source: ARC from publisher via NetGalley

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-colored 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 kind of treasure map indicating a mythical place untouched by iron rails—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.

Here is a novel for readers of all ages, a gripping and brilliantly imagined take on Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick that confirms China Miéville’s status as “the most original and talented voice to appear in several years” (Science Fiction Chronicle).

I’m not going to lie and say that Railsea is a book I will be recommending to all readers, but I will, with certainty, be recommending it to anyone and everyone I think would enjoy it.  Railsea isn’t what anyone expects to see under the ‘YA’ label.  Many have argued that it isn’t really YA at all, but when a book is pitched as ‘a novel for readers of all ages’, I don’t think it’s really trying to be.  Given its content, I think that ‘a novel for readers of all ages’ is the perfect description for Railsea.  It will appeal to Miéville’s adult fanbase, as well as make him more accessible to younger readers.  The teens who will fall in love with Railsea will be those who probably read a lot of adult sci-fi or fantasy already; they will be smart, appreciate a wry sense of humor, and have a wonderful sense of adventure.  Readers must be patient getting into this one, as it will take you a while to feel entirely at ease with the language and story, and to understand the world that Miéville has built, but I assure you that it will be worth the effort.

As China Miéville  has said himself: “Part of the appeal of the fantastic is taking ridiculous ideas very seriously and pretending they're not absurd.”  I couldn’t possibly describe Railsea in a more accurate sentence.  Railsea is ridiculous, but the respect and authority that Miéville gives to his characters in the story therein left me completely enraptured, enamored, and on the edge of my seat wanting more.  To me, Railsea was hilarious.  I was constantly laughing out loud in the way that you laugh at someone who you are never quite sure recognizes how truly clever they are.  I was initially worried that I would be bogged down in the language, but instead I found myself languishing in it, making Railsea one of the more literary works I have read for some time.

However, the best part of Railsea is the story that is found within all of this.  Railsea is a sort of Moby Dick retelling, but readers shouldn’t go in thinking this will be all about a captain balancing on the edge of sanity pulling all the stops to bring down the big one.  That’s only part of the tale.  In fact, our focus isn’t the captain at all, it is Sham ap Soorap, who dreams of a life more exciting than that of a doctor’s assistant aboard a moler, and gets it.  It’s the story of a sort of treasure map, a high seas adventure, and an escapade to the very ends of the earth. 

Now, those readers who love a focus on excellent world building and plot—Railsea is for you, but for those of you who are all about character development, you may not approve.  It’s not that the characters are shallow, but Railsea is not a book where we get strong images of the characters’ emotions.  And personally, I didn’t feel like anything was missing despite this.  The world of Railsea, with scavengers, pirates, and hunters riding the railsea on trains rather than ships made me think of a futuristic old west, kind of like a more localized take on Joss Whedon’s Firefly.  Add to that giant vermin such as fanged meerkats or predatory chipmunk packs living under the land of the rails, and you have some pretty terrifying imagery going for you.  In addition, Railsea contains a number of illustrations of the creatures described, drawn by the author himself.  I loved seeing them in detail, though I’ll admit I craved to see some of the drawings that Sham himself had done, or others depicting the railsea.

Great Southern Moldywarpe Talpa ferox rex from Railsea by China Mieville

I’m always impressed when an author writes a book so utterly un-sexist, that traditional gender divisions aren’t even a thought.  As was the case with Railsea.  Gender roles are never even alluded to, it is just a part of the world that women do the exact same jobs as men, and nothing whatsoever is thought about this.  Our captain, Naphi, is a woman whose life philosophy has become killing Mocker-Jack, the Mole of Many Meanings.  And she’s not the only strong woman about, there’s scrappers, molers, and Caldera Shroake making Railsea a book that spreads the crazy, savvy, and skill all over. 

I realize I haven’t talked overly much about the plot, but the reality is, you don’t want me to.  You want to dive into the unknown of the Railsea with as few preconceived notions of the plot as possible.  This is one of those books I loved, but about which I still have a hard time adequately formulating my thoughts into words. While I have tried to express that this is not for everyone, I have to stress that those that click with Railsea will really click.  This will certainly be one of my top reads of 2012.

Likelihood that I'll be back for more: Oh goodness yes!  I’ve been wanting to read some China Miéville for some time, and since I particularly enjoyed the zany wit of Railsea, I think my next read will be his other book for younger readers, Un Lun Dun.

Recommended for: Fans of Firefly, Neal Stephenson, Tremors, Treasure Island and Moby Dick.

Real life repercussions of reading this book: Okay, I loved bats before, but now I want a pet day bat so badly it’s ridiculous.  Daybe for best animal companion of the year?


This one’s for Naphi.

Get a second opinion:
The Readventurer
The Book Smugglers (in Kirkus)
io9 YA Novels


  1. Wow, such a great review Heidi. I think this is the beginning of a beautiful readership for you with Mr. Mieville. Not everyone's a fan, but his fans tend to be very dedicated. There's just something about his writing that sucks me in every time. You're right - I don't think that characterization is really his strong point (although I thought the characters in The Scar were amazing a three dimensional). His world-building and beautiful, almost poetic prose are worth coming back for! I think that you'll like Un Lun Dun. It's his take on the "alternate world" adventure story a la Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere. Oh man, and if you loved Daybe then you are going to LOVE Curdle. Can't wait to see your review!

    1. Thanks, Catie! I kind of had a hard time with this one, I felt like I was so excited, but didn't really know what to say regardless. I'm very glad that this was my first Mieville. I think that one of his more epic adult novels may have intimidated me, but this was a breeze and I enjoyed it so much I'm willing to go for something bigger! And YES, all's you have to do is mention Neil Gaiman in relation to any book and I'll at least try it. So excited to read Un Lun Dun!

  2. I am very very intrigued by this one despite the fact I'm new to reading sci-fi/fantasy stuff! I've never heard of this one until now. I'm familiar with his adult fiction works but I'm assuming this is his first YA? I'm definitely adding this to my TBR after this review. I'm really excited! I love great world building where I can easily get lost!!

    1. Yay, I'm happy to hear it Jamie! I hope that you enjoy it. I feel like it's going to be a polarizing book, but it has such fantastic world building and an exciting story.

      He has written one other book that's considered more middle grade, Un Lun Dun, but yes, everything else has been adult work. This was a less intimidating place to start with his work!


    I think you're talking about me!!!!!!!

    I've been wanting to read your thoughts on this one since I knew you read it and, seriously, I was loving them, but when you likened it to Firefly? SOLD.


    Also, I'm one for world-building. I freaking love it. And I love character development. BUT...I've said before that I'm willing to give up some development of the characters for an excellent world. (I think I said that in my Masque of the Red Death blog post...I think.) My heartbeat has sped up reading about this.

    1. Yay! I know I kind of killed you this week, but I really hope this one's right for you. I loved it. I always have a hard time with books that I know will be polarizing, because even though I really want to see more people reading this one, I'm hesitant to recommend it widely knowing so many haven't meshed well. If you give it a try, I can't wait to hear what you think! I sure hope I was talking about you!!

  4. I've been kind of curious about this one, so I'm glad to see your review. Honestly, this book probably isn't for me, but not everything can be. I'm really glad you enjoyed it, though :D

    1. Thanks, Jasmine! And yes, exactly, not every book is right for every reader. This is one that isn't right for a lot of people, but that's okay! :P


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