by China Mieville
On the face of it, this is a maritime adventure novel - replete with evil pirates, treasure hunters and creatures of the deep. Except in Railsea, the 'deep' is actually underground, your 'boat' is a train, and instead of travelling on water, you are on rails.
In homage to Moby Dick, giant mole-like creatures are hunted instead of whales. While at first this seems a bit ridiculous, China Mieville draws readers in to a fantasy realm where even huge, carnivorous earwigs and burrowing owls seem quite normal. The substitution of water for land is a simple device, but it works.
Where Mieville takes us on an imaginative journey on the open train tracks, the protagonist, Sham ap Soorap, is on a journey of his own. On board The Medes as a doctor's apprentice, he doesn't fit in with the crew. Young, sensitive Sham is a pensive character who gets distracted easily and disapproves of the crew's rowdy behaviour and activities, including making animals fight each other for their own entertainment. He does not find life as a moler fulfilling, and is seeking something else - perhaps a life as a salvor (living off whatever can be salvaged and sold from Railsea wrecks), or perhaps something yet to be discovered.
Each moletrain's captain has his or her own 'philosophy' - a lifelong quest for some kind of resolution. For The Medes' captain, Naphi, this means trying to hunt down an 'old tooth-coloured moldywarpe' to seek vengeance for a wrong the giant mole did her in the past.
And Sham, our young hero, is not without his own philosophy. When he finds something unusual in a wreck, his itchy feet are fuelled, and he embarks on a voyage of discovery, searching for something beyond the immense, cold Railsea.
The novel's narrator is somewhat irritating and unnecessary - the book's use of the ampersand and explanation that 'and' used to be spelt out comes off a bit silly, for example. But Mieville's inventive dexterity with the English language and the book's fantastical illustrations are commendable, and as Sham's quest gathers momentum the book becomes hard to put down.
The dystopian world of the Railsea is treacherous and bleak, full of corrupted lands. Yet Sham, delicate and seemingly lacking in substance to begin with, surprises both the crew of The Medes and us, too, with his courage: he takes risks and becomes caught up in a world far outside of any reality he is used to or could imagine. And of course, so do we, slowly at first, but more intently as the plot progresses.
Hailed as a book for all ages, Railsea is not a difficult novel, but is clever and convincing in its ability to combine fantasy elements (including cute, intelligent animals such as Sham's sidekick, a 'daybat'), battles both physical and emotional and - framed by a fictional religion - more contemplative questions about divinity and creation, truth and choice.
Mieville creates in the world of the Railsea a vehicle by which to ask questions about the real world we live in. The themes of possibility and transformation seem somewhat superficially explored, but the characters' adventures are captivating nonetheless and we are left with the feeling that there will be another ride to take soon.