Monday, 20 May 2013

Railsea - M's review

Railsea by China Mieville
Reviewed by M

Railsea is a swashbuckling adventure about a boy who is an apprentice doctor on a moletrain pummelling across the railsea in search of monster-sized, human-eating moles. You’ll meet captains in search of philosophies, marauding pirates in search of treasures, orphans in search of answers, monstrous underground creatures, and a boy in search of something. Plus, the novel is a playful metafiction.  Railsea is a cavorting frolic and I enjoyed it immensely.

Railsea by China Mieville
Railsea by China Mieville
From page one (atually three), Mieville, or the narrator, or both, are playing with you, the reader. He makes it clear that this is metafiction: a story about a story. Throughout Railsea, the narrator pauses the story to talk to you. I love this but as the novel progresses, it becomes infuriating.

All along, I had the feeling that the narrator was smiling and chuckling – at me, at himself and at his characters. He likes his main character, Sham ap Saroop. He likes Captain Naphi with all her multiple flaws. Indeed, I think he likes many of his characters and there are some interesting relationships between Sham and a number of other characters: Daybe the daybat, Naphi and Caldera.

As with most fantasised fiction, Mieville’s world building is taxing on readers (especially those of us more accustomed to more realist fiction). Forget ships and water waves, here we have trains on tracks traversing a sea of rails. The names of the characters are a mouthful too. Sham ap Saroop is our lovely main character.

Of course, Mieville also plays with language and style. Mieville uses plenty of made-up words in a made-up world. He also throws in lots of not made-up words that were challenging enough for me to have a dictionary close at hand. He uses ampersands (&) in sentences instead of using ‘and’.  You might ask why the ampersands. I did. Of course, they’re not there just for fun. They signify a concept. I think there’s usually a reason behind everything in Railsea – even if it’s just to have a laugh  - or even just ‘why not’?

I loved the way Mieville personifies ideas. In Railsea, a major one for me was ‘chasing your philosophy’. Anyone who’s ever been searching for ‘the one’ or who devoutly follows a hobby, lifestyle or interest will recognise themselves in these pages.  Academics and fisherwo-men especially. And if you’re neither of these, you’re sure to recognise someone you know.

Thematically, the novel also carries many underlying thoughts about nation-states and governance in a time of capitalism, and possibly about the end of the world and the afterlife. In some ways, it is a bit of a steampunk dystopia. There is no gender stereotyping in Railsea (and I’ve marked it as one for the ‘feminist’ fiction list). Animal cruelty is a strong thread in the novel. Storywise, if you’ve read Moby Dick or Treasure Island (I haven’t read either), I've heard you may spot overlaps.

A few years ago I tried to read Kraken by China Mieville, one of his adult novels. I couldn’t get into it: it was a bit too horrific in its detail for me. Likewise, this YA cover for Railsea and its plot are everything that I avoid reading. Zero appeal. But, everything else about Mieville that appeals to me is in there and the story took me way beyond its cover and the surface of the plot.

Wonderful and highly recommended for fun-loving and curious readers of any age.
China Mieville author of Railsea
China Mieville

Publication details: April 2013, Pan Books, London, paperback (first published in hardback, May 2012)
This copy: YA paperback edition received for review from the publisher

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