When my sister and I were much younger and shared a bedroom, we would often play a game of “Don’t Step in the Lava,” jumping from one piece of furniture to the next like little spider monkeys, careful to not touch the floor. We were very good at it until the day I wasn’t and I fell short of the bed. My bare feet landed on the carpet and almost instantly I began to scream. The imaginary lava shouldn’t have burned for real. When I lifted my right foot off the carpet, a crushed yellowjacket was lodged between my toes.
The stakes were definitely raised for the next time my sister and I played.
Now imagine this common childhood game writ large across an entire world where the oceans are instead poisonous soil, teeming with dangerous life, and a network of railroad tracks connect one land mass to the next. Observe this unusual world through a prism of Moby Dick, adventure fantasy, and metaphysical musings, and you have China Miéville’s new YA novel Railsea.
Sham Yes ap Soorap is at the center of Railsea, a young boy serving as a doctor’s assistant aboard the moletrain Medes. It is no regular moldywarpe Captain Naphi hunts. Her quarry is the giant ivory-furred beast Mockerjack, the creature that stole her arm and gave her life a philosophy, a purpose. Every captain has his or her counterpoint in a near-mythical creature of the rails. Sham is merely along for the ride, dreaming instead of a life unearthing lost treasures in the business of salvage. When the Medes happens across a wrecked train, the secret contained within provides Sham with something so impossible that even the knowledge of it could make him rich. And valuable to dangerous enemies.
Miéville is a master of disorientation. What world is the world of Railsea, where there are many countries, many people, but no water to be seen? Why is arche-salvage suspiciously similar to tech from modern times but the characters live much like those in a 19th century novel, give or take some dieselpunk bells and whistles? Where did the railsea come from?
That last question is at the heart of Sham’s quest, especially when the secret of the wrecked train leads him to a pair of enigmatic siblings.
Up until Sham meets the Shroakes, Railsea is a rollicking tour of the tracks, the passing islands, the dangerous animal encounters and the hierarchy aboard the Medes itself. But the wrecked train’s secret provides Sham with a burgeoning philosophy of his own and the plot gains even more momentum. No longer just an observer, Sham goes headlong into adventure, complete with pirates and boobytraps.
There are many wonders to be catalogued along the railsea. Sham, at the center of it all, is a likable character with real hopes and dreams, still discovering what he wants to do with his life. Moler? Salvor? Perhaps learning that getting what you want isn’t always the best thing for you is his most important lesson. That, and it pays to have friends in high places. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Sham’s first piece of found treasure: a plucky daybat named Daybe. (Yeah, Sham named it on the spot and even he admits that it shows.) Cutest fuzzy sidekick in ages.
Mention should also be made of Miéville’s use of ampersands instead of the word “and.” There’s a perfectly acceptable reason for this stylistic choice, one learns many, many pages in. Additionally, each section of the novel features an illustration of railsea wildlife penned by Miéville himself. It’s a cool little bonus that also adds to the overall feel of the book.
While the first two-thirds of Railsea are fantastic, the ending left me torn. While not disappointing, my expectations weren’t toyed with quite as much as the preceding dramatic twists would have led me to believe. Yet, it was a satisfying and natural conclusion to Sham’s story. There was just enough left open for this to be a series, if Miéville ever wanted to go that route. But, Miéville doesn’t really write that way. Which is why his writing can be somewhat divisive among genre fans. I certainly wouldn’t complain if there was another standalone novel set in the upsky, the poisonous clouds above the railsea teeming with unimaginable Lovecraftian horrors. (Things tend to teem with other things in Miéville novels.)
I confess: I didn’t care for Miéville’s first trip into YA, Un Lun Dun. His latest novel is more self-assured, more fun. Writing for a younger audience can be a challenge, which is why many authors never even attempt it. While Un Lun Dun was a more traditional kid-discovers-alternate-world story, Railsea, for all of its nods to Moby Dick, Robert Lewis Stevenson, and Joan Aiken, feels much more fresh. This is what I’d imagined Miéville’s first YA novel would feel like. An original world, seen through the eyes of a young boy and a clever narrator offering interesting asides with Miéville’s trademark panache.
Railsea is ultimately a fun and quick read, the kind of book that younger readers will love for its rollicking high-sea adventure while more mature fans of Miéville will appreciate the incisive observations on power, ambition, and philosophies of all kinds.
Railsea is available in hardcover from Tor U.K. and Del Rey. Read an excerpt here.
Theresa DeLucci is a regular contributor to Tor.com. She covers True Blood, Game of Thrones, and is also an avid gamer. She has also covered tech and TV for Geektress.com and Action Flick Chick. Follower her on Twitter @tdelucci