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 don’t know if I’ve ever said this, but China Mieville is one of my favorite sci-fi authors, so when this one popped up on NetGalley, I had to take a chance. Mieville and YA? I’m so there! The beginning of this book moves slowly, in a way I think all Mieville novels do, but the ponderousness of it makes even more sense when you realize Railsea is an homage to Moby Dick(a book I loathed in high school). Sham is a boy who doesn’t know quite what he wants, doesn’t even know his own feelings on most subjects, except for salvage. He’s fascinated by ancient relics of times gone by, times when gigantic, whale-sized moles weren’t out there trying to kill everyone and everything. As someone who worshiped the BBC’s Walking with Dinosaurs, this new world of huge mammalian predators fascinated me. I got the feeling early on that this was going to be Sham’s coming of age tale, and y’all know how much I like coming of age tales. When Sham and the other crew find a dead train fallen off the rails, he finds a memory disk full of incomprehensible pictures–including one of a lone rail, unheard of in the tangle of the railsea. Soon, Sham and his captain, Naphi, along with the crew of the Medes, are off to Manihiki City in search of a special kind of salvage: alt-salvage.
When we reach Manihiki City, Sham immediately goes off to find the children pictured on his found disk. The results of this search are Caldera and Dero Shroake, and that picture disk belonged to their now-deceased father. Actually, Caldera and Dero lived with two fathers and one mother, a kind of polyamorous triad, and this information is presented in the most blase way. I like that Mieville felt the need to make gay/alternative relationships and parenting something so normal so far in the future. I like inclusion, and I like the Shroake siblings, too. Sham is, however, nothing if not indecisive, and misses his chance to adventure with them. He also meets a boy called Robalson, who claims to be a pirate and turns out to not be a liar. Whether he wanted to or not, Sham and his rescued bat, Daybe, go on a pirate adventure. This is also the part where the POV shifts from Sham to everyone else. I think this, the second quarter of the novel, is much more interesting than the first. The story starts to pick up, you start to learn more about Sham, Captain Naphi, the Shoakes, the railsea in general. The language remains as it has been, which can sometimes be hard to understand, but it had a nice literary feel to it.
The story eventually splits into three, following the Shroake siblings, Sham and his pirates, and Captain Naphi on the Medes. It’s also here that the narrator becomes almost its own entity, with Mieville giving the narrator its own chapters and making the narrator seem omniscient. It’s a trend of older novels to address the reader directly, something I saw a lot in my high school’s American Literature class, and it usually bugs me. Not here though, maybe because we’re following three stories now, and the separate narrator chapters helped me keep them straight. Things are moving quickly now, and we’re learning more and more of the stories, more about the pasts of the characters. The thing about this novel is that it moved so slowly sometimes that I got frustrated, but I never stopped reading or was even tempted to stop reading. I wanted to know how Sham’s, and the Shroakes’, stories ended, and they do end. Magnificently.
So, in short, this one is a little slow, a little weird with the dialect and style of writing, but it’s very Mieville to me. The story is twisty and intriguing and different, despite being an homage. Come for the futuristic, dystopian train society, stay for the giant, man-eating moles!