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Life on the open rails...,
This review is from: Railsea (Hardcover)I'm grateful to the publisher for sending me an advance copy of this book.
Most of Miéville's recent books seem to me to have worked out the consequences of an audacious central idea - two cities in one place in The City & The City an alien race learning to lie in Embassytown, the city of what London rejects in Un Lun Dun. Railsea follows that with... well, a rail sea.
You might think that the point of a railway is that the trains go, more or less, along a given route. But imagine the surface of the Earth, in the (far?) future, being covered in a dense mesh of intersecting lines, looping back on themselves, switching and splitting and splitting again. A railsea, on which, (with good maps and enough skill at working the points) you can travel more or less anywhere.
Upon a sea like that, what might you find? Island nations, with teeming ports? Ruthless pirates, as merciless as any in Treasure Island? A captain, consumed by the hunt for a great beast, like Ahab in Moby-Dick? Desert islands? Explorers? Treasure hunters? The proud navies of rival nations? Hunters of salvage (whether arche-salvage, nu-savage or alt-salvage)? Wreckers? Really, a boy like Sham, setting out on his first voyage as assistant doctor aboard the moletrain "Medes", might encounter anything.
Miéville portrays this railsea so well, using such twisted, yet concrete language, bristling with his own invented rail jargon, that as you read you can feel the beat of wheels on the rails and see the distant horizons, the dangerous knots of lines and treacherous shoals, the unmarked gauge changes that his characters negotiate. And he makes them real, as well - Sham, the Captain chasing down her all-consuming "philosophy", Sham's colourful crewmates, the strange Shroake siblings to whose story his becomes coupled.
Like them, Miéville speculates on where the railsea came from, and how it persists. Rails don't just happen, and in Sham's world, people are inclined to attribute it to the old gods, such as That Apt Om, and the repairwork to mysterious angel trains. Nobody really wants to get to the bottom of things, just to make a living. But sometimes, one doesn't have a choice...
This is an excellent book, which I think will appeal to Miéville's different groups of readers - a story of adventure, more straightforward perhaps than Embassytown or City and the City, but in my view more focussed and (even) better realised than UnLundun.