RAILSEA has been compared to Herman Melville’s MOBY DICK, but it's really just China Miéville’s take on an adventure story. Its philosophies, the hunt, the unknown, and the need for answers and exploration of our origins drive this novel.
Shamus Yes ap Soorap (Sham for short) is the youngest crew member of the Medes, a mole train on the hunt for a big catch on the great railsea. He has dreams of working salvage --- finding new things, old things, and alien things. What he actually does is assist the doctor of the Medes and bring water to the men and women who are working to break down the moles they hunt into oil, bone and skin. The captain of the Medes, Naphi, is on the hunt for a mole --- a legendary ivory-colored mole called Mocker-Jack. She believes, as other mole train captains do, that capturing Mocker-Jack is her destiny.
"What Miéville does that I absolutely love is create places so familiar, yet at the same time so strange.... This is also a book filled with characters you’ll care about and fear for in a world poised to attack."
When the railsea leads the crew of the Medes to an old wreck, Sham goes with the crew to investigate and finds something he hopes to make his very own piece of salvage. Instead, he hands over the small camera memory chip to the captain. The images it contains lead Sham and his captain in essentially the same direction with different outcomes --- Sham is led to two children of now dead-explorers, and the captain is led to new, never-before-conceived hunting grounds. Naphi’s dreams of bringing down Mocker-Jack, her famed ivory-colored mole, now seem within reach.
What Miéville does that I absolutely love is create places so familiar, yet at the same time so strange. He creates a land that the crew is afraid to step on for fear of dying. This world of safe land among animal-prowled soft dirt is both alien and accessible at the same time. It’s a world of dirt, but he makes you see it as a world of water --- deep and unsafe water at that. Out in the railsea, it’s the tracks that keep everyone safe, and you have no choice but to believe that’s the absolute truth of this world.
This is also a book filled with characters you’ll care about and fear for in a world poised to attack. Sham is young, untested, naïve, and trusts people too easily. He never knew the fate of his parents, and when he has the opportunity to bring closure to two children whose parents have died, he sets out to do just that, unaware of the implications his actions may bring. His pet, an injured daybat he nursed back to health and named Daybe, is a stalwart friend and more than just a silly little bat. Daybe is fearless, with crazy loyalty to young Sham, and is one of the book’s most memorable characters.
I’ve read several of Miéville’s books, and he’s now on the list of authors from whom I anxiously await books. No matter the topic, a book by Miéville is one that I want to read. He has an ability to take our world, warp a few elements, twist a few basic beliefs, and make it something so new and strange. These new worlds don’t stop existing simply because the book is closed. His worlds and stories stay with you long after the end.
As a side note, I’ve seen this book described as a young adult novel. It’s really much more than that, and much more than just a re-telling of MOBY DICK. It’s about dreams and adventure in a world we want to get to know better. And isn’t that why we read? China Miéville makes these worlds we crave possible. In fact, you should be reading RAILSEA now.
Reviewed by Amy Gwiazdowski on June 1, 2012