Railsea, like many of China Mieville’s novels, tramples cheerfully over our usual ideas of what defines a genre to create a story which is simultaneously familiar and like nothing you’ve ever read before. If a YA, futuristic (possibly post-apocalyptic), sci-fi/fantasy retelling of Moby Dick that features crews on moler trains that hunt giant moldywarps sounds like it might be up your alley, then this is definitely a tale for you.
It might be fairer to refer to Railsea as being inspired by Moby Dick, as it’s anything but a straightforward re-telling. Our guide across the railsea is the young Sham Yes ap Soorap, apprentice train doctor and dreamer. Sham longs to leave his stable apprenticeship behind and venture out on the railsea in search of scavenge (the artifact remains of past civilizations). But until he gets his chance, he stays in the position his cousins found for him, as a member of the crew of the moler train Medes. When Sham’s crew comes across a wrecked train, he picks up a piece of scavenge that launches him down a path of adventure that not only puts him and the crew of the Medes in danger, but includes pirates, scavengers, a pair of peculiar siblings, angels, the origin of the railsea, and, of course, the giant bone-coloured moldywarp Mocker-Jack.
One of the constants in Mieville’s work is the presence of his astonishing vocabulary and Jonathan Cowley does a fantastic job at letting the playfulness of the language shine through in his narration. Not only is the story by turns entertaining, engaging, and thought-provoking, but the writing is just a sheer pleasure to listen to. Sham is a likable protagonist and is well supported by a colourful cast of memorable characters. As a listener living in what for Sham is the far distant past, you may find yourself recognizing everyday objects described in unfamiliar ways and looking differently at the world around you.
So, if you’re ready for an adventure in which the journey is just as enjoyable and important as the destination, climb aboard the moler train Medes and prepare for an unforgettable ride.
If you loved The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman, you’ll probably like Railsea. And if you enjoyed Railsea, you’ll probably enjoy Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire or And the Ocean Was Our Sky by Patrick Ness (another Moby Dick retelling).
#StaffPicks are recommendations made by staff at the TNRL. We’ll cover books, music, and film from all genres. Want to check them out? Go to tnrl.ca and click on the Staff Picks list, or type #staffpick into the catalogue search.