Review: Railsea by China Miéville

I’m writing this in Notepad, offline, as the internet in my college is being funny at the moment. This means that I don’t know if this blog will appear before or after my second, currently incomplete, blog on Prometheus. Probably before, as I am planning on taking some time over that blog, while this is a review and should be done soon after finishing the book.

Railsea – China Miéville

I’ve loved China Miéville’s work since I first read The City and The City in 2010, despite the fact that I didn’t get a lot of Kraken and I had already read Un Lun Dun. This essentially means that I also love Embassytown and his short stories, as these are the only other works I’ve read. I like Un Lun Dun and Kraken, his easier works, as it were, but I felt that they were too crammed with half-baked ideas, a London populated by fantasy creatures and ideas which don’t quite fit together, and which could use a lot more room to grow into more of a story. I approached Railsea, therefore, with some trepidation, as it was a more lighthearted work, less serious than The City and The City and Embassytown, more like Kraken and Un Lun Dun.

The first thing which struck me about Railsea is that I would have loved it as a younger boy. Trains? Obviously. Moles? Sign me up! These are the equivalent to the adult me of swords and bees. Mole was my favourite character in The Animals of Fathing Wood, and I loved their velvety skin and sleek appearance, apparently a love not diminished by seeing actual moles and how grubby they are. Then, of course, there is Megan.

The second thing is how long it takes over its ideas. This isn’t long, by any means, but while Kraken and Un Lun Dun had a crowded city of millions of anonymous creatures, Railsea has a world populated by people, with islands and animals and monsters, which is oddly believable and imaginable in a way that the fantasy Londons are not. For a fair portion of the book we are just following Sham around his daily life, which is a fantastical life, but which doesn’t necessarily seem to be going anywhere but, I felt, didn’t really need to do so in order for me to enjoy it.

Then there’s the pace. Despite taking enough time over its ideas and events Railsea gives a great impression of speed and movement as Sham travels across the Railsea – or is that just the young boy in me imagining trains racing along the rails? It’s hard to determine, but a love of train travel, or at least the idea of train travel, is universal enough I think that this could be generally applied to Miéville’s audience.

Of Miéville’s listed inspirations the only one with which I am particularly familiar is Ursula Le Guin, whom I adore. I can, with hindsight, think of some of the ways in which Railsea parallels A Wizard of Earthsea, but I don’t think that it is quite as strong an inspiration as the similar names would suggest. The inspiration of Herman Melville, despite the fact that I haven’t read Moby-Dick, is fairly clear and open, although it seems to me that there must be an element of parody in that inspiration which would make the book potentially even better. When I read Moby-Dick I am sure I will be chuckling along as I finally get bits of Railsea.

I found that this book ultimately felt familiar to me because of a previous childhood love – including moles – that of the Redwall series of children’s books. I wouldn’t say it was all that similar, except that it was an adventure, and exploration, usually including travels across the sea. It was perhaps a significantly more intelligent, with a bit more of a message, but if that was its audience then it should certainly appeal. On the other hand, if it’s intellectual archaeologists in their mid-twenties then it succeeds there too. I’m not sure it surpasses the mystery love which I have for The City and The City, but if I needed reassurance that Miéville was a fantastic author, then Railsea certainly delivered.


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