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Riding the Rails: A Railsea Review

June 12, 2012

I’m an on again, off again fan of China Mieville, whose recent novel, Railsea, has given me so much pause.

I loved The City and the City, his fantastic detective novel set in two parallel Eastern European cities. I’m sure I’ll love Kraken when I get around to it. On the other hand, his fantasy has left me pretty cold over the years: I’ve stalled out in Perdido Street Station more times than I can count.

One thing we have to take into account is his prolificness: he’s written a book a year for the last four, with plenty of additional works in various fields. Just this year he started writing one of my favorite new comics series, Dial H for Hero. He writes a lot, and all of his work is fantastically different.

So, Railsea, then: the most different of the bunch. This is effectively a Young Adult take on Moby Dick, complete with wacky fantasy world where an ocean of rails filled with massive underground predators replaces actual water.

Oh, and the whole book emulates Melville’s style. There’s a reason I originally said this book was written on a dare: there’s no possible way this could sell. And he did it anyway!

At its core is a collection of good ideas. The setting is fantastic. The characters, from overweight youth Sham ap Soorap to his fascinating captain Naphi to others introduced later, work. Sham’s a fantastic protagonist, who follows a real arc throughout the piece. Furthermore, this is kind of a stealth issue book: by the end, you’ll see where he’s coming from, and nothing will make more sense.

The first act drags, admittedly. Seen from the end the first act makes a great deal of sense, but in the beginning it’s a slow book written in an archaic style. It’s also extremely inefficient, which is a stylistic device but an infuriating one. Mieville spends probably a quarter of the book’s running time launching off on digressions, most obliquely praising his own cleverness. He spends the last half of the book pointing out how much suspense he’s created every other chapter. He spends the beginning giving us information about this world he’s created, little of which is relevant.

In effect, the fantasy gets in the way of a good story with a better message. It runs into the problem I imagine someone who works as much as Mieville would run into: a lack of good editing. I mean, it’s grammatically fine, but it doesn’t pop. It feels very much like being inside his head for four hundred pages. And I think it desperately needed an external force to come in and say, “Look, I know parodying Herman Melville is fun. But this book could be a hundred pages shorter, and it’d be a stronger work for it.” Basically, it sticks with what people have said is Mieville’s theme: he’s more interested in writing interesting, imperfect ones en masse than he is writing a book that’ll enter into the canon of fantasy literature.

That’s fun, but it’s hard not to be a little disappointed.


From → Et Cetera

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