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Railsea, China Mieville


After reading two of his novels, I’m still not really sure how I feel about China Mieville. Wikipedia says that his fiction is sometimes classified as “New Weird,” which seems to be a good descriptor. This particular book is designated as YA fiction, and borrows elements from “Moby Dick.”

Sham ap Soorap is a young orphan who is apprenticed as a doctor’s assistant on the Medes, a mole-hunting train. Giant moldywarpes (aka whale-sized burrowing moles), valued for their meat and fur, inhabit the desolate earth, which is full of other dangerous creatures such as earwigs, antlions, and burrowing owls large enough to carry off train cars. The Medesis captained by a woman named Naphi, who has a mechanical arm and a burning desire to chase down a giant ivory moldywarpe. As Sham grows accustomed to life on board the moler, he finds their lives exciting and intimidating, but still dabbles in other fields outside of doctoring, hoping to find a philosophy that drives his life as much as the captain’s.

It took about half of the book before I got used to the concept of the “railsea,” of the earth itself as a dangerous terrain, and of the rails themselves. Mieville himself said, “Basically the book is pinned on a very simple, very silly joke, which is Moby Dick — only with moles instead of whales, and once you do that then a lot of things spin off from it.” I liked the book overall, especially the journey that Sham and the Shroakes took, the dangers and adventures they encounter; however, as the book wrapped up the momentum seemed to falter, and I was left unsettled at the end. Mieville’s quirky style of writing didn’t particularly bother me, and I found the out-of-character chapters to be an interesting interlude.

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