Review: Railsea

Railsea by China Miéville

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A great example of Meiville doing what he does best: constructing wondrous landscapes of steam-powered fancy and then populating it with larger than life characters perfectly adapted to life within the setting he has created. This time it is the railsea: a post environmental-apocalypse carpeting of endlessly criss-crossing rail tracks that smother what is hinted at being the dried up pacific rim; and the Herman Melvillesque outposters and whaler-analogues who inhabit it.

The language is, as always, a delight; the various protagonists deep enough to be engaging without necessarily being deep enough to compel; but as is often the case with Meiville it is the geometries and ecology of the altered landscape which are the real characters of the piece. If a story can be described as characters in action across a setting, then Meiville, to some extent, inverts this: ‘Railsea’, like many of his novels (I think particularly of The Scar and The Iron Council in this regard) is about the setting creating characters to fulfil actions. That he does so in such a successful way, and creates such a fascinating and successful novel, is a mark of his great skill as storyteller.

In fact, my only disappointment with the book was that it was clearly aimed at a Young Adult audience, resulting in a simplification of language, plot and motivation that diminishes its power. If he had aimed this towards the intellectual complexity of his best works then it would have been a major tour de force: a modern fable of enormous power and symbolic resonance. As it is, the simplification works against the message, and it is simply an extremely good book that doesn’t quite reach the majesty it deserves.

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