Railsea by China Mieville

I’ve read a fair amount of China Mieville’s work, and I really love him, and this might be my favorite thing yet? His worlds are always fascinating, his language is always adventurous, and his politics are always on point, but this book balances beautifully.

Every book has a thing, and this is his Moby Dick book, but more than that too. It’s his seafaring adventure book. We know some of the tropes, but there are plenty of curveballs and subversions. But it’s built of something recognizable, especially early on. There’s a monomaniacal one armed Captain searching for “her philosophy,” a huge off-white mole. Stuff like that sets the stage for a fresh adventure. Here it’s the story of Sham, a young orphan, who joins a mole-train as an apprentice doctor. He isn’t actually that interested in doctoring, but attracted to the world of salvage, finding and figuring out what to do with the technology left behind from a society that collapsed long ago, one that could be our own. He gets caught up in a wild adventure that leads him to the end of the known world and even further. It’s a real treat.

His worldbuilding is so good, and always in service to the story. I was trying to explain why Mieville is one of my favorite writers, and got talking about how he doesn’t like Tolkien, and the different way he approaches worldbuilding. He doesn’t build words for the sake of building worlds, he doesn’t set up systems or rules. His world building is so intricate and fascinating, but it’s also very lively. It’s loose, and always serves the story, never foreclosing possibilities.

He doesn’t use the word “and” anywhere in the book, only ampersands. At first it’s just a weird tick, but then it gets explained as part of the world, and that’s just so cool. That’s the sort of detail that makes his work so cool. The prose throughout is really fun, talking to the reader knowingly, teasing about when different characters are going to return and daring us to guess about where the story is going. It’s playful without getting too cute.

The political dimension is really well done too. Mieville is a socialist, and this viewpoint is always somewhere in his books. Sometimes it can be very buried, where it’s not entirely clear what point he’s making. Other times it can be a little bit too on the nose. Here everything is well integrated, the plot and the world and the politics all serving the same story.

This is the first thing of his I’ve read that is categorized as young adult lit, and I wonder if that’s part of why everything works so well, if writing for younger people made him more conscious not to over complicate things. I wasn’t aware it was YA when I started it, and it’s doesn’t talk down to the reader at all. It’s YA because it’s about young people, but it’s smarter than a lot of novels for adults.

This is Mieville at his best. It’s magical, whimsical, and brilliant. It’s tons of fun and made me think a lot. An absolute blast.

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