Thursday, August 9, 2012

Railsea Review

This is my third China Mieville book. I read Un Lun Dun (which felt like a darker and more serious Phantom Tollbooth) and The City and the City (which in all honesty confused the crap out of me) last year. I liked Un Lun Dun much better and so when I found out that Mieville was publishing another children's book, I figured I'd like it.

Not so much. Railsea plays with the whole Moby Dick plot, except that instead of being set on the water, Railsea exists in a sort of steam punk railroad world. Everyone travels by rail only, and the world is of course referred to as the railsea, with "islands" being areas not covered in rails that are livable. The story centers around Sham ap Soorap, the doctor's apprentice on board a train called the Medes. He doesn't particularly like his apprenticeship and is much more fascinated with salvers, people who look for old or new salvage in the world, which they then sell. His train is a molar, meaning they hunt down moles, which are quite big in this world. His captain, a woman named Naphi, is hunting for a giant ivory colored mole known as Mocker-Jack.This creature is referred to as her philosophy, which she is obsessed with. They travel around the railsea, hunting moles, but always looking for Mocker-Jack.

Early on, Sham and the crew stumbles on a wrecked train, where he finds an old memory card full of pictures. In one picture, he sees a single rail. Not the jumbled crisscrossed railsea that he knows so well, but one single rail. And this, of course, kicks off the adventure.

The story itself was creative and could have been interesting had it not been for Mieville's language. The Guardian reviewed the book and praised Mieville's prose (see full review below): "Yet for all this, the book's chief glory is its prose. Every sentence is packed with wit, strange but appropriate neologisms, and jostling clusters of consonants that are there for no other reason than sheer delight in language. Some paragraphs are almost too dense, and could be quite a challenge for younger readers." I could not disagree more. Like The City and the City, I felt lost in the density of the language. He never explains what some words mean and while you can pick them up eventually continuing to read the story, it's a challenge to work out his meaning sometime. One of the reasons why I have praised young adult fantasy over the years is because I think a lot of adult fantasy tries to be "literary" and too clever and the story gets lost. Young adult fantasy tends to be much simpler and more focused on building a cool world and story. I do not know how a kid would appreciate Railsea. I think that I have quite a good imagination, but I found myself struggling to picture what was going on. I thought the start of the book dragged a bit, but the middle passed quicker and unfortunately the last 20% just dragged painfully for me.

I read a couple reviews from amazon. Most praised the book a lot but some felt the way I did:

"The concept of the story is interesting but Mieville tries to deliver too much fantasy in such a complicated way that it just lost its appeal.
What I liked: the drawings.
What I didn't like: The writing. I'm just not a fan of so complicated & weird writing. He uses the symbol `&' instead of `and' and other things that should make the writing unique but that just confused me."

"At first, Railsea was a little bit hard to get into. Though the writing is not terribly complex, Mieville uses a lot of vocabulary specific to the world he has imagined without explaining what these new words mean. For the first few chapters, I felt like I was reading a mad lib created by non-English speakers. Mieville also chooses to use quirky character names, so I felt like I was stumbling upon two or three unfamiliar words in each sentence. As I became more familiar with the vocabulary and the characters, the book became easier to read. The other thing that made this book a slow-started was the use of "&" instead of "and." This was particularly challenging when the author chose to begin a sentence with an ampersand."

Just for the record, the ampersand thing drove me crazy. I thought it was really distracting to the story. He has a part where he talks about why the ampersand is used but it still meant nothing to me but an irritation. All in all, not my favorite book. But I've already picked up something that has started off much better. Stay tuned for the review!

Here are some more positive review from the UK's The Guardian and NPR.

Buy it at amazon and Barnes and Noble.

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