Backlist Burndown: Railsea by China Mieville

Backlist Burndown is a monthly meme hosted by Lisa from Tenacious Reader where you put aside at least one book from your blacklist every month to read, and then post a review of it on the last Friday of that month. I feel like I only read backlist, so this is perfect for me.

Railsea by China Mieville

Publisher: Del Ray

Publication Date: May 15, 2012 (first published January 1, 2012)

Edition: Hardcover, 424 pages

Genre: Steampunk, New Weird, Young Adult

Rating: 3/5

The imagination of Mieville never ceases to amaze me.


On board the moletrain Medes, Sham Yes ap Soorap watches in awe as he witnesses his first moldywarpe hunt: the giant mole bursting from the earth, the harpoonists targeting their prey, the battle resulting in one’s death and the other’s glory. But no matter how spectacular it is, Sham can’t shake the sense that there is more to life than traveling the endless rails of the railsea–even if his captain can think only of the hunt for the ivory-coloured mole she’s been chasing since it took her arm all those years ago. When they come across a wrecked train, at first it’s a welcome distraction. But what Sham finds in the derelict—a series of pictures hinting at something, somewhere, that should be impossible—leads to considerably more than he’d bargained for. Soon he’s hunted on all sides, by pirates, trainsfolk, monsters and salvage-scrabblers. And it might not be just Sham’s life that’s about to change. It could be the whole of the railsea.

A retelling of the classic story Mody Dick like no one else but Mieville could. The unique prose & interesting narrative did take a bit getting used to, but the railsea was something else. The imaginative world building the Mieville comes up is something that always leave me is awe, & Railsea is no exception.

Sham Yes ap Soorap is a young, doctor’s assistance on the mole hunting train Medes. After Sham’s father passed away, his mother abandon him, & this left Sham under the care of his cousins. They felt it was best for Sham to become this doctor’s assistance & possibly even a captain one day. Sham understands his cousin’s care & concern, but he has no love for medicine or being a captain – his desire lies in salvage.

One day the Medes comes along a train wreck & he is summoned to go inside & investigate. Among all the wreckage & bones, he finds a hole in ground that contains a mysterious piece of salvage. He gives it to Captain Nalphi, & together they learn just how mysterious this salvage is. Nalphi makes Sham promise to forget what he saw & tell no else. He promises, but Sham knows he does not mean it. He’s gotten a taste of salvage & what he has found, he believes warrants further pursuit.

In order to continue this pursuit, Sham needs to go to Manihiki, & must somehow convince Captain Nalphi to go there. This will be no easy task in itself, because Captin Nalphi is in a determined, obsessive search for the ivory-colored mole. The one that took her arm so many years ago.

This piece of salvage, & his want to discover its mystery, will lead Sham to being chased by both pirates & the navy. & will cause him to face not only monsters of the railsea, but also angels from Heaven.

This was not my first Mieville novel. I knew coming in that nothing about his writing would be conventional or simple, but this one still required a bit of adjusting at the beginning. His prose were very unique. There are a lot of short. Fragmented sentences. In places where I thought there should have a comma. Or dash. There were periods. The other adjustment had to with the “&”. No where in the novel does Mieville say the word “and”. He only uses the symbol “&”. It was weird seeing those everywhere & at the start, they tend to stick out quite sharply to the eye. & when he put it at the start of a sentence – I thought it looked really weird. With this unconventional writing style & prose, most of my focus was on trying to grasp his writing, & get into a good groove. Lucky though, the writing didn’t take too long to get used to (thought I still think the “&” looks weird).

The start of the novel focuses mainly on the world-building. Spoiler Alter: Get ready for a ride! The imagination of what Mieville is able to come up with is always what I look forward to most, and Railsea was just as awesome! In this world there is no sea. There is land, but where there should be an ocean, there is just dirt. And in this dirt, live the monsters of the railsea! There are giant moles, giant earthworms, giant earwigs, and arrays of other monstrous creatures. I pictured these monsters moving the dirt kind of like the movie Tremors. This is a retelling of Moby Dick, but instead of hunting whales on ships, we are hunting moles on trains. All over the railsea are train tracks. Crossings over, zig zagging back and forth. Traveling parallel, perpendicular, and looping around each other. Trains tracks as far as the eye can see on the railsea.

Picture trains and side carts, racing down this complex of rails that extends to the horizon. Men and women aboard, shouting, taunting, throwing spears at this giant, monstrous mole, as it dives in and out of railsea, alongside them.

I must admit, that while most of my focus was the writing to start, as I began to be engulfed into the world, I quickly forgot that prose were different from the ‘norm’. By the end, I actually enjoyed reading this prose style!

The final aspect of his writing I want to mention is the narrative style. It is told is 3rd person, but rather than reading a story, it felt as if I was being told a story. There are brief chapters when the narrator talks directly to the reader, letting us know what is going, what the narrator plans to do, or why they are telling the story like it is. Telling is a good word to use. It was almost as if I was sitting around a camp fire hearing someone tell me this.

I have not read Moby Dick since I was freshman in high school. Honestly, the only thing I remember is the captain lost a leg to the whale that he soon become obsessed with. As far I could tell though, Captain Nalphi loosing her arm, and chasing that mole are about as similar as the main stories compare. Aside from that, the story and plot are solely of Mieville. Perhaps someone who is more familiar with the works will see more parallels.

The story itself was very engaging. After we find the train wreck and salvage, the plot starts to unfold and take direction. Only real complaint was the last quarter of the book. Things got a little weird for me then (no, not Mieville weird), and the ending – while it was satisfying – I found it a bit underwhelming.

At its heart, I thought this was a coming-of-age tale for Sham. I loved and felt for Sham throughout the story. From where he started as this timid, shy, lost boy. Then seeing him find that salvage, watching where that journey that would take him, the people he would meet, and the changes he would go through. Sham is a very like-able and sympathetic character.

This is a YA novel, and I think the coming-of-age would make it a great read for children, but this easily accessible for adults to read.

The prose & writing style are little funky and unique, but the world-building will leave you in awe. Familiar with Moby Dick or not, this was an enjoying read.

3/5 Rating


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5 thoughts on “Backlist Burndown: Railsea by China Mieville

  1. I’ve heard about the punctuation in this book. I may opt for the audiobook version if I try it 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. My first experience with Mieville didn’t end very well, but the book I chose was Kraken instead of one of his more popular books like Perdido Street Station or The City & The City. Something tells me his style probably isn’t for me, but I wouldn’t mind giving him another try. Stuff like fragmented sentences and other “unique” stylistic choices would drive me crazy though, so probably not this book 😛


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