Friday, June 8, 2012

"Railsea" by China Mieville

Though Railsea is marketed as young adult, it's unlike most young adult novels. Part of that is because Mieville is willing to engage in his somewhat unusual style and structure in a genre that's more typically populated by straightforward narratives. The whole thing made me somewhat wary in the beginning, but I warmed to the protagonist Sham, his daybat Daybe, and the railsea itself.

The entire concept of Railsea is a riff off of Moby Dick. Instead of sailing the open sea for the elusive whale, people of this world "sail" the twisting and turning railway lines, hunting the giant burrowing creatures that populate the earth. Young Sham is part of a crew, led by Captain Naphi, whose "philosophy" is to catch the giant mole Mocker-Jack.

The worldbuilding and captain's quest appear rather absurd, but it's to Mieville's credit that the story never seems absurd. The worldbuilding is convincingly done and the characters well-drawn. The novel escapes the pitfalls of much YA literature, eschewing a romance or maudlin relationships.

The structure of Railsea mimics the structure of the railsea, as the novel twists and turns and doubles back on itself, Mieville himself sometimes teasing the reader by suggesting he'll follow one story--only to return to a different one instead. I liked these "meta" moments and even came to love the fact that the word "and" is always replaced with "&" in the novel.

I don't know that I'd recommend Railsea to my students. I think most would find it weird and "boring" (they find everything "boring"). But, I would say any Mieville fans should not be put off by the YA label--it's more a description of the protagonist's age than a comment on the type of story one should expect.

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