by China Mieville
Review by Benjamin Wald
Del Rey Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9780345524522
Date: 15 May 2012 List Price $18.00 Amazon US / Amazon UK
China Mieville's new novel Railsea features the kind of imaginatively bizarre setting we have come to expect from Mieville. However, this setting is neither as evocative nor as internally consistent as might have been hoped for. Combined with uninspiring characters and a creaky plot, this novel is a bit of a disappointment, especially coming from such a talented author. Mieville's skill with prose keeps the pace of the novel moving, and it's a quick and not unpleasant read, with some moments of excitement and wonder here and there, but this is still his weakest novel to date.
In this case, it is a world where the scattered islands and larger continents are connected not by water, but instead by a massive interconnected network of rail lines, the eponymous railsea, across which all manner of trains travel for purposes ranging from piracy to hunting to salvage of abandoned trains and ancient technologies. The land around the railsea is home to a vast array of burrowing creatures, almost all of them dangerous to human life. These creatures necessitate the use of trains to cross the railsea, but they also provide hunting opportunities. This is an interesting setting, but Mieville weakens its internal consistency when he gives a half-hearted and utterly implausible science fictional rational for its existence. It also doesn't help that a fair bit of the setting is conveyed through narrator asides that feel forced and are written in a disruptively coy, cutesy tone.
The main character is a young man named Sham ap Soorap, who has just become an apprentice doctor on a moletrain, whose business is to hunt the giant moles for their meat and rendered fat. Sham starts out the story as a directionless young man who is unsure what he wants out of his life. While this is a common enough problem, it renders him a rather passive protagonist. For the bulk of the book, Sham's main contributions to the plot is to tell other people important information (that he has learned more or less by accident), which then causes these other characters to get the plot moving. This lack of agency makes Sham a less then thrilling protagonist. It is true that he becomes more active towards the end of the book, but this transition is so sudden that it is not really believable as character development. The supporting cast is not much better; few of the characters get much development, and towards the end of the novel it starts to feel more and more as if all of the characters are just acting in the way the plot requires. The villains of the story are also guilty of acting in ways that make little sense, but are required by the plot. There are several gratuitously evil characters that serve little purpose other than to show us who the bad guys are.
The plot is likewise a bit of a mess. It starts off well enough, with the first half of the novel a bit slow paced but generally enjoyable. As the plot continues, however, the crack begin to show. There are a number of dues ex machina style rescues at the last moment, plot threads that feel clumsily pulled together, and a general feeling of being somewhat rushed. The ending is also a bit anticlimactic; while the dramatic discovery of the end if revelatory to the characters, it is not particularly wonder-inducing for the reader. This is obviously not an accident; charitably, we can see Mieville as making a point about how what appears wondrous to people from one context will appear commonplace to those from another, and vice versa. Still, its hard to not feel cheated when the payoff of the voyage of discovery that makes up most of the novel's plot is so uninspiring.
All of this criticism must make it sound as if I hated the book, but that isnít actually true. Mieville's writing style is compulsively readable, and even a substandard Mieville setting is still full of fascinating touches and moments of joyful imaginative excess. I was never bored while reading, but a bit of reflection on the story quickly reveals the holes. While Mieville is too good a writer to have his story fall apart entirely, the strain definitely shows in places, and Railsea is not up to the caliber of book we have come to expect of Mieville.