“Railsea” by China Miéville (2012)

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“This is the story of a bloodstained boy.”

It’s almost a shame that I used up my introduction spiel about trains for a film last year, when it would’ve served me well here. Never mind. Most books that give a prominent role to trains feature just the one. Something magical and impressive that captures the imagination. China Miéville, however, goes a little further than that, and envisions a world entirely populated by trains. Welcome to the Railsea.

Sham Yes ap Soorap is an assistant doctor aboard the Medes, a moletrain. He is new to the Railsea, but is now sure to spend the rest of his life touring the rails, hunting for giant moles, in particular the great southern modlywarpe, and getting to know the other riders of the rails. In this world, there are no oceans, just endless plains laced with endless tracks. Every kind of train patrols them, from huge iron wartrains to wooden trains with sails. There are those made of salvage, those running on steam, and even one-man traincycles that people use to get around the islands.

While on a hunt, Sham and his crew stumble across a wrecked train and set about searching it for salvage. Inside, Sham instead finds a camera. The flatographs it shows, however, reveal something far more interesting than holiday snaps. There are images of children from a distant country, rare salvage, and most bizarrely of all, potential evidence that the Railsea does indeed end. Captivated by the image of a single rail leading out to darkness, Sham convinces Captian Naphi to put aside her hunt for Mocker-Jack, the great white mole, and seek out the people in the flatographs, and then, perhaps, find the edge of the world.

But rumour travels quickly on the rails, and soon Sham is in peril, as salvagers, pirates, monsters and molers all seek him out. What he and his crew discover may change not only his own fate, but that of the entire Railsea.

I’ve read Miéville a few times before, and he’s continually proved himself to have an imagination beyond anything one could reasonable expect from a writer. Aiming to write a novel in every genre, here he turns his attention to the great adventure tales. Indeed, the whole novel can be seen as a parody of, or homage to, Moby-Dick, particularly with the Captain’s obsession with hunting down the ivory-coloured mole that took her arm. This is expanded to be part of the lore, as most captains have what they call their “philosophy” – a particular creature that stole a limb from them, and they commit their lives to finding and killing the beast. Indeed, the creatures of this world are perhaps the most fascinating aspect. With no oceans, lakes or rivers, the ground itself takes up the reins for producing enormous and terrifying beasts. Most everything that we know on Earth to live in the ground lives here, although often far larger and more bloodthirsty than we would remember. Moles grow huge, but so do badgers, naked mole rats, rabbits, earthworms, termites, antlions, burrowing owls and earwigs. These animals have never been so scary.

Miéville also works magic with the setting itself. A world where ships are replaced by trains might seem quite simple, but the level of detail included is wonderful. Trains are limited in their travelling patterns by rails, unlike ships which can steer any which way, but there are still plenty of parallels. Trains are besieged by railgulls, and many of them still have crows nests aboard. The moletrains work mostly like whaling ships, and there are pirates here too, just like in adventure tales set on the open waves. Some job titles change – there is a trainswain rather than a coxswain – and they still sing shanties, although with slightly different lyrics, such as the classic, “What Shall We Do With the Drunken Brakesman?” The world is full and while we still see nothing like all of it, you know that it’s all there.

The book also keeps a level of uncertainty as to when and where the book is set. At first it seems like it might be another world distinct from our own, but there are mentions of the society having been going for a very long time – there is an awful lot of salvage, some of which looks like contemporary technology – and there are obscure references to things that appear to have been passed down through folklore, such as a brief mention of the god Railhater Beeching. It also seems that the planet has been visited by beings from other worlds before now, so if it is Earth, it’s a very distant future one with little water.

Although the book at times chugs along slower than the London to Brighton train on Southern rail, by the end it’s a Japanese bullet train and the ending itself contains a laugh-out-loud moment that makes it all worthwhile. It ends on a note of promise, and I almost wish I could have kept on following Sham on his adventures. It’s not my favourite Miéville story, but it’s still a pretty remarkable read.

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“The Invisible Library” by Genevieve Cogman (2015)

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“Irene passed the mop across the stone floor in smooth, careful strokes, idly admiring the gleam of wet flagstones in the lantern-light.”

With a name like Genevieve Cogman, it feels almost inevitable that she penned a novel with a steampunk flavour. Someone, I forget who, had suggested this series to me a long time ago under the logic that my love of books would mean I would adore a story set in an enormous magical library. Indeed, I thought I would adore it too. Here’s the premise.

Irene works for the Library, an enormous book repository held in the space between worlds. She and her fellow Librarians are tasked with entering different universes to seek out works of fiction that are unique, dangerous or interesting. Freshly back from a school of magic, she is immediately assigned a visit to a steampunk universe where there’s a book of Grimm’s fairy tales unlike any other. Her boss also asks her to take along Kai, a new recruit with a needling attitude and more secrets that you can shake a brolly at.

In this alternate world, Irene and Kai soon find that the mission is not going to be an easy one. Chaos has infected this universe in a big way, and there seem to be a lot of people after the book. Its owner, a vampire called Lord Wyndham, has just been murdered and the killer is still at large. Irene and Kai are thrown into a mess of danger and secret societies, with magical creatures, cyborg alligators and Britain’s finest detective after them. Things go from bad to worse when Irene is locked out of the Library, her contact is found dead, and something far more dangerous than she could ever have envisioned is stalking the streets of London.

I do adore the concept – alternate universes with varying levels of technology and magic being visited by beings from beyond space and time to recover priceless works of fiction? What’s not to love? I’m working on something curiously similar myself. However, it all seemed to become far too complicated. In just over three hundred pages we are introduced to this magical Library, the Language while allows magic to occur, Kai’s backstory, the interlocking universes, vampires, werewolves, steampunk technology (including the obligatory dose of zeppelins), the on-going battle between the dragons and the Fae, and a knotty alternate history where Liechtenstein is considered a world power. There are so many aspects here that they begin to trip over themselves. Little is ever fully explained, characters never quite manage to develop three dimensions – often not even two – and there feels a desperation to throw as many things as possible at it.

Cogman also seems terrified that a reader might miss any any of the subtext in her story, and thus we are frequently treated to explanations as to what the true meanings are behind certain lines and gestures. While I get that sometimes subtext can be missed, here it feels almost insulting in its regularity, as if the readers would be too stupid to be able to understand. I did begin to wonder if the books are aimed at a young adult audience, but I can find nothing suggesting that to be the case. Perhaps it’s in the subtext, and it was the one time she didn’t bother telling us?

Since it’s the first in a series, I give it the benefit of the doubt. A lot has to be established in a first novel – the first Harry Potter book is, of course, tonally very different to the others because we’re being introduced to the world for the first time – but it all feels a little too rushed, with a desperation to throw in the Big Bad and explain away the big secrets before we’ve even really had a chance to begin to care about them. There are some interesting scenes, and one or two genuinely interesting characters, but they get lost among the ephemera.

It’s a shame, really, and it falls down where many books have fallen down before – a great premise, with poor execution.

“The Clockwork Man” by William Jablonsky (2010)

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clockwork“Dear Professor Wellesley, I greatly enjoyed your recent visit from Oxford, and thank you immensely for the fine leather-bound tome in which I now write these lines.”

William Jablonsky’s novel jumped out at me one day while I was in the Science Fiction & Fantasy section of Brighton’s branch of Waterstone’s. Not for having a uniquely wonderful cover (handsome though it is) or being on sale, but for the small word ‘steampunk’ printed at the top of the spine.

Well, that and, how awesome a surname is Jablonsky?

I’ve had a passing interest in steampunk for a while, although mostly for the aesthetic side of the genre and I’ve enjoyed browsing the Internet for fashions, inventions and people that would fill a steampunk world. Given this fondness, and the fact that I’m working on something set in an alternate steampunk universe, I thought I better dive in.

The Clockwork Man is the story of automaton Ernst who is built by world-renowned clockmaker Karl Gruber (the Master) at the tail end of the nineteenth century. Although he is mechanical throughout, there is far more to him than just cogs and nickel-plating. Not only does he have a suede skin, a penchant for nice suits and is able to lift incredibly heavy weights, he is also capable of learning, having independent thoughts, and understanding people.

Ernst is very close to Herr Gruber’s daughter, Giselle, a self-taught astronomer who is something of a genius herself. Ernst is very protective over her (although he is also protective of the Master and his son, Jakob). However, something is occurring in Ernst’s wiring that seems unlikely to have been intentional, and his feelings towards Giselle may be more than he can deal with.

After a tragic incident one December, Giselle dies and Ernst, unable to forgive himself, lets himself wind down in a sort of suicide, wishing to be left to rust and break. However, this doesn’t go exactly to plan when he is wound up again and finds himself in a deeply changed world over one hundred years later, with only an unstable homeless man for company. He begins to discover the events that transpired while he has been “asleep” and with now no opportunity to make his way home, must make a new life for himself.

Featuring cameos from, among others, Thomas Edison and Henry Ford, seems to cement this book in our world, but it is clearly slightly different, as technology of this level has still yet to be invented. Although the book lists itself as steampunk, the term “clockpunk” is actually far more accurate, as Ernst is powered by clockwork rather than steam, and he is the only real change between his timeline and ours. This is not a complaint, as I adore clockwork things – all those delicate cogs and wheels – and I found Ernst to be an interesting character.

It’s a great novel for contemplating the nature of the soul and what defines something as being “alive”, as while Ernst is definitely manufactured, he is far more than a machine. Interesting and thought-provoking.