Sunday, May 19, 2013

Railsea, by China Mieville

I dig the cover, too.
Every now and then, you read a book that just makes you say, "Damn. Now I have to start a book blog, because I can't not talk about this one!" For me, China Mieville's Railsea is that book. 

I've attempted Mieville a few times in the past, first with Un Lun Dun and later with Kraken. I can only chalk up my failure to finish them with the assumption that I just wasn't in the right mood for them at the time. To be fair, when I started Kraken, I loved it. It was so magnificently weird. But I got stuck in one of those unhappy reading lulls, and never finished. (Also, true fact, it was on my honeymoon, and I was a bit, erm, distracted. ANYWAY.) I think Railsea is just the push I needed to inspire me to go back and finish Kraken. And, well, everything else Mieville has written, ever.

Because I loved this book.

It starts off a bit slow. I had to push myself to keep going forward with it--until I was forty pages in or so, and things just took off. 

In the world of Railsea, most of the earth is covered in tracks, and people wend their way around in trains. To walk the earth is to risk fairly-certain, definitely- icky-and-painful death at the mouths of one of any number of enormous moles, birds, or insects. Mieville's descriptions are incredibly three-dimensional. Yes, he shows us what everything looks like, in great, quirky, readable detail. But he also shows us what the rhythm of the train feels like under our feet. We hear the sounds and smell the smells get the idea. I sometimes get impatient when there's a ton of description. I like for things to be happening, preferably to characters I give a damn about. Railsea delivers it all.

I don't really want to do an in-depth summary. Will you just go read it if I say it's one of those books where the main character learns something they weren't supposed to and then get chased across the world by pirates and the navy and giant moles? That it's one of those books that's Moby Dick-esque, except funny?(Possibly unfair. I haven't gotten around to actually reading MD yet. But one hears things.) It's one of those books with Women Being Awesome (see also: Women Being Powerful, Women Being In Charge Without it being a Big Deal, Women Looking Out For Number One, Women Being Ambiguous and Women Being Girls Being Badass Adventurers).

Aside from the story, which I loved, and the characters, who I loved, I loved Mieville's voice throughout the book. It wasn't exactly a character, but it did interrupt the story with the occasional short chapter to explain this or that and to be generally awesome. This kind of technique can be intrusive and annoying, but I thought it was successful here. Plus--how to put this?--I loved how he used that narrative voice to keep from having to tell us every last detail. To wit:

[Robalson] put down a bowl of food & loosened Sham's bonds, & Sham began to shout even as the dirty cloth left his mouth. "What the hell are you doing my captain's going to find me you're going to pay for this you crazy pig," & so on. Sham had hoped it would sound like a bellow. It came out more like a loud whine.
Many trains kept records of overhearings like sightings of megabeasts, of any talk of sports & monsters they encountered, knowing molers they met might be searching. Shiverjay ran a finger down a rumour-list, past tales of the largest badger, albino antlions, aardvarks of prodigious size. Some had the names of captains marked alongside. Some had more than one: oh, those were awkward occasions, clashes of hunts..."Ah, now," Shiverjay said. "Here's a thing." He had a superb stock of stories. "You know where the Bajjer roll?" Naphi nodded a vague nod. The sail-nomads gathered & hunted across great swathes of the railsea. "A deep-railsea spearhunter, she told me something that she'd heard from a furrier who'd been trading with a salvor crew--" 
The lineage, the genealogy by which the story was delivered at last into Captain Naphi's ears, was convoluted & not important. What mattered was this: "A solo trainsman saw our quarry."
This just makes me so happy. I struggle in my own writing with the compulsion to show every last (occasionally boring) thing. Mieville just punches right through with humor and gets on with the story. Good man.

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