In China Mieville's wildly inventive science fiction/fantasy take on Moby Dick, earth and water are reversed. No one may step on the terrifying land lest they immediately be munched by some predatory creature tunneling up from below. Luckily, the railsea is covered in train tracks and traversed by a multitude of trains - including the moler train Medes, which hunts giant moles and is captained by a woman obsessed with the great ivory-colored mole that bit off her arm.

This was probably the most purely enjoyable book I've read all year. That being said, it's a love-it-or-hate-it novel - it has a very distinctive and odd prose style, bizarre (awesomely bizarre!) worldbuilding, and lots of metafictional authorial intrusions into the text. But if you've always liked the sound of China Mieville's worldbuilding but don't like grimdark, this is the book for you - all the worldbuilding, none of the grim. (Spoiler: the cute pet survives.) Also, you don't need to have read Moby Dick (I haven't) but a number of things are much funnier if you know the general outlines of the story.

Railsea is packed full of cool details, fascinating beasts, and sense of wonder. The worldbuilding is wacky but logical on its own terms, and the world keeps unfolding and unfolding, revealing more and more secrets and marvels. The ending is the logical outcome of everything that came before, and perfectly so: a succession of satisfying revelations leading up to a final image that made me grin until my face nearly cracked. (Not the thing about the bill, that fell flat; I mean everything else.) Tons of little details which at first seem annoying (like the use of & instead of "and") or throwaways turn out to be there for a purpose - worldbuilding, thematic, or just a running joke. (I cannot believe that Mieville actually managed to sell me on the ampersand, which annoyed me immensely when I began reading.)

Railsea repeatedly made me laugh out loud, sometimes at the author stepping in to give the readers a head-up about the plot, sometimes from events in the story itself. And though the hero is a boy, it has tons of women and girls in the supporting cast - so many that it made me realize just how unusual that is in most science fiction novels.

I didn't like Mieville's other kids' book, Un Lun Dun, but I absolutely loved Railsea. Highly recommended. I suggest that you give it some time if the style and metafiction put you off at first - it took me a little while to warm up to it, but I ended up falling in love. I would also advise against knowing too much going in. A lot of the fun is discovering all the little details for yourself. Also, be aware that the beginning, though not super-graphic, is gorier than the rest of the book.

By the way, this did not read at all YA to me, so also don't be put off if you don't generally like YA. It's more of a playful adult novel with a young protagonist. Though I could also see it being a good read-aloud.

Railsea

Feel free to put spoilers in comments.
I adore The Scar and Perdido Street Station for the gonzo worldbuilding, the overheated invention, the absolutely convincing details of their fascinating settings, the larger-than-life characters, and the sense of liveliness and fun that sits in odd tension with Mieville’s often determinedly-brutal treatment of his characters.

I don’t find Mieville more didactic than an awful lot of authors, but other readers often find him so-- largely because, I think, he’s promoting a point of view which jumps out because it’s out of the American mainstream, whereas books which push more US-mainstream values like “normalcy and happiness is one man and one woman getting together” or “social justice is achievable by individual effort” don’t appear didactic because those values are so ingrained into that mainstream that they become invisible as didacticism, no matter how hard the authors push them.* Your mileage may vary.

* I just realized that my point echoes a crucial element of the conceit of The City and the City. Well, it’s a very rich and interesting conceit, with multiple implications.

I seem to know more people who absolutely loathe Mieville’s work than like it, with the exception of Un Lun Dun, which up till now was the one book of his that I didn’t like. (Twee.) So this review is even more YMMV than usual.

The City and the City rests upon an absolutely marvelous conceit, which is not a surprise twist but becomes clear in general terms within about the first 20 pages. I mention this because most reviews treat it as a giant spoiler, which I think does the book a disservice. Nonetheless, YMMV, so I’m putting it under a cut. In my opinion, nothing under the cut is truly spoilery.

The novel is a police procedural told in a world-weary voice by a world-weary cop. The voice was a little inconsistent—it directly addressed readers who were unfamiliar with the setting, explicitly explaining how it worked, which led me to expect that there would be some in-story explanation of who those readers were supposed to be. There wasn’t. The cop sometimes uses British slang, which probably would have been less jarring if it was used more, in which case it would have become an invisible convention. Its occasional use startled me every time, considering that the manuscript was presumably translated from his own language. He also had a remarkably educated vocabulary, but only occasionally, so that too seemed inconsistent. (Or possibly “machicolation” is a much more common term than I realize.)

It is a heavily crosshatched street -- clutch by clutch of architecture broken by alterity, even in a few spots house by house. The local buildings are taller by a floor or three than the others, so Besz juts up semiregularly and the roofscape is almost a machicolation.

But those are all minor quibbles. My big problem with the book was that the voice, plot, and characters didn’t fit the absurdist/surrealist/satirical premise, which was like something out of Jorge Luis Borges or Thomas Pynchon, and begged for a similarly lush or gonzo style—the exact style, in fact, that Mieville is really good at. Instead, it’s deliberately flat and underplayed. The cop has few traits. Most of the characters have few traits. The two cities themselves are not very vivid or detailed compared to what I’ve seen Mieville do in other books. The conclusion is deliberately anticlimactic.

Subtlety is just not Mieville’s strong suit, and I say that in all fondness. This premise applied to the wild inventiveness of his New Crobuzon books, or even given an extravagant plot, characters, and voice—which I know he can do—in an otherwise realistic setting would have worked marvelously. As it is, the premise and its working-out is fabulous, and everything else is dull.

Cut for explaining the premise. I don't think this is a spoiler, but YMMV )
China Mieville, author of two of my top ten candidates for Coolest! Novel! Ever! (PERDIDO STREET STATION and THE SCAR), was at a Burbank bookshop tonight signing his latest book, IRON COUNCIL. I heard about this late, dashed out, and showed up just as things were winding down.

I did catch him saying something that I filed away for future writing reference, which was that to get a feeling of culture shock and that the world of the book is huge and real and unexplored, he'll mention things but not explain them, and sometimes he knows what they are and sometimes he doesn't. In PERDIDO STREET STATION he refers to "the Malarial Queendom." At that time, he had no idea what that was, but he thought it sounded cool, and it ended up giving him the idea for the mosquito people in THE SCAR.

He also said that "The New Weird" had been intended as a framework to explore certain ideas, but that as soon as people started talking about it as a literary movement which some people were in and some people weren't, it had passed its time of usefulness. Or something like that-- I only caught the end of that bit.

I had met China at the World Fantasy Convention at Montreal a few years ago, and we chatted for a while about politics and my novel, which involves an alternate version of the Indian mutiny where the mutineers are the protagonists (that's not the alternate part.) He's a socialist who once ran for office as one in England while I'm more of a a social democrat, but my politics are closer to his than they are to those of most Americans I meet. So we had a nice chat. He's a charming, funny, unpretentious person, quite unlike the stereotyped image of a radical leftist.

The author photos, which are accurate about the shaved head, tons of silver rings in one ear, and impressive biceps, are nevertheless misleading in that, although he's a big guy, he doesn't come across as menacing or cooler-than-thou in person, and actually fits in smoothly with the usual array of geeks (I include myself) at conventions-- a writing, gaming, politics geek with a better idea than most of how to dress to suit one's particular looks.

I used to think that people who meet me once, briefly, years ago, when I'm the fan and they're the pro, wouldn't remember me, but eventually noticed that they always did remember me as a person, even if they didn't recall my name or where we met, so I was not surprised that China remembered me. (He recalled my last name but not my first, which struck me as odd.)

I told him about the sale of my other book, which was not even a notion when last we met, and that I would let him know when it was out. He congratulated me and said that his parents were also hippies and had run a head shop somewhere in England. Then he wrote me a marvelous pair of inscriptions.

On IRON COUNCIL: "Here is to mutinies everywhere, Indian and others. From one mutineer to another,"

On THE SCAR, which concerns the voyage of a fantastical ship-city and the hunting of an immense interdimensional godly fish-creature: "Here are the _other_ fishes coming home to roost. Congratulations on the book.

'The sea is a continuous miracle.' -Whitman. Take care,"

China is one of my top ten candidates for Coolest! Author! Ever!

(Anyone who knows what the subject line refers to, other than Mr. Mieville, gets a free coffee if you're in the neighborhood.)
China Mieville, author of two of my top ten candidates for Coolest! Novel! Ever! (PERDIDO STREET STATION and THE SCAR), was at a Burbank bookshop tonight signing his latest book, IRON COUNCIL. I heard about this late, dashed out, and showed up just as things were winding down.

I did catch him saying something that I filed away for future writing reference, which was that to get a feeling of culture shock and that the world of the book is huge and real and unexplored, he'll mention things but not explain them, and sometimes he knows what they are and sometimes he doesn't. In PERDIDO STREET STATION he refers to "the Malarial Queendom." At that time, he had no idea what that was, but he thought it sounded cool, and it ended up giving him the idea for the mosquito people in THE SCAR.

He also said that "The New Weird" had been intended as a framework to explore certain ideas, but that as soon as people started talking about it as a literary movement which some people were in and some people weren't, it had passed its time of usefulness. Or something like that-- I only caught the end of that bit.

I had met China at the World Fantasy Convention at Montreal a few years ago, and we chatted for a while about politics and my novel, which involves an alternate version of the Indian mutiny where the mutineers are the protagonists (that's not the alternate part.) He's a socialist who once ran for office as one in England while I'm more of a a social democrat, but my politics are closer to his than they are to those of most Americans I meet. So we had a nice chat. He's a charming, funny, unpretentious person, quite unlike the stereotyped image of a radical leftist.

The author photos, which are accurate about the shaved head, tons of silver rings in one ear, and impressive biceps, are nevertheless misleading in that, although he's a big guy, he doesn't come across as menacing or cooler-than-thou in person, and actually fits in smoothly with the usual array of geeks (I include myself) at conventions-- a writing, gaming, politics geek with a better idea than most of how to dress to suit one's particular looks.

I used to think that people who meet me once, briefly, years ago, when I'm the fan and they're the pro, wouldn't remember me, but eventually noticed that they always did remember me as a person, even if they didn't recall my name or where we met, so I was not surprised that China remembered me. (He recalled my last name but not my first, which struck me as odd.)

I told him about the sale of my other book, which was not even a notion when last we met, and that I would let him know when it was out. He congratulated me and said that his parents were also hippies and had run a head shop somewhere in England. Then he wrote me a marvelous pair of inscriptions.

On IRON COUNCIL: "Here is to mutinies everywhere, Indian and others. From one mutineer to another,"

On THE SCAR, which concerns the voyage of a fantastical ship-city and the hunting of an immense interdimensional godly fish-creature: "Here are the _other_ fishes coming home to roost. Congratulations on the book.

'The sea is a continuous miracle.' -Whitman. Take care,"

China is one of my top ten candidates for Coolest! Author! Ever!

(Anyone who knows what the subject line refers to, other than Mr. Mieville, gets a free coffee if you're in the neighborhood.)
.

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