Railhead by Philip Reeve
|Railhead by Philip Reeve|
|Reviewer: Alex Mitchell|
|Summary: a steady-paced and thrilling science fiction adventure, packed full of interesting concepts, great characters and a bit of dry humour every once in a while. In his A-Z of Railhead Philip Reeve explains that Y is for Yanvar.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 352||Date: October 2015|
|Publisher: Oxford University Press|
|External links: Author's website|
Shortlisted for the 2017 CILIP Carnegie Medal
In the distant future, mankind has travelled into space, not by spaceship, but by train. This is the world of the Grand Network, with nearly a thousand K-gates (like Stargates but for trains) spanning the galaxy, linking hundreds of rich and varied worlds. The Network is watched over by vast digital creatures known as The Guardians, who are slightly apathetic computer deities. The story follows Zen Starling, a boy on the bottom rungs of society as he steals his way through life to support his mentally unstable mother and tough, hard-working sister. But soon, he becomes embroiled with a shady man called Raven, who has a mysterious and slightly sinister plan for the network…
We're straight into action with Zen running for his life from a security drone. No introduction as to who Zen is, what he's doing or why he's doing it, just him tearing through the streets of the market-town of Ambersai. It's a thrilling and effective start, really capturing the tone and pace of the book to follow.
It's a book full of inventive concepts and I was driven to keep reading. There's an alien (or possibly man-made - the book doesn't say) species known as hive monks, who worship the 'Insect Lines' purportedly a set of railway lines beyond the known network, as revealed by the station angels (although these angels are simply bursts of energy released by the trains as they jump through K-gates). It's a creepy but compelling idea.
The characters come off the page brilliantly. We've already met Zen Starling, a young, prejudiced but strangely likeable thief who is desperate to be free of his poverty-stricken lifestyle. He's accompanied by Nova, a female android (or Moto, as they are known) who tries to stand out from her fellow androids by giving herself freckles and a unique personality. It's testament to Reeve's writing that you can just about forget that that she's just an animatronic. The two of them are under the command of Raven, a shady man who wants to have something stolen, something very precious. Raven is difficult to categorise, being somewhere between antihero and straight-up villain - you'll make your own decision. The Network is ruled over by the Noons, a corporate family who strive to maintain peace by marrying their various heirs off to powerful families. The thought of corporations ruling the galaxy is scary but does provoke the thought that we might be heading that way already. Watching over the network are the Guardians. Apathetic they might be, but they're determined to see that Raven's plan does not come to fruition…
This is one of the few books I've read which makes riding a train feel interesting. In fact, in this world, people get addicted to riding the trains (they're the Railheads of the title). The trains themselves are sentient: they can be loving, cynical and even (in one case, at least) psychotic and murderous...
This is most likely a standalone novel since Reeve has been thinking about it for ten years and there's no indication that he'll write more. However, the book's ending is a little mysterious, leaving readers questioning what is going to happen next and it does pave the way for a sequel, if Reeve is minded to write one.
It's an entertaining, inventive book packed with interesting concepts and a touch of humour here and there. Fans of Philip Reeve, young and old, will definitely love this.
Further reading suggestions:
Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld – a similar genre with similar ideas, except taking place in the recent past (1914) rather than the distant future
Fever Crumb (Mortal Engines Quartet Prequel) by Philip Reeve – for more interesting concepts, characters and universes
The Boundless by Kenneth Oppel – a similar setting and concept, but for younger readers.
You can read more book reviews or buy Railhead by Philip Reeve at Amazon.com.
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