Urged on by his guardian cousins, young Sham Yes ap Soorap gets apprenticed to a doctor on a moletrain, riding the Railsea in search of moldywarpe, giant moles hunted for food. Captain Naphi of the Medes, the train Sham sails aboard, is obsessed with Mocker Jack, the biggest moldywarpe of them all, & will do anything to find her prey...
Remember that game you used to play when you were a kid, when the living room floor was either molten lava or shark-infested waters, & you had to leap from chair to couch to coffee table & never touch the floor? That's what the world of Railsea reminds me of, covered in miles & miles of rail, most exposed earth harboring moldywarpes, mole rats, worms, & many other malevolent beasties.
In Railsea, China Mieville tells a tale inspired by Moby Dick, the tale of a young orphan named Sham, a captain obsessed with a mole the size of a building, & the other denizens of the Railsea, a world of dangerous fauna, megatons of salvage, & untold parsecs of rail.
The sheer inventiveness of Mieville's world is staggering. As in Kraken, China shook the idea tree hard on this one. As outlandish as it is, the setting of Railsea isn't all that hard to imagine.
The story feels like Moby Dick at first, but with tastes of Treasure Island & Robinson Crusoe as well. It also reminds me of a more accessible version of China's Bas-Lag books. Captain Naphi's obsession with Mocker Jack echoes Captain Ahab's, although Ahab never had pirates, angles, & the edge of the world to contend with.
Sham's meeting with the Shroakes is what makes the book veer away from being a take off on Moby Dick and become its own animal. A colossal mole, perhaps. I had my doubts about Caldera and Dero Shroakes at first but things really came together at the end. And what an end it was! I love the final image of Sham, the Shroakes, and Captain Naphi sailing beyond the end of the world.
I don't have anything bad to say about this book, although the use of "&" in place of "and" took a little getting used to. It's the most accessible of China Mieville's books & a damn fine book as well. Don't let the YA label fool you. It's a solid & satisfying read at any age.