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Ermahgerd. Berks.

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Railsea - China Miéville Leave it to China Miéville to write a young adult novel and so obfuscate his intentions (via complex vocabulary, a tricky literary style, dense prose, measured pacing, a total lack of plot threads about which boy is cuter) that I've had more than one conversation with youth librarians here on Goodreads who swear up and down that this isn't a young adult book. My evidence is, of course, rather shaky at best: the publisher says so, and why should I complain, because that means the hardcover costs less than $20.But if the feel is similar to Miéville's bizarre New Weird Fantasies (particularly the Bas Lag trilogy), if you've read him before, there are a lot of giveaways that he is writing for a more innocent crowd, like the book is much shorter, has roughly half as many adjectives, there's no swearing, and no one has sex with a lady with a bug for a head. I'd wager this is one of the author's only works that doesn't included the phrase "dessicated corpse" at least once or twice (don't worry though, he does manage to cram in a "palimpsest" for old times' sake). Also, like Un Lun Dun, his book for middle grade readers, there are a lot of cool pictures, drawn by the author himself! So, what it isn't is your typical YA novel. What is is, is one of my favorite fantasy adventures in quite some time. The plot description makes it sound like a Moby Dick pastiche, and that's basically accurate: set in sand-blasted, trash-strewn world where there is no ocean, but instead endless vistas of interweaving rail lines, it follows the journey of Sham a (a boy? teen? It's never entirely clear...) who gets a job as a doctor's apprentice on a "moler," serving on-board the train of a single-minded captain determined to hunt down and harpoon the giant albino mole that chomped her arm off. But it's a lot more than parody, and another example of the author's ability to mutate his prose to suit any purpose. Here, he's also playing with other tropes and conventions of Romanticism and Victorian literature, as well as more modern fantasy (even his own) -- equal parts Treasure Island, Robinson Crusoe, and Perdido Street Station. In stark contrast to the first-person teen narrators that populate the YA genre today, Railsea is told in playful omniscience, in a fashion that is as much about the mechanics of storytelling as it is about telling the story, jumping here and there in the action, self-consciously commenting that no, it isn't quite time for that bit yet, we'll come back to that part later, instead let's have a chapter where we explain a bit of tangential backstory. This kind of trickery requires a delicate touch. He went a bit overboard with it in Un Lun Dun (oh, the puns!), but he's much more in control here (something something pun about keeping the story on the rails something something).It isn't quite as philosophically or thematically deep as his adult novels, but it manages to fit quite a lot into the Boy's Own Adventure mold, including a host of the kind of memorable characters I've come to expect from a China Miéville book. Sham falls haphazardly into the narrative but quickly becomes an active participant, making tough choices and managing to be brave and terrified at the same time. Along the way he meets two younger kids, orphaned boy/girl twins who play an important role, two characters who are a lot of fun, who carry the weight of what they have lost but don't let it stop them from setting off on their own journey. Then there's Dr. Fremlo, Sham's teacher on-board the moling train, who admits that you don't really have to be a very good doctor out on the railsea, because anything you can't fix with a few stitches is probably going to be beyond fixing anyway. Ahab-analog Captain Naphi will remind regular readers of the she-captain from The Scar, though she has her own unexpected secret to reveal. And oh, what a world! The railsea idea sounds a bit silly at first, but if there's one thing Miéville is good at, it's world-building, and he brings this one to life in vivid detail: small cities that are essentially islands between rails that stretch from horizon to horizon, where falling from even a stopped train will bring certain death, not from drowning but from one of the terrifying mutant creatures that swims the railsea (take your pick, we've got giant moles, giant ants, giant owls, giant worms, giant earwigs...). Where Lovecraftian horrors inhabit the poisoned upper atmosphere and humanity is confined to a slim sliver of breathable air in-between rail and the Upsky. Where much modern technology has been lost (is this a future Earth? A colony planet? Outside our universe altogether?), but ancient, ruined tech can be salvaged and made new. Where some trains are driven by engines, yes, but others are blown by huge sails, or moved by slave-driven pistons, or pulled by a herd of rhinos. I highly doubt there will be another book set in this world, but I really, really want to see more of it, and that's a nice way to feel after you've closed the covers. So, if it isn't obvious, I'm entirely in the tank for this author, but I do think this is one of his most enjoyable, most accessible, and even most successful books in years. In aiming at a younger audience, he's produced a book that is simultaneously simpler and yet no less linguistically complex (well, maybe a little), with a much more straightforward narrative than he typically favors. It may just turn out to be my new recommended starting place for those intimidated by his reputation as a difficult writer. Advance e-ARC provided by Netgalley.