Railhead by Philip Reeve (2015) 299 p.
After several years of writing books aimed at younger children, Philip Reeve returns to a teenage audience with Railhead: a wonderfully imaginative space opera taking place across an empire of hundreds of worlds linked together by the K-bahn, a network of teleportation gates and railways, with sentient locomotives ferrying people, goods and data across the vast gulfs of space. Zen Starling, a two-bit thief from an industrial city called Cleave, finds himself sucked into an adventure as he’s unexpectedly pursued by both government officials and an enigmatic, powerful fugitive named Raven.
Reeve is the author of the classic Mortal Engines series, which remain my favourite YA novels of all time, and I was quite looking forward to this one. I’m happy to say it doesn’t disappoint – this his best novel in years, and recaptures many of the elements I thought made Mortal Engines so successful.
One of those is pacing. I recall one reviewer calling Mortal Engines “an epic in miniature,” which I felt was apt, given how much globetrotting and adventure Reeve managed to fit into only a few hundred pages. The same is true of Railhead, which is just under 300 pages and yet squeezes in what another author might take several books to cover. And I’d forgotten how much I love Reeve’s vivid, evocative writing, which I think stems from his former life as an illustrator. So many scenes stick out in the mind: the industrial waterfall canyon city of Cleave, the abandoned hotel on a moon beneath the rings of a gas giant, the salty green sea surging through the shattered windows of a derailed train. It lends itself to a wonderfully cinematic kind of story, in the sense of both the visuals and the narrative frame. Reeve has good cliffhanger chapter breaks, a good sense of adventurous tension, and a great ability to write epic, climactic conclusions.
What I appreciated more than anything else was that it felt like Reeve was writing a story that to entertain himself, the kind of thing he (and I) would have liked to read as a kid, rather than something carefully calculated to slot into the modern YA publishing market. I find that far too many series these days are deliberately aimed at teenagers’ sense of self-importance and tortured misunderstanding. You’re not like the others… you’re DIVERGENT. You might just be a clumsy Washington teen… but you’re SPECIAL. Even the Hunger Games, which tries so hard to position itself as being subversive (and to be fair I’ve only seen one film, not read the books) still struck me as stroking youthful egos (which many people never grow out of); encouraging the fantasy of being the most important, glamorous person in the room. All the perfunctory reluctant-hero-figurehead crap would, I think, have swept right over the heads of most teenagers in the audience.
Which is why it’s refreshing to read Reeve, an author whose characters are not special or chosen or different or heroic: they’re just people, jerked around by events greater than themselves, trying to protect themselves and their loved ones. Any saving of the world which might happen along the way is incidental. Reeve understands this fundamental truth, in contravention of so many of our narrative myths: the fate of the world is decided by people far bigger and more powerful than we can ever hope to be, and it’s all we can do to take care of ourselves. Maybe some would find this depressing. I disagree. I actually find it a much more valuable message to be imparting to young adults: we’re not special, nobody is The Chosen One, we’re all equally important in a messed up world and we need to try to be good people and look out for each other.
It’s also just good, rollicking fun – the kind of novel which wouldn’t have been categorised as YA at all thirty years ago, but instead would have simply been science fiction.
Further notes – I like Reeve’s commitment to broadening the scope of what young people read about in terms of relationships (a gay romance in Scrivener’s Moon, and an unconventional one I won’t spoil in Railhead) and race (most of the Network Empire seems to have come from India, and most of the major characters are dark-skinned). I like his wild imagination – I loved the Guardians, the AIs created in a distant past which have now become as gods, aloof and withdrawn from the affairs of mankind. I like the subtle, simple way he writes characters, with everybody containing shades of grey, with people who appear to be villains sometimes turning out to be sympathetic, and people who appear to be good sometimes turning out to be villains. And, as always, I’m a sucker for stories in the genre of “oddball crew on a weird vehicle,” which Railhead slots into very neatly.
And like Mortal Engines, it ends perfectly, and beautifully, on an uplifting note. It could easily lead to sequels, but certainly doesn’t have to.
I enjoyed Railhead a hell of a lot – not just as a YA novel I’d recommend to teenagers, but one which I’d recommend to everybody. I’ve always thought Reeve has been one of the most overlooked writers in the genre, particularly outside the UK. I’m glad to see him back to writing for an older audience again, and I can’t wait to see what he does next.