China Mieville's Railsea has all the trappings of successful YA novel—a young, likeable protagonist in Sham Ap Soorap, a detailed and fantastic world, imaginative and unique monsters, and a quest for a faraway and mythical land. But, as usual, Mieville is up to something more than a fluffy YA tale meant to be consumed by masses of junior high students who cut their teeth on Harry Potter and Hunger Games. In fact, Mieville probably alienates his target audience on the first few pages with his decision to replace the word 'and' with an ampersand—a decision that's cleverly explained two hundred or so pages in. If that doesn't turn off your average seventh grader, Mieville's refusal to allow his readers to get their bearings in his world probably will.
I spent about 25 pages wondering what the hell was going on. There was talk of meat islands. Trains that seemed to function more as sailing vessels. Weird names (Sham Ap Soorap, Captain Abacat Naphi). References to Moby Dick. Giant, mutated moles. It's enough to make your head spin.
I stuck with it, and I'm glad I did. Mieville—as always—rewards his readers' patience. The titular railsea is an ocean of dry earth where giant burrowing animals roam like Great Whites. It's covered by a complex and seemingly endless rail system that allows crews to hunt these giant burrowing animals much like Ahab hunted Moby Dick.
When Sham discovers mysterious photographs that suggest the rail system actually ends—an unthinkable thought—he sets forth on an adventure to discover what's at the end of the line. Throughout the ensuing adventure, Mieville inserts small paragraphs that address the reader directly and provide tidbits of useful background information or speculate on the nature of narrative. Heady stuff for YA readers.
What's at the end of the line is one part remarkable and one part disappointing. This is typical Mieville, and I'm now convinced he does it on purpose as some sort of commentary on reader expectations. One thing's for sure: China Mieville is one of the most imaginative writers out there. The man probably has more amazing ideas before his morning coffee is warm than I do in a whole year.
After reading Railsea, I had the distinct impression that this novel was Mieville taking something of a break—a 400+ page, wildly inventive, never obvious, rollicking break. And what he achieves on break is what most writers strive a lifetime to create.
Railsea comes out on May 15. But don't buy it for the average middle schooler—chances are that it will be met with disappointment. Buy it for yourself.