Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Review & Giveaway: Railsea by China Mieville


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I like hobos. I won't apologize for it. They live cheap and ride free, crisscrossing America with nothing but the clothes on their backs and the wisdom of other hobos to keep them safe.

What's the symbol for "Tony's a farter?"
This wisdom, passed along via pictographic writing, distills the essence of rail travel to a series of deceptively simple drawings.

Most of them are helpful, like the plus sign meaning "Ok," or the hoop-skirted stick figure to represent "Woman."

Others are disturbing: a dangling diamond means "Prepare to defend yourself."

And some are downright terrifying. A rectangle with a single dot warns of "Danger! Brutal man!"

With the publication of Railsea by China Miéville, it's time to update the Hobo Code with a new symbol, one representing:
  • free showers for China Miéville fans
  • signed copy of Railsea inside this pickle barrel
  • free mole meat
Thankfully, Railsea offers us the perfect symbol to convey these disparate ideas.

Ladies and gentlemen, I proudly present to you what is likely to be my greatest contribution to humanity.

Behold the Railsea hobo sign!

If you've read Railsea then you're familiar with what the ampersand represents. If you haven't, I won't spoil the surprise for you.

But I can tell you what the ampersand symbolizes to me: the genius of China Miéville. The man belongs to a small fraternity of writers who use language, not as a spade to uncover the story, but as a cudgel to beat it into your soul. In Miéville's case, he doesn't stop there.

Not content with transporting you to an imaginary place and making you care about every person, creature and machine there, Miéville transforms a logogram you've seen a million times into an indelible symbol of the very place you're reading about.

Months after finishing Railsea, you'll be reading a tweet where someone saved two precious characters in a conjuct of this & that and suddenly you're back in Railsea. Genius!

F***ing A, I loved this book!

Oh, right. I should tell you what it's about.

From Oblong Books:
On board the moletrain Medes, Sham Yes ap Soorap watches in awe as he witnesses his first moldywarpe hunt: the giant mole bursting from the earth, the harpoonists targeting their prey, the battle resulting in one’s death and the other’s glory. But no matter how spectacular it is, Sham can't shake the sense that there is more to life than traveling the endless rails of the railsea–even if his captain can think only of the hunt for the ivory-coloured mole she’s been chasing since it took her arm all those years ago. When they come across a wrecked train, at first it's a welcome distraction. But what Sham finds in the derelict—a series of pictures hinting at something, somewhere, that should be impossible—leads to considerably more than he'd bargained for. Soon he's hunted on all sides, by pirates, trainsfolk, monsters and salvage-scrabblers. And it might not be just Sham's life that's about to change. It could be the whole of the railsea.
Part of my effort at YA Confidential has been to identify YA titles that have strong "boy appeal." I've reviewed a few titles in the past (here, here and here, for example). But Railsea is now my official go-to suggestion for anyone looking to get a son, brother or boyfriend reading or wants to understand what resonates with the guy hive mind.

I hope that doesn't sound like damning with faint praise. Yes, it's a great book for boys but it's also a great book for those who like their YA dipped in voice and pan fried in hot story sauce.

What makes it so good?

First there's Sham, the guy most of us imagine ourselves to be. He's smart, adventuresome, brave and just naive enough to allow hope to guide him on his journey. He's Bilbo, the reluctant hero who grows into his role as leader of a possibly doomed expedition.

Then there's the railsea, the endless track loops that connect the rock archipelagos where most people live. Venturing off the tracks is a death sentence (it's bad, like Boba Fett vis-a-vis Saarlac bad). I needed a map to visualize the railsea so I cooked up some spaghetti and plopped it on a plate (this is the railsea). Then I added mealworms and nightcrawlers (these represent the tunneling moldywarpes). Finally, I dusted the whole thing with rusty metal shavings. Voila! Railsea!


BTW, I'm selling my railsea on Etsy next week if anyone's interested.

There's also the "ship" and its crew, both driven to extremes by Captain Naphi, a woman who is equal parts aloof mother to Sham and batshit crazy Ahab to her elusive quarry. Sham struggles to find his place on the Medes where he comes aboard as a doctor's apprentice. About the time he starts to feel the tug of more romantic salvage work, he meets the Shroaks, a brother and sister team of salvors with a secret so compelling, others are willing to kill for it.

All the above would be for naught without a solid story and this one is a drumhead tight adventure with more twists and turns than the railsea itself. At heart, this book is a pirate adventure, complete with treasure map, warring factions, mythical beasts and a chase over open "ocean." There's even a parrot analogue in the form of a day-bat Sham saves from a vicious death. My swash was buckled to within an inch of its life.

Finally, there is Miéville's genius, a constant companion from page one. His voice is amazing. Just a tiny example: he uses a different description for each of the moletrain's many modes. The sound the train makes when it's bearing down for a kill is very different from a train making time across the railsea or managing a slow cruise to allow for crucial repairs. After a while, you can hear the train in the back of your head, as if you were reading the book on Amtrak. (Note to self: read Railsea on Amtrak. Mind=Blown!).

I was constantly amazed at Miéville's use of language and found myself wondering where he found all those juicy words, let alone figured out a way to bring them together in the literary equivalent of a Taser. Reading Miéville and then trying to string words together myself reminded me of the time I dropped trou at a porn convention. Yeah, it was fun but I didn't do my confidence any favors. 

If you're still not convinced, perhaps some free association will help. There were a bunch of movies that came to mind as I read Railsea, including Lord of the Rings, Tremors, Mad Max and The Wild, Wild West. On further analysis, it's quite possible China Miéville doesn't even exist but is, in fact, a scientific experiment designed solely to give Terry Gilliam something to direct.

Why haven't you bought a copy yet?! Okay, time to pull out all the stops. I said this before but I'll repeat it now. Railsea is the kind of book you feel sad finishing. You know the kind, where you loved reading it and you know it will bring you joy every time you go back through it.

But you'll never know the same thrill of discovery you had on first read.

For me, Railsea goes on the So Good I'm Sad shelf with The Hobbit, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and Lizard Music.

If you still can't pull the trigger, well, it's quite possible you're dead. But since I'm convinced even zombies will love this book, I've got one final proposal.

Click here and scroll down to the Rafflecopter giveaway at the bottom of our One Year Anniversary post. Railsea is my giveaway book and the winner can choose either a physical copy or the eBook. The raffle is open until September 25, so get after it, tiger!

No matter how you do it, get a copy of Railsea. Especially if you're a Hobo. Nothing like reading a book about rail adventures while you're having one yourself. It'll be like looking at a painting of a man painting himself, painting himself, painting himself, into infinity! Whoa.


Copil has spent the better part of his life trying to figure out how to make a Hobo Burrito. Anyone who knows won't tell. And anyone who tells doesn't know. Tweet your recipes to @Copil.

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