You need to understand, before I start this review, that I come to Railhead as a massive Philip Reeve Fan (capital F). I love, love, love his Mortal Engines series (the first four anyway; I was less keen on the prequels). In Mortal Engines, Reeve created a perfectly logical but wildly fantastical world where each time you found yourself asking, “But how …?” or “What …?” the answer was there for you, so that no matter how out there the idea of cities rolling around on tracks like tanks, devouring each other, it worked perfectly. What is more, the bizarreness of it was much more than a mere backdrop but an integral part of the story.
So you can imagine how nervous I was on opening the first page of Railhead.
Could Reeve come up with an idea that was as inventively different as the world of Mortal Engines?
Was there any possibility it could be as good?
In Railhead, teenage petty thief Zen Starling travels the universe via a rail system upon which sentient trains cross the galaxy in moments through the mysterious K-gates. No one knows how the K-gates work, but they seem to be the work of the intelligent beings, descendants of human-made computers, which control the universe. Arriving back on his home planet after his latest theft, Zen discovers that someone is following him … an android, known politely as a motorik and less politely as a wire dolly, by the name of Nova. Zen becomes caught up in a plot to steal an artefact from under the noses of the most powerful family in the galaxy, and ultimately he must decide whether to help or hinder a change to the universe itself.
From the very first scene of Zen stealing jewellery in the bazaar, we’re in a grimy future world, the world of Blade Runner, where the noise and bustle of a street market, stalls and crowds intersperse with drones and a smartfibre duffel coat that can change colour. Fabulous world-building: how Reeve manages to convey this whole different universe, along with its rules and history and culture, without reams of info-dumping! It’s all there, how the belief system works, how the trains work, how people feel about the motos, but the information is laid out to you with such a light touch that the plot never skips a beat. And it’s all so visual too – you can see the maintenance spiders crawling over the trains to fix them, and Uncle Bugs, a colony of cockroaches that live piled up in moving, speaking human form. The story twists and turns through this universe and occasionally jumps out and surprises you, peopled by three-dimensional characters with motives that make sense. (Don’t think ‘of course’: plenty of books with fabulous worlds contain nothing but cardboard cut-out caricatures.)
Should you read it? Yes you should. It’s a rollicking good sci-fi fantasy with a teeny touch of romance. Do I like it as much as the Mortal Engines series? Not quite. But almost. There’s the possibility of a sequel in the ending and I’ll be interested to see, should Philip Reeve decide to revisit this universe, if he can sustain and build on this new world he’s created as engagingly as he did with Mortal Engines.
More to read!
I came to Railhead because I love the Mortal Engines books, and you should definitely add those to your tbr pile.
If you enjoy this book, you may also like Phoenix by S F Said.
Claire Watts writes and edits fiction and non-fiction for children and young adults. Her latest YA novel is How Do You Say GOOSEBERRY in French? You can read the first chapter here.
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