Railhead by Phillip Reeve
So a couple years ago when the Mortal Engines film started its promotional run, the book it was based on was put on sale. And I gave it a try. It was really fun and turned out to be one of the best things I read in a very long time. Then I read the sequel, and my heart broke a little bit, because the Mortal Engines sequel had storylines that were retconned from the first book so that it could become a franchise. I really hated the fact that the author did that. And I wasn’t sure about what to expect of what else he had to offer because so much of his work tied to this Mortal Engines World. I feel like I was a little burned to give him a second chance with the property for the time being. Yet I did want to read more of his work because the original Mortal Engines book is a masterpiece in my opinion. Then one day I saw that he released a new book for a completely new series. A series that is completely unrelated to the Mortal Engines and I thought I would give it a try. It would be fresh, new and I would not be carrying any bias into this book with me. So here is my review of Railhead by Phillip Reeve,
So what is Railhead about? It takes place in the far flung future where humans live across many planets in the galaxy and easily can travel from one planet to another on these trains that can travel through these portals call K gates. (Which is an just an off brand stargate.) And there is of course in disproportionate class structure between the rich and poor.
The story follows Zen Starling, a young man who is a thief and who also loves to ride the train tracks to other world. He steals to earn enough money to help his family get by and possibly one day get psychological help for his mentally ill mother. But what seems like a simple robbery sends a strange girl in a red coat after him. Despite his attempts to escape, he is recruited by her and a criminal mastermind/terrorist Raven to do a job for them. Zen turns out to have some royal blood in him and is a doppelganger for a member of the royal Noon family. Zen has no choice but to go on this mission undercover for Raven or he might die. Least to say things are not as easy or straight forward as they should be. The royals are not as evil as Zen expected them to be. Raven is morally ambiguous. The heist turns out to be so much more than a heist, forcing Zen to bear some heavy burdens and must do what he feels he has to do to try to make things right.
The good? First if all, I love the world building here. This future is so diverse and multicultural that every world carries this unique flavor. And speaking of diversity, its here in extraordinary range. Where a lot of books like to hit the reader over the head with these themes such as these trying to lecture the reader, this is much more subtle. It presents a world and characters that is inviting and engaging rather than using tokenism or forcing social issues on the reader that get in the way of the story. The diversity was smartly done here. If all the cultures merged and mixed together like they did here, it would would most likely look like this. It is shown beautifully in the details of the world, without trying to make it a huge point. I just loved how the book handled this so well where so many other novels fail at it so terribly. Also, unlike Mortal Engines, which was about a hardened survivor trying to survive an apocalypse on such a grand scale, this is a more personal tale. How Zen becomes involved in this mess between the Noon family and Raven, has him constantly questioning who is right and who is wrong in all of this. He is part of the Noon family and should be entitled to the Noon family’s riches, but also cares about his fugitive mother who is barely surviving in the slums. Its not only a great heist, but an amazing character study as well. The side characters are all fun as well. And lastly this society version of gods is fascinating. It’s a pool of thousands years of data that can download into hosts to worshipped because they are all knowing. It was just a really interesting take on a futuristic religion. Also one last thing. This story does set up for a sequel organically. So there is less of a chance of retconning this time around when compared to The Mortal Engines series.
Now onto the bad? There was one thing really bothered me about this book. It is that the major action scene set piece during the heist was a hard to follow. I found myself asking as they in a pocket area between the gates? Why are they floating? Is there no gravity? If so, why is there a ground below them? Is a moon or satellite? I was a bit confused about what was going to on well into the aftermath. I found this strange because this author had been so good with action scenes in his other novels.
Overall, this is a unique fantastical take on the Prince and the Pauper with much higher stakes. The characters are great. The world building is amazing. And this is a great suspenseful scifi tale that is most definitely worth checking out. It’s a must read and now check it out.
5 Smoothies out of Five
Overall Rating: An Epic Scifi Heist Worth Checking Out