Railhead by Philip Reeve

Railhead

It was apparent from the name of the book (and its author) that this was going to be one exhilarating rollercoaster ride of a book, and the content lives up to its title. Packed with action from the beginning, it’s an adrenaline ride that takes the reader through multiple emotions, with a large cast of engaging characters.

Zen Starling is a petty thief in the future, a place where interstellar locomotives run through the Great Network, passing through K portals – like wormholes – to jump from one planet to another. Mingling with the humans are drones and androids, train maintenance spiders, station angels and hive monks – the reader feels the heaving mass of transit and commuters passing through. When the mysterious Raven sends Zen on a mission to infiltrate the ruling Emperor’s train, in return for safety and riches, Zen is raring to exploit the opportunity of exploring this amazing web of worlds, riding the trains through the Great Network. But in the end Zen has to decide who is fighting for good and who is fighting for evil, and where his loyalties lie.

Philip Reeve’s imagination knows no limits. The world he has built includes trains that come alive, insects that commune together in formations to look like people, robots with whom you can fall in love. It takes a few pages to get to grips with the futuristic terminology that Reeve has created to describe systems and castes in his new world, but before long they become a part of the reader’s language. And each new technology is only a magnified version of our own – the Internet becomes a thing of the past, and the ‘datasea’ Zen’s present. There are algae colonies, breathing out oxygen “seeded in the shallows when the planet was being terraformed”; there are drones galore.

Despite this scintillating world beyond ours, there is familiarity in the age-old narrative devices of following a protagonist as he navigates through good and evil; through the clearly delineated hierarchy of this new society; and on his journey of discovery to find out whom he can trust.

Reeve’s language is chosen carefully – each word lives up to the world he is trying to create, from the ‘flutter-thud’ of rotors, to Zen’s luck, which is ‘glitchy’. But one of the most compelling characters is an android – who mirrors human emotions and reactions in order to seem more human itself:

“Nova sniffed. She had no need to sniff, but she had seen movies, and knew it was something that people did when they’d been crying.” Almost as if Reeve has taken how an author crafts a character’s reaction to things, and has stripped it bare for the reader to see. It’s fascinating, eerie, and wonderful at the same time.

Railhead is sci-fi, thriller, and romance, all neatly tucked into one fascinating book. Although marketed for children aged 12+yrs, it will be a lucky adult who gets to read it too. It’s amazingly filmic – Zen’s world is so otherworldly, and yet conversely seems so real.

You can buy it here.

With thanks to OUP for a review copy.