A while back I noticed Philip Reeve tweeting a cover reveal for his new book. It was science fiction about trains, so I retweeted him because I figured Kevin would be amused. It didn’t quite penetrate my brain that by doing so I was entering a contest being run by his publishers. I therefore had something of a shock when I found out that I had won a signed book. Naturally I didn’t want to deprive some kid of a fabulous prize, so I asked the publishers to draw another winner. They did so, but they kindly offered me an ARC of the new novel. Of course I said yes.
Railhead is space opera, in that it is set in a vast galactic empire. It is, however, not space opera as we know it. Yes, the star systems are connected by wormholes making interstellar travel quick and easy. But those wormholes are merely the tunnels on the galactic rail network. On those rails run trains, and naturally those trains are sentient.
This is not quite The Culture with trains. Reeve doesn’t have Iain Banks’ facility with bizarre names. Nor are the trains anywhere near as smart as Culture Minds. However, that doesn’t mean that the Network Empire is free of AIs who look after everything. They certainly exist in Reeve’s world, but they have taken on the role of gods — The Guardians, as they are known — and have mostly withdrawn from the world.
The Emperor, by the way, is known by his subjects as the Fat Controller. Yes, the book contains a lot of railway jokes.
Our hero, Zen Starling, is a teenage kid with a passion and talent for shoplifting. He thinks it is all pretty harmless. His big sister, Myka, worries that it could get him into serious trouble. She has absolutely no idea how big and how bad that trouble is about to get. It will begin with an android girl, move swiftly to mass murder, and keep on going to the very end of the rails.
Dhravid Raven was once human. Then he became the pet of one of the Guardians, and was granted powers far beyond that of any mortal. Now he is the most wanted criminal in the whole of the Network Empire. Luckily for him, most people think he is dead. Only Yanvar Malik, the renegade Railforce officer once charged with hunting Raven down, knows that the authorities have once again been fooled. Sooner or later, Raven will strike again.
Threnody Noon is the younger daughter of the Emperor. She has a life of luxury, but is doomed to be married of to a boring oaf who is heir to a vast industrial fortune. Then, onto the Imperial train saunters a handsome young man who is a distant cousin from a backwater world. He seems different from other courtiers, more interested in art and in riding the rails than in hunting and dancing. Unfortunately he also seems to have a perverse fondness for his android servant, Nova.
There is a sting going on here. Hidden in the art collection on the Noon family’s train is the most valuable artefact in the galaxy. Raven wants it. He needs an accomplished thief to get it for him.
Obviously the book is written in a fairly simplistic style. I’m not quite sure what age group it is aimed at. I’d guess middle grade, but I know that Philip hates the term. If it is aimed at teens, I’d say they would be mostly 13-14 rather than 18-19. However, don’t let this fool you into thinking that this is a simplistic book. It is anything but. Reeve poses all sorts of fascinating moral questions for his young readers. Also he’s not afraid to kill off characters. Anyone expecting merely a battle between good and evil will be thoroughly discombobulated by this book.
In a way, I am a bit sad that this is a kids’ book, because I would have liked a lot more of it. I wanted to see more of the relationship between Threnody and her neurotic older sister, Priya. I wanted to see more of the relationship between Malik and his childhood friend, Lyssa Delius, who has learned to play Railforce politics and risen to become Rail Marshall. I wanted to see more of the Hive Monks, the colonies of cockroaches that have developed communal sentience and gather together in humanoid shapes so as to mingle in human society. Most of all I wanted more of the trains.
I also want to stay in the faded exclusive hotel on a lost world, built on the shore of a vast ocean above which fly genetically-engineered manta rays.
The book appears pretty complete in itself. A sequel isn’t impossible, but it may involve other characters, or perhaps be centred on Threnody as she wrestles with the consequences of the story in Railhead. Regardless, I think that Reeve has another hit on his hands, and will be pressured to write more in this world.
Publication will be some time in October in the UK, and not until April 2016 in the USA. I’m writing this now because there’s no way I’ll be able to remember much about the book by then. Do look out for it. I mean, space opera with trains instead of spaceships; what more can you ask for?
For more information about Philip Reeve, see the SF Encyclopedia.
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