Book review

Railhead by Philip Reeve (2015)

Part 1 of the Railhead trilogy

Here’s a story about unintended consequences. Zen is a thief. He doesn’t really steal stuff to order but Raven asks him to steal a little something. Where’s the harm in that? It isn’t as though the whole known galaxy will collapse in on itself or anything... will it?

In this world there are K-gates. Hyperspace portals for K-trains, old, wise, sentient engines of the Empire, dreaming their dreams of speed and distance, and singing their strange songs as they race from world to world.

Only the Guardians know how it works. You step aboard a train, and the train goes through a K-gate, and you step off on another planet, where the sun that was shining on you a moment ago is now just one of those tiny stars in the sky. It might take ten thousand years to travel that far by spaceship, but a K-train makes the jump in seconds.

Can you imagine? Commuting through all those wild and beautiful worlds? Crossing the entire galaxy, or do I mean universe in the blink of an eye? For some, most of the population perhaps, it’s just another commute, but others still sense the magic of it. That’s how it is for Zen, and that’s what makes him a railhead. Of course when I say wild and beautiful worlds...some of them are. That’s where the rich folk live. And some are mined out barren wastes.

Zen’s hometown was a sheer-sided ditch of a place. Cleave’s houses and factories were packed like shelved crates up each wall of a mile-deep canyon on a one-gate world called Angkat whose surface was scoured by constant storms.

At first Zen thinks the gold necklace he stole in the Ambersai Bazar is the cause of all his problems...the security drones, the strange girl in the red coat – that’s Nova the motorik by the way, and uh-oh! There seems to be wartrain in Cleave. It surely can’t be after Zen Starling, can it?

It’s difficult in this story to be sure who is friend and who is foe. Whose side should we be on – Yanvar Malik or Raven, the Empire or the rebel individual? And does Zen really have a choice? Raven’s got him and Raven wants him.

If you want to know what kind of man Raven is exactly you’ll have to read the book...but there have been multiple versions of him around for a long long time and Yanvar Malik just keeps on killing him, over and over again. What kind of person do you become if you never expect to die? And what about Nova the motorik? Zen has learned to despise wire dollies, but up close and personal what’s the difference? Nova is intelligent, charming, funny, affectionate, thoughtful, and she’s a bit of a railhead too. And if you’re not a railhead yet you probably will be soon because these trains are just fabulous.

He stood among trainspotters and excited children on the platform and simply stared as the train pulled in. Those huge twin locos, the Wildfire and the Time of Gifts, had been in the Noon family for centuries. Their curved and complicated cowlings had been in and out of fashion so many times that they had finally escaped it altogether and were just themselves: grand, ancient, honey-coloured things with the worn beauty of old buildings. Behind them were the five huge double-decker carriages which formed the quarters of the Emperor and his inner circle. And behind those, curving away out of the station and across the viaduct, were lesser carriages, all just as beautiful.
‘Zen?’ said Nova, in his head. She stood just behind him, ignored by the other sightseers. ‘I have sent a message to the Noon train to let them know that you are here, and that you wish to board.’

And that’s sort of where it all starts to go wrong. Raven’s planned for all eventualities but he didn’t foresee any of this stuff...

What can I read next?

Epic. You’ll find yourself reading it fast just to keep up with the action. It’s part one of a trilogy so you can carry on:

  • Railhead
  • Black Light Express
  • Station Zero

And Philip Reeve has created another amazing world in his Mortal Engines quartet:

If the problem of Nova interests you have a look at this one by Bernard Beckett which is a really absorbing read:

Railhead is set in a world where there is a lot wrong but actually the kids in the story start winning. If you enjoy positive story lines have a look at the Maximum Ride series by James Patterson:

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