I’m just going to come out and say this. It’s Moby-Dick, only without the boring bits. Well, no. What I just described would be an 80-page novelette. This is a full-size book, filled wall-to-wall with thrilling action, squirm-worthy tension, weird discoveries, and warm, appealing characters. Also, instead of water, the ocean in this version of Moby-Dick is a seemingly endless landmass filled with merging, splitting, tangling, and criss-crossing lines of rail. Where the soil is loose enough for creatures to burrow in it, the railsea takes care of itself (or is maintained by some supernatural agency; but let’s leave the theological questions to one side). It isn’t safe for people to set foot on this ground, because it is infested with mutant meat-eating oversized worms, insects, and furry things. The rockier bits, islands if you will, are populated by human settlements. The higher elevations, where the atmosphere is poisonous to earthly life, belong to creatures brought here and left behind by visitors from alien worlds.
Thousands of years of toxic waste have created a world that doesn’t remember being anything like the world we know. A world where, instead of ships, people travel the sea in trains. A world where, instead of whales, they chase giant burrowing stoats, badgers, and moles. A world where wind power, solar power, steam, diesel, and electrical engines operate side by side, at least in harbor. It is considered a grand thing to belong to a moletrain, and a disgrace to live life as a salvor, trading in objects salvaged from wrecked trains or buried deep in the ground. But in this world, there are even lower ways to live off the railsea. Pirates. Wreckers. And there are higher callings as well, such as chasing a philosophy—a particular, giant animal whose elusive danger represents some idea, such as speed, or meaninglessness, or what have you.
Young Sham ap Soorap doesn’t know what way of life he wants for himself. The cousins who brought him up are worried about his lack of aim. They would like to see him become a moletrain captain, and perhaps chase his own philosophy. So they wrangle a berth on the moletrain Medes for him, as a doctor’s apprentice. He’s not very good at it, and his heart isn’t in it, and he doesn’t fit in with his trainmates very well, and through it all he is dogged by a disgraceful desire to do salvage instead. But he tries to make it work, even if his captain is obsessed with a giant, custard-colored moldywarpe called Mocker-Jack.
But then Sham sees something that becomes an obsession of his own. On a memory card retrieved from a wrecked train, he sees a photo of a single track stretching straight across a vast emptiness, all the way to the horizon. This image represents something so inconceivable that it’s practically heresy: the End of the Line. A way out of the railsea. As if!
Sham maneuvers his train’s captain into helping him get to the bottom of this mystery. In so doing, he begins to show leadership skills that will eventually turn the entire crew of the Medes into his devoted followers. He meets a fascinating girl and her spunky kid brother, who will risk their lives in quest of something of which their parents perished in the seeking. Separately and together, Sham, the Shroakes, and the crew of the Medes will encounter privateers, wartrains, legendary monsters, deadly traps, and even heavenly beings (albeit in a cosmos where the way to heaven is horizontal). Echoes of Homer’s Odyssey, riffs on Robinson Crusoe, and amazing feats of intelligence by a tame bat, will accompany a steadily accelerating clackety-clack of battles, terrifying perils, and soul-shaking wonders.
This page is probably more helpful than the author’s website for identifying further titles by this brilliant writer. He has read vastly, as is apparent from his ability to draw effortlessly from the world of literature. He has thought boldly, arranging his materials in an alternate world of striking originality. And he expresses himself vividly, taking a creative approach to every level of storytelling from overall structure down to the details of language, yet always with a compelling sense of purpose. Even his hesitations, backtrackings, and veerings from one narrative track to another seem fitting for a world in which life without railroads is inconceivable. He is basically a colossal genius with a cold-fusion brain who, as his crowning achievement, has mastered the knack of communicating with audiences at a teen level. You’ll enjoy reading this book so much that you won’t realize it’s making you smarter.