Fans of Philip Reeve’s futuristic Mortal Engines quartet or Larklight trilogy will be glad to know the author is back with a new steampunk odyssey, which takes place in a future where passengers ride trains (that have their own personalities and consciousness) between worlds. At the beginning of Railhead, Zen Starling is just a petty thief who loves to ride the rails when he can. Before long he’s caught up in a swirl of events that will not only change his life but will also alter the course of civilization.
I loved Reeve’s books when I was in high school, but not having reread them since then, I wondered what it would be like to return to that world as an older reader. To my delight, by the end of Railhead, I was turning the pages as eagerly as I did those of The Mortal Engines a decade ago. It was easy to see what I loved in those books years ago: fast-paced plots in imaginative worlds with no end of surprises.
The novel shines brightest when Reeve is exploring the nature of different trains and people’s relationships to them, whether it’s the mysterious Flex and her ability to tag trains with breathtaking graffiti or the barely touched-upon relationship between the two Imperial trains, the Wildfire and The Time of Gifts. I’ll admit that I didn’t find Zen too distinctive as a character, but the action-packed plot more than makes up for it – he’s too busy running around stealing things and escaping for you to mind his somewhat stunted inner life too much.
If I had one complaint, it’s that the book rushes through some events that I’d like to spend more time with, like Zen’s time impersonating a member of the Imperial family. That experience is so intriguing that, as used as I am to devouring fantasy or science fiction novels with complicated political maneuvering, I probably could have easily remained interested in that plot for twice the time Reeve spends on it. Then again, that kind of long detour would have been out of pace with the rest of the book, so perhaps it’s for the best.
If there are more adventures for Zen in store, I’ll be excited to read them!
A copy of this book was provided by the publisher for review.