“The Great Network is an ancient web of routes and gates, where sentient trains can take you anywhere in the galaxy in the blink of an eye.”
A drone follows Zen Starling to his home world, after the young thief steals a necklace from a goldsmith’s shop. Everyone assumes Zen is just getting what he’s always deserved. But no one, including Zen himself, expects him to take up with an intergalactic criminal, steal a mysterious, prized object from the emperor’s own sentient train and unveil the truth about The Great Network. YA Sci-Fi, 2015. Philip Reeve is also the author of the The Hungry City Chronicles, which won several honors for teen fiction.
What I Liked:
(1) Railhead’s worldbuilding is much more layered and complex than much YA fare I’ve read. Its short, lyrical explanations suspend disbelief, cover whole galaxies and invent a fluent, unique Railhead vocabulary. It’s all very nonchalant—no infodumps stall the action. This sci-fi reads like wonder-filled fantasy, not like a physics textbook.
(2) The writing itself is decent—it tells the story well, with occasional flairs of poignance or humor. Philip Reeve is a true writer, not just an excellent storyteller. He portrays each world with quick, but keen details and in such a personal way (to Zen) that the reader feels like they know it, too:
“Zen’s home town 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 Angat whose surface was scoured by constant storms…Between the steep-stacked buildings, a thousand waterfalls went foaming down to join the river far below, adding their own roar to the various dins from the industrial zone. The local name for Cleave was Thunder City.
(3) It is morally and emotionally complex. Zen isn’t just a “good kid” from “the wrong side of the tracks.” He enjoys thieving, as a way of life, and the ultimate heist plot appeals to him even before he finds out that Raven, his new boss and author of the heist, may have purer motives than everyone assumes. Raven himself is a very complex character who certainly agrees that the end may justify any means. But the book doesn’t attempt to judge anyone’s behavior—it simply shows the results of their choices. Raven suffers every imaginable agony, due to his lifestyle, and Zen’s actions bring consequences that both touch the reader and awaken Zen to questions of right and wrong. It’s a very realistic awakening, and I think the reader is certain to feel it, as I did.
(4) It explores concepts like gender and artificial intelligence in subtle ways that are perfect for a teen readership. There’s no preaching or titillation, here.
My complaints are minor, overall. (1) Although the story interested me intellectually from the very beginning (the worldbuilding immediately fascinated me), it didn’t engage my emotions until around ch. 19 (out of 50), when Zen starts to feel conflicted; and the plot didn’t have me racing through the pages until the end of ch. 20, when the danger finally makes the leap from theoretical to physical. (2) The characters aren’t particularly intriguing. There’s no voice, little personality and less rumination. Thankfully, the many settings—and the trains—are satisfying characters.