I received this book for free from the Publisher in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.Railhead by Philip Reeve
Published by Switch Press on April 1 2016
Buy on Amazon
The nitty-gritty: An instant classic, Railhead deserves a spot up there with some of the best young adult fantasy/science fiction ever written.
The train was gone, but he could still see her, striding along beside him in the sodium glow from the trackside lamps. The smell of space clung to her, rich and smoky. What was this that he was feeling? It frightened him, whatever it was.
Finding a book that gives you the same feeling as a beloved favorite is a rare thing, so rare, in fact, that it’s happened to me only a handful of times. Railhead is now one of these books for me, and the book it reminded me of isn’t the same in any way, except that it gave me a similar tingly feeling that I had just discovered something special. The book I’m talking about is The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman (actually, the entire series is quite wonderful), which to this day remains at the top of my “best ever” list. Railhead has the same sense of wonder, complex plotting and fierce imagination. Reeve seamlessly incorporates his world-building details into an action-packed story that does more than just entertain—it delivers on emotional content as well. And in order to make your readers feel emotions, you must have deeply developed characters, and believe me when I say the characters in this story will stick with me for a long time.
So yes, I LOVED Railhead. I sobbed at the end. I feared for the characters’ lives. My heart pounded every time a train rushed through a K-gate. I fell in love with Zen and Nova (especially Nova!) and Flex and Raven and the Damask Rose and the Thought Fox. I cringed in horror—but was also fascinated by—the Hive Monks. I wanted to grab random people off the street and read aloud to them from the book, because Reeve’s prose demands it. But let me back up a little and set things up for you…
Zen Starling is a petty thief and a “railhead,” a kid who hops on trains and rides from world to world and back again. In this future, a vast galaxy of planets and moons are connected by the mysterious K-gates, portals that lead instantaneously from one world to the next. Through these gates rush the trains on a system of rails called the Great Network, stopping at each world the way our trains stop at subway stations.
Zen lives in near poverty with his mother and his sister Myka, and earns money for the family by stealing and selling jewelry and other small items he can easily swipe. But Zen’s activities have attracted the attention of a mysterious man named Raven, who has a very interesting proposition for him. Raven is desperate to get his hands on an artifact that is secreted away on the royal Noon family’s train, and Raven believes that Zen is just the one to steal it for him. Zen agrees to the job—and the paycheck that Raven promises him—and he and Raven’s human-like android Nova set off to complete the job. But things don’t go quite as planned, and Zen finds himself on the run from not only the Noon family, but some powerful higher-ups as well.
OK, let’s talk about the trains first, because I know you want to:-) Reeve’s trains are sentient and can think and speak, and when they are attacked or break down, they are able to self-heal. And just like the humans, there are good trains and bad trains, and just like humans, it’s not always easy to tell who’s who. Raven’s train is the Thought Fox, who is conniving and distrustful, just like Raven. My favorite train was the Damask Rose, an old abandoned train that Zen and Nova use to escape the Noon family. Reeve describes his trains in loving and joyful detail, and Zen is entranced by each train he meets, just like a classic car enthusiast might be. I loved the relationships that formed between the humans and the trains, and throughout the course of the story, they save each other more than once.
And you can’t talk about the trains without mentioning the K-gates. As the story goes, the gates were created by the Guardians, god-like creatures who rule the worlds and keep order. There are exactly 964 K-gates, each one leading to a different world. Imagine the story possibilities, if Reeve had more time to explore his galaxy! But each world he does describe is unique and magical, and those descriptions made me want to find my own train and hit the rails.
I loved so many of the characters, but my very favorite was Nova, a “Motorik,” androids that were developed to make life more efficient for humans. Nova is special, though, and has “taught” herself to be human, which she wants to be more than anything in the world. She’s given herself freckles and she watches old movies, little things that she thinks will help her pass as human. Nova’s growing relationship with Zen was one of my favorite parts of the story, although Reeve puts them through hell, and there are plenty of tears before the end.
My other favorite character was another Motorik named Flex, who changes sex halfway through the story (because Motoriks can do that!). Flex is an artist who has made a reputation for himself as a tagger, and his greatest joy is painting trains. And of course there is Zen, a boy who justifies stealing because he’s protecting his family. Zen doesn’t always make the right decisions (but then what kind of story would this be if he did?), but I never stopped rooting for him. And Raven—I’ve barely talked about him at all! Raven turned out to be one of the most interesting characters in the book. (And that’s all I’m going to say here…)
I’ve read other reviews that call the ending a cliff-hanger, but I have to disagree. Yes, it is an open-ended ending, but for me it hit all the right notes. I was left with a feeling of hope and possibility and I loved the ending just as it is. (Although I did just hear that Reeve will be writing a sequel to Railhead (!!) which makes me over-the-moon happy.)
There are so many other things I could talk about: the Station Angels, Malik, the Hive Monks, the datasea, and so much more—but I don’t want to give away all of the gems of Railhead. Rather, I want all of you to read this book, and right away if possible. Hey, I need someone to talk to about it!
Big thanks to the publisher for supplying a review copy. Above quote was taken from an uncorrected proof and may differ in the final version of the book.