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Monday, 28 September 2015

Book Of The Month: Railhead


We all remember our first time.

I've spoken before about when I discovered Philip Reeve's writing
, by chance, in WH Smiths, picking up Mortal Engines and being hooked by the opening line ("It was a dark, blustery afternoon in spring, and the city of London was chasing a small mining town across the dried-out bed of the old North Sea.")

What hit me about Mr Reeve's latest book, Railhead (due out this week), is that for many this will probably be their first Philip Reeve novel and what an unexpected ride they are beginning.

If the Mortal Engines books can be seen as Philip Reeve's take on post-apocalyptic steampunk then Railhead is his cyberpunk, with shades of Neuromancer and Blade Runner interwoven  with a cinematically-epic galaxy of exotic worlds.

Many centuries in the future, mankind has left Old Earth behind and populated the stars thanks to a network of rail tracks linking hundreds of planets via gates that fold space.

In this setting where mankind worships an ethereal collection of hyper-intelligent AIs - The Guardians - who are believed to have built The Great Network (the tracks and the gates); clones dinosaurs to raise as pets or for hunting; travels the stars in sentient, singing trains; and uses humanoid robots (called Motoriks) as cheap labour, Railhead focuses on someone who has slipped between the cracks.

Zen Starling, a petty thief from a backwater planet, is taken under the wing of a mysterious master criminal called Raven and tasked with the job of stealing a small box from the most powerful family in the galaxy. This box, it turns out, depending of who you believe, has the power to change or destroy everything.

The central characters in Railhead are wonderfully complex, with shades of light and dark in all. The only truly psychopathic character turns out to be one of the trains (imagine Thomas The Tank Engine infused with the personality of Hannibal Lecter) while the most innocent is Nova, Raven's Motorik assistant, sent along to help Zen.

While a joy to read, flowing with Reeve's trademark deft use of vivid, lyrical language, Railhead goes to some pretty dark places and asks some big questions: such as, in a galaxy of clones and androids, where personalities can be uploaded to new bodies and gender can be fluid, what makes a person a person?

Fast-paced and action-packed, as you'd expect, the book also boasts, I suspect, the highest body count in any of Reeve's books to date. While he hasn't yet reached Game Of Thrones' level, let's just say no-one escapes unscathed and not everyone we become attached to makes it out alive.

All this is set against a stunning backdrop of fully realised, original and inventive, alien worlds that should see Disney knocking on Mr Reeve's door asking him to consult on upcoming Star Wars projects.

The tight plotting means everything is important, a throwaway comment or observation at one point turns out to be a vital clue later on, keeping us on tenterhooks until the very last sentence.

Railhead is an absorbing read from a master world-builder at the top of his game. Philip Reeve has created a universe rich in detail and bursting with incredible ideas that I feel we've only touched the surface of.

This is only the first stop on a long and exciting journey for fans old and new.

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