Cybils Speculative Reader: RAILHEAD by PHILIP REEVE

Welcome to the 2016 Cybils Speculative Reader!

As a first run reader for the Cybils, I’ll be briefly introducing you to the books on the list, giving you a mostly unbiased look at some of the plot.

Synopsis: At first, Zen Starling was just a thief who loved the Network. Like the other Railheads, Zen loved the trains, haunted the stations and rode them every chance he got. He was one of the millions who lived on the edge of everything — the tail end of a town which was once populace and wonderful, but which was over with, since the mine had played out. His town was at the end of the train line now, and nothing much happened to him that he didn’t make happen, except for the magic of the Network. His sister worked hard and away from home; his mother was riddled with anxiety and struggling with her mind. Zen stole like a little magpie, to give his world color and texture and adventure. At least he did, until the day he got caught…

The Motorik – the one he’d called just a wire doll – brought Zen to Raven, a wonderfully wealthy man who was only asking him for one thing – just one more tiny heist. The chance to steal one tiny box from the Emperor’s train was simply too good to pass up. The Emperor had everything, after all – and Zen, a thief after all, had no problem relieving someone of their unnecessary wealth. But the box holds both trouble and opportunity that Zen could never have imagined. Risk and rewards which could land everyone – not just Zen – at the end of the line. He takes a chance on a friendship he hadn’t expected — in hopes that he’ll be able to repay a debt.

And then the adventure really begins….

Observations: In this dark, immersive, and fast-paced, imagined future, the network of planets and moons are connected by the mysterious K-gates, called Kwisatz Haderesch (yes: this is from Frank Herbert’s DUNE) which mean “the shortening of the way.” These “ways” are shortened instantaneously from one world to the next, and an adventure-hungry boy can ride through worlds, his face pressed against the window. The trains are sentient, self-healing, and can think and speak. They don’t take kindly, some of them, to the interference of light-fingered boys.

As always, Philip Reeve just kills it on the worldbuilding. The world is intricate and vast. Readers who are thing people more than people-persons will be in their element here – it’s all a steampunk vibe with gears and cogwork, like all the tech-y bits of the best science fiction. There are so many fun little things – Moths and Hive Monks and Station Angels – weird, quirky little discoveries that make this universe amazing. The sentience is an unexpected surprise – making you fond of inanimate objects and androids. Though the fondness is fleeting for some, and deeper for others; the characterizations aren’t quite as solid for me – Zen and Raven are as enigmatic as heck, and I didn’t quite feel like I got a particular hook in any character but the Motoriks, iroincally. The non-human and genderfluid androids who pass in and out of scene at the speed of a train pulling past are intriguing, and while the reader may wish to dive deeper, the introduction to the various life forms are sufficient for a first book.

The feel is kind of a steampunk meets heist romp, and the sketched out characters are fine for the adventure narrative involved, as this thief skims along by the skin on his teeth. The action really begins page one, and for those readers who find themselves a bit lost, there’s a glossary in the back, though rereading passages and slowing one’s headlong plunge makes it unnecessary.

Conclusion: The emphasis on worldbuilding tells me that this is a set-up book, creating a sturdy foundation for more stories in this fascinating world. A blend of fantasy and science fiction gives readers plenty of depth and range to explore. This imaginative first in a new series will cheer fans of the MORTAL ENGINES series. Those who loved those hungry, mobile cities will feel like they’ve found a new place to explore on the rails of these sentient trains. There are exactly 964 K-gates leading to wonderful and hitherto unexplored worlds, so if you’re up to the challenge… have I got a book for you!

I received my copy of this book courtesy of the library. You can find RAILHEAD by Philip Reeve at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

About the author

tanita s. davis is a writer and avid reader who prefers books to most things in the world, including people. That's ...pretty much it, she's very boring and she can't even tell jokes. She is, however, the author of eight books, including Serena Says, Peas & Carrots, and the Coretta Scott King honored Mare's War. Look for the new MG, Partly Cloudy in 9/2021 from Katherine Tegen Books.

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