Review: Railhead by Philip Reeve

untitledCome with me, Zen Starling, she had said. The girl in the red coat. But how did she know his name? The Great Network is a place of drones and androids, maintenance spiders and Station Angels. The place of the thousand gates, where sentient trains criss-cross the galaxy in a heartbeat. Zen Starling is a petty thief, a street urchin from Thunder City. So when mysterious stranger Raven sends Zen and his new friend Nova on a mission to infiltrate the Emperor’s train, he jumps at the chance to traverse the Great Network, to cross the galaxy in a heartbeat, to meet interesting people – and to steal their stuff. But the Great Network is a dangerous place, and Zen has no idea where his journey will take him…

The setting is out of this world

I was obsessed with Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines series, so when I was sent this ARC I was over the moon. What I liked most about that series was the incredibly imaginative world building, and Railhead didn’t disappoint – though the setting couldn’t be more different. I loved the idea of speeding across the universe to different worlds on sentient trains – who needs spaceships? I’ve always been drawn to the romance of great train journeys: this book takes them to another level. There were so many other extraordinary beings and imaginative details that pulled together to create a thrilling ride into a whimsical  futuristic world – Hive Monks made up of thousands of bugs, life-like Motorik robots, mysterious Station Angels, all-knowing artificial intelligence Guardians, and so much more.

A is for adventure

Our main character, Zen Starling, starts out as just another petty thief but gets drawn into an adventure beyond his imagining. I liked that the heart of the story was about a seemingly ordinary boy going on a journey in which he learns a lot about himself and what he is capable of. He is pushed out of his comfort zone every step of the way. One of his biggest challenges is masquerading as a distant member of a noble family – his struggle to blend in with high society had me just as much on the edge of my seat as some of the action sequences. And just like the K-bahn train journeys speeding across the universe, the pace and excitement just doesn’t let up.

It’s a knockout cast

There are so many brilliant characters in this book! Among my favourites were Nova, a Motorik with aspirations of being human and Zen’s best friend, and Threnody, a noble girl of the Noon Family, who initially befriends Zen when he sneaks onto the Noon Train under the guise of Tallis Noon. She’s smart and seems to have a knack for seeing to the heart of things – and not taking no for an answer. But the real stars of the show for me had to be the sentient trains – the proud and loyal Damask Rose, the sinister Thought Fox, and the Wild Fire and the Time of Gifts, the two glamorous engines of the Noon Train who are deeply in love with each other. Philip Reeve makes them just as real and unforgettable as his human characters.

Destination unknown

The ending blows everything wide open – literally anything could happen next. Many of the threads of the story are brought to a satisfying point, if not resolution, and there is no obvious set-up for a sequel. But with so much detail and care put into the world building, it’s hard to imagine that Philip Reeve would be able to resist coming back to this world. I predict more stories on the Great Network to come.

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