China Miéville (chinamieville.net)
China Miéville’s latest novel, Railsea, takes us to a strange new world, and introduces us to Sham ap Soorap, a young boy working as an apprentice doctor aboard a moletrain. In the course of a moldywarpe hunt, the crew come across a wrecked train, and Sham discovers a camera’s memory card. On it, pictures that shock him to his core, and lead him on a mission to find two children whose parents have evidently died in search of the impossible. But there are more people interested in these two children, and in the contents of this memory card, than just Sham, and before long he finds himself involved with pirates, the military and salvage operators all looking for one thing: fortune.
Over the past number of years, Miéville has become something of a poster boy for science fiction, and consistently produces some of the finest work in the genre. His latest is a wonderful showcase for an imagination that knows no bounds and has few equals. Even for someone who has not read the original tale (yet another shameful Reader Dad confession), it’s immediately obvious where part of the inspiration for Railsea comes from: it’s a reworking of Melville’s Moby Dick, set on a world where oceans are replaced by vast swathes of train tracks, the ships we expect are replaced by trains of various descriptions – molers, salvors, ferronaval vessels bristling with weaponry and shrouded in armour, even pirates – and the great whale hunted by Ahab and his crew (here played by the one-armed Captain Naphi and the crew of the Medes) replaced by a giant mole.
It sounds faintly ridiculous, but it works; this is pure Miéville, master world-builder and expert storyteller. It doesn’t take long for the reader to become immersed in this strange world and to understand exactly how everything works. This is most definitely science fiction, but it has a very old fashioned feel – the technology is, for the most part, old and unreliable, the trains mostly ramshackle, cobbled together, and even the text feels oddly antiquated, due to the replacement of the word “and” throughout with the symbol “&”, a replacement that does have some significance, as explained later in the book. As we’ve come to expect from Miéville, the humans in this story share space with fantastical creatures, and the text is littered with neologisms and inventions designed to do little more than highlight the alien-ness of this world.
The book is promoted as an adventure for all ages, and in some outlets is being pushed purely as young adult fiction, similar to his earlier Un Lun Dun. It’s difficult to see how this came about. Yes, the central character (three of the central characters, in fact) is in his teens, but beyond that, this is a complex novel with ideas and concepts above and beyond what one might normally expect to find in young adult fiction, and which may leave younger readers more than a little baffled (the aforementioned essay on the ampersand is a case in point). It’s also likely to have an impact on the number of older readers who actually pick this up; for me, it’s as complex (some might say convoluted) as The City & The City and as beautifully-wrought as Perdido Street Station; it deserves not to be dismissed as a lesser work aimed at a much younger audience (it’s not).
Miéville’s strength is, without doubt, his ability to spin worlds out of thin air, but he also has a talent for characterisation. This is an odd bunch, from the soft-hearted, adventure-seeking Sham, to the damaged and obsessed Captain Naphi. Naphi and her fellow captains are an interesting bunch, the vast majority of them chasing a specific creature, each creature representing a philosophy, and providing a source of tales for the captains to tell each other, as much as anything else.
“I come for all the good philosophies,” she said. “Captain Genn’s Ferret of Unrequitedness; Zhorbal & the Too-Much-Knowledge Mole Rats; & Naphi. Of course. Naphi & Mocker-Jack, Mole of Many Meanings.”
“What’s her philosophy, then?” Sham said.
“Ain’t you listening? Mocker-Jack means everything.”
Wildly imaginative and totally unique, Railsea is a beautifully-written vision of a world that could only have sprung from the mind of China Miéville. Peopled by a cast of colourful individuals, it’s a stunning rework of a classic of literature, and a look at what happens when we travel outside the bubble that is the world we know. Railsea is Miéville on top form, and shows a talented artist doing what he does best, and what he evidently loves doing. The invented words and general writing style can sometimes make Miéville a tough author to approach for the first time. The payoff here is more than worth the effort, and Railsea is the perfect introduction to one of the most original writers in any genre.
Nick Harkaway (www.nickharkaway.com)
William Heinemann (www.randomhouse.co.uk/editions/imprint/william-heinemann)
Every so often, I run across a book that catches me completely by surprise; a book that I picked up on a whim, having never heard of it before, that strikes a chord and immediately becomes a firm favourite. Nick Harkaway’s first novel, The Gone-Away World, was just such a novel, from its eye-catching hardback cover (the “Signed by the Author” sticker was a sweetener, I’ll happily admit) when I saw it on the shelf at my local Waterstone’s (or is it Waterstones?), to the interesting and intriguing blurb that I found inside, to the sheer delight I encountered when I started to read. Needless to say, I have been waiting with great anticipation for Harkaway’s second novel and I’m happy to say that it has been a worthwhile almost-four-year wait.
Angelmaker tells the story of Joshua Joseph (“Joe”) Spork, a quiet, unassuming man who makes a living repairing clockwork and enjoying the quiet life. Joe has a past that makes this more difficult than it seems, for he is the son of Mathew “Tommy Gun” Spork, at one time London’s most notorious gangster, and the leader of the legendary Night Market. When Joe’s friend, Billy Friend, turns up on his doorstep with a piece of erotic automata, and a mysterious book and assorted oddments, Joe is intrigued, and contrives to meet the client from whom Billy has obtained the items.
The book, the key to a doomsday device built shortly after the Second World War, invites trouble to Joe’s doorstep, from the Legacy Board – in the guise of Messrs Titwhistle and Cummerbund – to the mysterious, and sinister, Ruskinite monks. Joe soon finds himself the most wanted man in Britain and, with a somewhat motley crew – including a woman slipping towards the end of her eighties who might just be the only person alive who knows exactly what’s going on – he confronts the forces of the mighty Shem Shem Tsien, International Bastard of Mystery, in an attempt to save the world.
With his second novel, Harkaway moves away from the science fiction setting, while retaining all of the wit and verve that made The Gone-Away World such a success. Angelmaker is more in the mold of Neil Gaiman, China Mieville or Christopher Fowler: the novel is set firmly in a modern day London, but there’s also a city beneath; the literal underworld, where the city’s shady characters and forgotten souls spend most of their time. This is the world of the Tosher’s Beat and the Night Market, and represents a world that Joe is trying to forget, although his eventual return seems inevitable from the outset. Angelmaker is an adventure story, a spy thriller, old-fashioned gangster noir and black comedy rolled into one with a hint of satire for good measure.
The characters are beautifully drawn, real people in a world that’s slightly off-kilter: the old woman who was, once upon a time, one of England’s deadliest agents; the fast-talking lawyer with a gift for the dramatic; his sister, with her outrageously sexy toes and her slightly skewed views on equal rights; the evil and cracked Shem Shem Tsien, who wants to become God, but who feels the need to surround himself with bug-zapping lights because of a piece of fiction he once read; the oddly-mismatched Titwhistle and Cummerbund, Angelmaker’s answer to Mr Croup and Mr Vandemar (“hilarious though they are to look upon they are less funny than Typhoid Mary and more serious than the whole of Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs”). And holding everything together the easy-going Joe, a man starting to feel old:
Even now – particularly now, when thirty years of age is visible in his rear view mirror and forty glowers at him from down the road ahead, now that his skin heals a little more slowly than it used to from solder burns and nicks and pinks, and his stomach is less a washboard and more a comfy if solid bench – Joe avoids looking at it.
Joe is quite typical for the hero of this type of novel: slightly disconnected from the world, more interested in the clockwork with which he spends his days than the people around him and, as a result, less attuned to subtext, even when it’s thrust in his face (quite literally):
Joe gives her his hand, and she places his hand, palm down, on her chest and leans firmly towards him…With the heel of his hand Joe can feel the curve of one breast. He has absolutely no idea whether this is deliberate. It’s lovely. He tries to be polite and not notice.
As you might expect from a man as opinionated as Harkaway (go on, check his Twitter feed, you’ll see what I mean), his jokes are timely and extremely cutting. One example of many: as the bees, harbingers of the end of the world, spread across the globe, governments act, moving quickly into the realms of the ridiculous overreaction:
Bee-keepers are told they must register, must submit their hives for inspection. No, of course, these are no ordinary bees, but it pays to be safe. It helps to rule people out. Any bee-keeper, after all, might be a sympathiser, a fifth columnist.
What Angelmaker most resembles, to my mind, is a vast and sprawling Neal Stephenson novel, the perfect companion piece for his Cryptonomicon. It takes a similar form: the two time streams, one present day (or as near as damn it), the other Edie’s story of her time as a much younger woman working for Science 2. Where Stephenson spends chunks of the book describing the technology and the cryptographic techniques, Harkaway finds himself with a much less solid proposition, cleverly avoiding any in-depth detail as to how the book, the bees, the attendant clockwork actually work. But for everything else, he is a fiend for detail and it is refreshing to find an author unafraid to follow the tangent, even if it is at the temporary cost of dramatic tension. And go back to what I said about Joe and typical heroes in this type of novel; tell me Randy Waterhouse doesn’t fit this exact mold.
Angelmaker is that rare beast: the sophomore novel that lives up to – if not surpasses – the promise of the author’s first. It’s a wonderfully-written book – Harkaway has a knack with the language that makes this huge novel very easy to read and enjoy. It has more than its fair share of dark and shocking scenes and more than a handful of genuine laugh-out-loud moments, and even one or two places where both things are true at the same time. It’s clear to see the novel’s influences, but this is something new, something different and completely unexpected. It’s goes in a much different direction than The Gone-Away World (although there are connections enough for the sharp-eyed reader), which might disappoint a small contingent looking for more of the same, but it does achieve a similar end: it’s a beautiful showcase for a talented writer, a unique voice and inventive mind who can, it seems, turn his hand to anything.
At this early stage, I’m more than happy to call Angelmaker one of the best books you’re likely to read this year. We can live in hope that the wait for the next one won’t be quite as long.
Simon Toyne (www.simontoyne.net)
Released: 14 April 2011
Welcome to Ruin in Southern Turkey. Home of the Citadel, a thousand-foot-high black mountain that houses a secretive holy order, around which the city has grown, and which is the most-visited historical site on the planet. The monks within the mountain serve a single purpose: to protect the Sacrament, the mysterious object that is the focus of faith and the foundation of the Church.
When a man dressed in the green robes of the Sancti – the highest novitiate within the order – climbs to the top of the mountain and strikes a pose mirroring Rio de Janiero’s Christ the Redeemer, before throwing himself to a messy death on the cobbled streets below, he sets in motion a chain of events that could change the face of the world. Liv Adamsen a crime journalist based in New Jersey, with the help of a local policeman, and the brains behind a worldwide charity, begins to investigate, digging into a millennia-old secret that the Citadel-dwellers would do anything to protect.
To explain the plot of this extraordinary novel in any more detail than that could well constitute spoilers. What we have here is a very original action thriller-cum-whodunnit-cum-puzzle. Toyne has put a lot of effort into the mythology that supports this story, creating a well-rounded and believable world and fully-formed interesting characters. Yes, this is a gripping, fast-paced (for the most part) page-turner in the best sense, but keeps the little grey cells engaged throughout, providing a clever mystery that will keep you wondering until the final, startling, reveal.
And what a reveal. Sanctus is one of those books that keeps the reader thinking “I hope this is all worth it. If I get to the end and the butler did it, I won’t be happy.” You can rest assured, then, that there is no butler in evidence; the last time I came across a payoff this worthwhile, an ending this original and startling, was when I finished Stephen King’s Dark Tower series.
One of the book’s most distinctive characters is the city of Ruin itself. Toyne has put a lot of thought into the structure of the city, the various “quarters” that make up this sprawling tourist trap with the most distinctive centrepiece. Like Jack O’Connell’s Quinsigamond or China Mieville’s New Crobuzon (both of which sprang immediately to mind when I started reading the book), there’s something slightly off about the city, something dangerous and intriguing. I, for one, hope that Toyne returns here with future novels, to show us some of the other attractions the place has to offer.
It’s still too early in the year to call this one of the books of the year and have it actually mean something, but expect this one to be huge. Toyne has an obvious love for what he’s doing, and it shows through in the work, in the lovingly-detailed city and Citadel, the huge cast of characters ranging from the whitest of white-hats to the blackest of black-hats and every shade of grey in between, and the sheer energy that propels the reader through the story. Once you start, you’ll just have to keep going until you reach the end, and this book gave me more late nights than I care to remember, always with the mantra “just one more chapter” on my lips.
A stunning debut, a dark and terrifying crime/horror/dark fantasy novel that will appeal to a broad spectrum of readers, and a book that cements Simon Toyne firmly in my own personal must-read list. On April 14th, make sure you get your hands on a copy; you won’t regret it.