Railhead by Philip Reeve review

Railhead by Philip Reeve is a playful space adventure for younger readers with captivating action and a hint of Iain M. Banks...

This is a novel for children and young adults that has already been earmarked to become a film. Deals have been done, and wheels have already been set in motion, which is an apt metaphor since the act of travelling, particularly upon trains, makes up most of the action.

For the trains in Railhead are sentient, and they travel between worlds in a future where creatures known as the Guardians have decided to take over the running of human affairs. Some humans get to travel freely in great comfort across the universe because they are helpful to the Guardians, while others find themselves stuck on backwater planets scraping together a survival. Either way, these star-travelling trains are the key to a better life – but where did they come from? Who really controls them?

There are big ideas here, although not necessarily new ones. But they are ideas that will make great cinema, and the scope of the adventure in visual terms tied to a fast-moving plot with plenty of action sequences makes for a read that really captures the imagination.

The main character doesn’t fare quite so well. Zen Starling, the Aladdinish figure who is employed by a mysterious figure to steal an artefact upon a train that carries one of the more affluent families, never quite came to life for me, and I think that’s mainly because of the utilitarian dialogue which stopped me from really getting under his skin. A great novel can place a reader squarely into the thoughts and feelings of the lead character, and that doesn’t happen here. I didn’t get a sense of a unique and interesting voice from him, even though all the elements were in place to make him a complex rogue. Having said that, there are at least three very strong supporting characters to make up for him, and a playful element exists in them which I felt was missing from our hero. Explorations of creativity, gender, intelligence and humanity make characters such as Flex, who is an intriguing persona that slips through traditional definitions in a number of ways, really come to life.

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And speaking of playful elements, Reeve is obviously well aware that this book borrows from those that have gone ahead, and has fun throwing in the odd comment as homage. Any far-reaching space-trading novel brings to Frank Herbert’s Dune to mind – and so we have a mention of the Kwisatz Haderach early on. The Klingon language makes a brief appearance, and when we reach the romantic subplot there’s even a sly aside to Bogart and Bacall.

Perhaps the writer to which I felt Railhead owed the largest debt is Iain M Banks, particularly when we get into the business of those sentient trains that remind me so much of his Culture spacecraft, picking up their own foibles and quirks along the line. When Reeves got into the business of giving them names and opted for monikers such as ‘Gentlemen Take Polaroids’ I found myself thinking of ships such as ‘So Much For Subtlety’ and ‘Serious Callers Only’, and feeling sad that there will be no more such novels to enjoy. Still, if you were to give this book to a younger relative as an introduction to the kind of amazing universes that Banks could create, I don’t think you would be going far wrong. It gives a good taste of concepts such as the machinations of power, the interactions of cultures, and the importance of information. How knowledge can corrupted and be corrupted emerges late in Railhead, but becomes a key point in an intelligent plotline.

The more I think about it, the more I like Railhead. It’s a bold story that is not afraid to cram in a lot of really big ideas, and also emotions; if only those emotions had been activated by Zen Starling. I wish he had been just a little more interesting in his speech, a little more layered in action and not so much of a straight train-track of a character. After all, this is the element that a novel should do so much better than any other form of entertainment, and the fact that it fails here makes me suspect that this might, if all goes well (and that’s a very big if in the world of movie making), make a better film than a book.

So there’s some brilliant stuff going on in Railhead, and I would certainly recommend it if you’re looking for a lighter version of a space adventure to get stuck into, or if you have a child who is looking for an introduction to the worlds of sci fi. Personally speaking, I might not choose to reread the book but I would certainly go to see the film version without hesitation. Forgive me one last travel metaphor, but I think it will, done well, make for one hell of a big-screen ride.

See a piece of specially commissioned Railhead concept art showing Zen and Nova in Cleave, below. Artwork © Robert Ball.

Railhead comes out in hardback on Thursday the 1st of October.

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4 out of 5