Am I allowed to review this book without having read Moby Dick? Because I haven't, as of yet. I know the basic story, in the way that everyone knows the basic story - except mostly I know it through Futurama and the hunting of the Great Brain with whitewash spilled all over it from Tom Sawyer's fence-painting days. That's pretty much what happens, right? So I don't have that context for reviewing Railsea, a retelling, sort of, of Moby Dick. Take that into consideration.
That caveat aside, let's start with how much I loved this book. This will likely surprise no one, as I think I've well-established my China Mieville fan status (although not quite enough to seek out how to do the accented vowel. I really should do that some day.) I adore his prose. It makes me swoon. The use of language, the beautiful ways of expressing what is really a very overcast and grungy world, they make me so happy. Yes, he uses big words. No, I don't have a problem with it. Most of the time, I know what he means. Other times, I can figure it out from context. The rest, well, occasionally I look something up, but more often, I'm just content to let it pass me by, not utterly understood.
I did look up etiolated, though. Or maybe that was in Perdido Street Station. For the record, it means "pale and drawn out due to a lack of light." If you're talking about a plant.
At any rate, from my general Mieville fannishness to this specific book. It is probably one of my favourites so far, although he's not really an author I regard that way. Each of his books has been so different and so entirely itself that they don't lend themselves well to comparison.
As the title suggests, this hunt for the Great White...Mole takes place not on the water, but on the land. The railsea, to be precise, vast swathes of friable land covered with railroad tracks, switchbacks, and few open spaces. This is partly because underneath this nonrocky soil be dragons. Uh, giant moles. And other things. The rails are maintained by angels that no one has ever seen. No one knows where the rails come from. They are traversed by traders, by salvors, who look for salvage both ancient and/or unearthly, and by the molers, who hunt down and kill the giant moles, and bring back the meat and pelts to the few cities built on stonier ground.
If you buy into this basic premise, then I promise you quite a ride. Sham ap Soorap, the main character, has been taken on board a moler as an apprentice doctor. Captain Nathi, as all the best captains do, has a particular obsession, a giant albino mole named Mocker Jack. She's not alone, though. Having a particular adversary feeding an obsession gives rise to a philosophy, and in captain's bars, captains trade stories of their adversaries, the philosophies they think those adversaries embody, and compare lost limbs.
The few who ever succeed in capturing their philosophies get into the Museum of Completion.
This works perfectly well on the level of pure story, of fable, of almost fantasy. You need no more than that to get your train legs. But then, every once in a while, a bit of information is dropped in that puts the world in larger context, takes this into the realm of far future science fiction (I hesitate to say post-apocalyptic, because I'm not sure there was an apocalypse), and utterly reframes something about the world. These moments are pure magic, because they take something that was marvellous without context and make it even more marvellous with. That is a rare and precious gift.
At least a couple of these little revelations had me slowly lower the book and gaze into the distance with a brain that was busy rewriting itself. At least once, I gave a grunt. My husband pointed that out to me.
It's a story of obsession, of finding the place that everyone thinks is impossible, of surviving and maybe thriving in a harsh world, of maintaining and destroying myths of the world. I haven't read Moby Dick, but I have read Railsea. And it's wonderful.