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Railhead Hardcover – April 1, 2016
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“Starlight Express meets Trainspotting—as run through Reeve's fertile imagination. Imagine: a world where solar systems are connected by mysterious train tracks. Onboard, you can rocket light-years in an instant, planet to planet, although some are mined-out wastelands and all are controlled by corporate families now that the Guardians—godlike Old Earth artificial intelligence—stay in the Datasea. Petty thief Zen Starling doesn't think much of Guardians or corporate families; he does what he needs to to support his family. But when Raven, a strange pale man in a world where shades of brown are the norm for humanity, recruits him, Zen (with Motorik companion Nova, upgraded into an individual) finds himself impersonating a member of the Emperor's family, stealing an ancient treasure, and possibly inciting world war. Reeve's writing never flags, with moments of pathos and magic seamlessly interwoven. Dozens of characters collide—the sentient trains; the Motorik; the Emperor's daughter Threnody and her boring but stalwart betrothed; Hive Monks; the Railforce agent who has tracked Raven across lifetimes—each one nearly as fascinating as the world Reeve has created (don't miss the glossary at the end). As he did with the Mortal Engines series, Reeve has crafted something at once weirdly familiar and marvelously original. Thank the stars there's at least one sequel planned already. (Science fiction. 12 & up)” – Kirkus Reviews, STARRED REVIEW
'There is plenty here to please fans: vivid world-building, extraordinary beings and a story of epic proportions.' Fiona Noble, The Bookseller 'There were so many other extraordinary beings and imaginative details that pulled together to create a thrilling ride into a whimsical futuristic world.' Library4Deliquents 'This book was so good; I loved every second of it.' Megan Chambers, age 14, for lovereading4kids.co.uk 'A stand-out book in the overcrowded modern sci-fi genre, Railhead is an utterly brilliant and original story.' Louisa Cunliffe, age 18, for lovereading4kids.co.uk '...satisfying, twisting and turning without losing momentum' Brosencrantz blog '...the emotions of the characters (even the robot who wants freckles) draws you in wholeheartedly. Railhead is superb.' Martin Chilton, The Telegraph in 'The Best Young Adult Books of 2015' '...this novel may be the stand out sci-fi novel of the year.' Starburst Magazine 'It's a must read for sci-fi fans!' Minion Potter, The Guardian 'an electrifying triumph' 'Staff Picks', Mail Bookshop 'it's an adrenaline ride that takes the reader through multiple emotions' MinervaReads Book Blog 'Its greatest pleasures are its details, which are as richly imagined as in the best adult science fiction' SF Said, The Guardian 'Philip Reeve has again created a detailed, plausible new world in Railhead ... may well be up there with the world he created in his Mortal Engines quartet' Toby Clements, The Daily Telegraph, Selected as Editor's Choice and one of the best books for Christmas 2015 'a futuristic vision that enthrals and chills' Suzi Feay, The Financial Times 'Scope and potential fizz and pop' Catholic Universe 'Philip Reeve ... creates another of his extraordinary imaginary worlds, this time for teenagers' The Oldie 'A futuristic vision that enthrals and thrills' Suzi Feay, The Financial Times online 'The world itself is magnetic' Ella Walker, Evening Echo (Cork) --Evening Echo
Starlight Express meets Trainspotting as run through Reeve's fertile imagination. Imagine: a world where solar systems are connected by mysterious train tracks. Onboard, you can rocket light-years in an instant, planet to planet, although some are mined-out wastelands and all are controlled by corporate families now that the Guardians godlike Old Earth artificial intelligence stay in the Datasea. Petty thief Zen Starling doesn't think much of Guardians or corporate families; he does what he needs to to support his family. But when Raven, a strange pale man in a world where shades of brown are the norm for humanity, recruits him, Zen (with Motorik companion Nova, upgraded into an individual) finds himself impersonating a member of the Emperor's family, stealing an ancient treasure, and possibly inciting world war. Reeve's writing never flags, with moments of pathos and magic seamlessly interwoven. Dozens of characters collide the sentient trains; the Motorik; the Emperor's daughter Threnody and her boring but stalwart betrothed; Hive Monks; the Railforce agent who has tracked Raven across lifetimes each one nearly as fascinating as the world Reeve has created (don't miss the glossary at the end). As he did with the Mortal Engines series, Reeve has crafted something at once weirdly familiar and marvelously original. Thank the stars there's at least one sequel planned already. (Science fiction. 12 & up) --Kirkus Reviews
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The central conceit is that in a universe where humanity has colonized the stars, travel between planets is not by spaceship but by AI trains (with independent thoughts and feelings) that travel through hyperspace gates. Humans are ostensibly governed by an Emperor, which over the millennia has been the head of one of the corporate families that controls the main lines. But in reality, the true overseers are the Guardians, super-AIs developed on long-ago Earth who have become like gods with a mission to guide and protect the human species. Other setting aspects include Motoriks (robots) and Hive Monks (insects that are mindless as individuals but which are intelligent in large numbers).
The main character is a young thief named Zen Starling, who after getting recruited for a heist job by Raven, the Guardian’s Most-Wanted fugitive, and Raven’s upgraded Motorik Nova, ends up pulled into an intrigue that will threaten to topple empires and lay bare long-hidden secrets about the Guardians, the trains, and the gates. Also entangled are the Emperor’s daughter Threnody, and Malik — the dogged Railforce agent who has been chasing (and killing) Raven for years. And one can’t forget the trains themselves, which thanks to their AI nature become secondary characters in their own right.
The plot is propulsive, beginning with a bang and sweeping the reader along for the ride from then on, only slowing now and then to allow for a few (really, just a few) introspective moments or for some momentarily quiet times between characters to allow relationships to develop just a bit more before someone else gets chased, shot at, nearly blown up, kidnapped, and so forth. There are also several moving moments sprinkled in amongst the chaos. The worldbuilding isn’t encyclopedic, but Reeve, as he did with the MORTAL ENGINES books, is able to not only convey the important setting points quickly and efficiently, but also manages to slide in some wonderfully vivid details, as when a train slides from one station to another and the reader is treated to a wonderfully tantalizing glimpse of a strange planet. One therefore has both a sufficient understanding of this invented universe and a few startling images to hang the whole thing on without the world-creation bogging down the story.
As a character, Zen is stubbornly, and perhaps surprisingly given the YA nature of the story, consistent in his “looking out for number one” attitude, which adds a bitter tang of realism to the tale, as far too often “tough” characters end up all-too-quickly with the heart-of-gold reveal or transformation. This can be discomfiting at times, especially as Reeve isn’t shy about ratcheting up the body count, and while Zen isn’t wholly blasé about the deaths around him, he’s also less forthrightly moved/motivated than is usual for the typical YA character.
Nova is a bit more traditional, a combination of the humanoid robot that wants to be (and maybe is) a “real” girl character and the spunky, determined young girl character. Her depth comes from the conflict she feels between her feelings for Zen and her loyalty to Raven, her creator. Malik as well is a familiar type — the tenacious cop whose single-mindedness gets him in trouble with the superiors (but who is almost always right), but is individualized by some nice details/back story and by his stylistic voice. A few other characters, as well as some storylines, get short shrift in Railhead and may even seem as if they’ve been abruptly dropped, but many (characters and story lines both) play an important role or gain depth in The Black Light Express.
The action, as noted, steams right along, beginning as a caper story but then becoming an admixture of a heist tale, a political thriller, and even a mystery (where did the Gates come from, what’s going on with the Guardians, how has Raven been killed so many times?) Most of the answers, when there are any, come at the end, but as if often the case in a first book, they either present more questions or are only partial answers, so readers will want to have the sequel nearby to continue the story. Otherwise they risk feeling a bit let down.
Finally, because of the propulsive nature of the plot, it will be easy for readers to just zip along the surface of the story, riding the action wave, but Reeve presents his young readers with a slew of thought-provoking concepts and questions: what is the nature of humanity? Can a seemingly more beneficent “guide and protect” programming of human-created AIs become just as threatening, albeit in different fashion, as the usual Terminator-style AI overthrow of humanity? How important is gender? Is inequality/social hierarchy so embedded in human nature that it exists even in a high-tech future? Reeve’s characters don’t delve too deeply, or even at all, into all these questions — they’re too busy chasing or being chased — but they’re there for the reader to ponder. And while they’re familiar questions to sci-fi fans, they’ll be relatively new to the YA reader (that said, Reeve also tosses a good number of bones to older fans, such as the gates being called KH for “Kwisatz haderech” gates or a reference to the “Old Earth language . . . Klingon.”
I thoroughly enjoyed Railhead, zipping right into The Black Light Express once I’d finished book one, and I heartily recommended it to my own fifteen-year-old son. I’ll let you know (or he will) what he thinks . . .