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railhead_cover_241x361Railhead, Philip Reeve
Switch Press, April 2016
Reviewed from ARC

Philip Reeve is underappreciated in the US. The Mortal Engines quartet was brilliant science fiction — pacy, philosophical, and heart-breaking. And then it was gone, apparently out of print. The prequel trilogy starring the incomparable Fever Crumb also failed to get as much traction as it deserved. Hopefully, the upcoming film of Mortal Engines will signal a rebirth of interest, and hopefully that will mean good things for Reeve’s latest, the unusual Railhead.

Railhead is a weird blend of space opera science fiction and Trainspotting, minus the drugs. In a far future world, planets are connected by K gates (whose names come from an ancient Earth language, per the characters, but is in fact a reference to Dune, whose influence pops up in a few other places as well — the Noons and the rail-building worms, that I caught; there might be more). Characters travel by rails, but trains are sentient and the gates leap across space in seconds, making other planets just an hour or two away. All of this is fiercely original and playful, but the story is anything but playful.

This is one of those has it all books — the setting is endlessly creative and fascinating; the characters compelling and complex, not always likable; the writing engaging and sometimes even poetic; the plot relentless; and the themes rich. (Of course, it’s doing all this in a sci-fi package, so I’m not holding my breath for recognition, but I’ve read it twice now and it’s only better the second time around.)

Reeve’s future is a funny mashup, with lots of Easter eggs and jokes. The royal family ride about in those sentient trains, with some rather Victorian trappings — fancy dining cars, shooting parties, loads of servants. But it’s only the trappings that are old fashioned — dig a little deeper and this is definitely the future. For starters, the Noons are royalty by way of commercial might. Then there’s the details: all the people are brown; there’s a refreshing lack of gendering in the professions seen on page; same sex marriage is as unremarkable as opposite-sex marriage; and technology has become religion — this is a future we’re riding into already, and while the exposition is all delivered in snippets, it adds up to a plausible, dimensional future. Which means the more imaginative aspects becomes less startling, because the social fabric of this future is so reasonable. Most buildings are bio-engineered, made from plants or ivory, coded to grow themselves; clothing is likewise a technological extravaganza. The servants are Motorik, AI that aren’t meant to be fully sentient (but they have a tendency to outstrip their programming). The shooting party takes place in a planet-sized game preserve — because when planets connect by trains, they all become the equivalent of just another city — and the game is all genetically engineered Earth species, many of them ancient. Tiny details place the way time has of levelling everything into sharp focus: the “traditional” condiment container at one meal, placed alongside silver and crystal, is red plastic shaped like a tomato.

The motley cast of characters Reeve’s populated the world with are recognizably people, even when they aren’t actually human. Very few of them are entirely admirable. Zen Starling, an almost archetypal figure — saucy street rat in over his head — may be the one we get to know most as readers, but Malik and Threnody, despite their smaller roles, prove equally compelling, as do Flex and the Hive Monks, beetle colonies in search of their own world. Even Raven, the arch-villain in many ways, is complex and not without his redeeming qualities.

And let’s not ignore the language. Reeve’s writing just gets better and better. It’s vivid — he packs in the description and yet the pace never flags:

They entered the outskirts of the station, a mass of sprawling limbs and tendrils, black against the grainy sky. Some of the buildings sensed the Damask Rose coming and turned on their lamps, sickly bioluminescence glimmering through fleshy openings which had once been windows.

My arc had a few typos, but aside from those not a word seemed misplaced or poorly used.

Finally, for all the fast paced adventuring and explosions (there are lots), this is no thematic lightweight. That early Dune reference is the first hint that Reeve is concerned with power and religion; there are also allusions to the dangers of stagnancy and ignorance. Nothing is answered — indeed, the ending is incredibly open, and it looks like there will be a sequel — but provocative questions are raised and linger after the last page.

Deeper on a second read, and well worth a nomination.


  • I don’t think it was needed, but the glossary at the end is a nice touch. I always appreciate back matter.
  • I’m looking forward to the fan art for this one. Flex’s paintings, the trains themselves, ANAIS 6: there’s so much here crying out for a visual treatment.
  • This is the first Switch Press book I’ve read — they’re relatively new — but if this is the caliber of work they’re putting out, I’ll be paying much closer attention to their catalogs going forward.
About Karyn Silverman

Karyn Silverman is the High School Librarian and Educational Technology Department Chair at LREI, Little Red School House & Elisabeth Irwin High School (say that ten times fast!). Karyn has served on YALSA’s Quick Picks and Best Books committees and was a member of the 2009 Printz committee. She has reviewed for Kirkus and School Library Journal. She has a lot of opinions about almost everything, as long as all the things are books. Said opinions do not reflect the attitudes or opinions of SLJ, LREI, YALSA or any other institutions with which she is affiliated. Find her on Twitter @InfoWitch or e-mail her at karynsilverman at gmail dot com.


  1. I was a bit of a dissenter on Mortal Engines–I only read the first one, but while I loved the feel of the setting I had some worldbuilding issues (I don’t remember specifics) and found the supporting characters (the adults) problematically flat. But Railhead really did work for me; the setting was entrancing but the worldbuilding was great–it requires that one piece of Willing Suspension and then we were good to go–and the supporting characters were by and large excellent. I didn’t find Raven as compelling as you did, though; I found his backstory complex and compelling, but his current incarnation drained of a lot of that complexity and a bit heavy-handed in its execution. Not that I noticed while reading–I was completely swept up–but in retrospect he’s more of a snag.

  2. Karyn Silverman says

    If I implied I found Raven compelling, that was a case of poor word choice! I did appreciate that he was more than a stock character, which is indicated in so many ways even as his overt behavior does lean to standard. Most of all, I appreciated that in the end, it turns out he might not have been the bad guy at all, although his ends justify the means path of destruction is pretty horrendous — which just reinforces the way all of these characters are fully developed and occupy a spectrum of morality and behavior.

  3. You said “This is one of those has it all books — the setting is endlessly creative and fascinating; the characters compelling and complex, not always likable; the writing engaging and sometimes even poetic; the plot relentless; and the themes rich.” …and I couldn’t agree more. I am so glad I read this book since I don’t normally pick Sci-Fi and completely missed the Dune references (since I haven’t read it.) My favorite characters in the book were the Motoriks and the sentient trains. Guess I should reread the book to check out all the Easter Eggs I missed first time around but I don’t trust myself to not miss them again.

    This is the only book title on our Mock Printz list I didn’t read ahead of the list’s creation, on the recommendation of another reader. I am so glad we caught this one before our list went to press. I’m pretty thrilled with it.

    On a related side note…today I was doing book talks of award books for yet another 9th grade class. I’ve had so many classes come through I was really having to dig around to find more award books, books I haven’t read or have forgotten about. I came upon THE DARKLING PLAIN by Reeve. It is the 4th book in his Mortal Engines series. It won the Guardian Prize and the LA Times Book Prize the year it was published. No one checked it out, of course, because who wants to start with a 4th book in a series? But I touched another one of Reeve’s books today.

    So now someone tell me, why are so few Fantasy and Sci-Fi books selected for the Printz? What are your thoughts?

    • “Literary” bias and anti-series bias.

      There’s a pervasive perception that genre can’t be “literary” or “literature,” like that’s somehow reserved for realistic fiction. Which is, of course, bullshit: there’s literary sci fi, literary fantasy, literary mysteries… and pulpy realistic fiction. (And pulpy, fluffy, insubstantial books absolutely have their place! Just… probably not on award pedestals.)

      And SF, F, and Mystery are more likely to come in series form–SFF often in self-contained pre-planned trilogies or quartets–than realistic fiction, which means you have to make an argument for why this ONE book is the best of the year without directly citing other books in the series… not impossible and we’re always debating what that even means, but it’s harder than explaining why a stand-alone is the best ONE book.

      • I agree with you Mimi. I can’t stand the idea that true “literature” is reserved for realistic fiction and historical fiction. My undergrad degree is in English (and my Master’s in Library Science) and too much of the lit that we read in those programs was borne of the aforementioned genres.

        Those of us who are well read, though, recognize literary merit in all genres. I’m looking forward to reading RAILHEAD based on discussion!

    • I like what Ursula LeGuin has to say here. “We need writers who recognize the practice of an art.”

      She really gives it to the Award folks who disregard Fantasy and Sci-Fi

  4. I too have been a huge Reeve fan and, when I heard about this title, ordered it from England. I was delighted with it and agree with all your points. (I’ve got the second one on its way from England now:) It has been over a year (perhaps two) since I read it, but I remember particularly the wonderful world-building and highly complicated characters. Very much like your description of it as space opera and Trainspotting. I’m intrigued by a theme that seems to go through all of Reeve’s books — what is it to be a “person”? That is, there are always these complicated characters that are often more mechanical/robot than flesh and blood and what does that mean? And are they good? Bad? And love — what is it exactly? I actually think Reeve has much in common with Philip Pullman in the deep ideas he is exploring in such riveting ways.

    This is by no means something I can argue for fiercely, but I get the sense many adults who support and share books with young people are often not personally great SciFi (and, to a lesser degree, often fantasy too) fans so works don’t get the amplification other works (e.g. historical, realistic, etc) get. Not that this is at all fair, but I wonder how much they struggle to get through a work like this much less can truly appreciate it. Seems to take a book coming into the main public consciousness (as happened with Harry Potter) for people to be able to get past their personal distaste to enjoy and appreciate works in this genre.

  5. and no one’s even mentioned his wonderful, Carnegie-Medal-winning, Here Lies Arthur! (fantasy? historical fiction? take your pick)

    Read all the Mortal Engines/Fever Crumb/Larklight series; looking forward to Railhead

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